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A surprise agreement by regional archenemies Saudi Arabia and Iran this month has raised hopes that the Saudi war in Yemen may come to an end, after more than seven years of hostilities that saw tens of thousands of civilians killed or injured and the country left in ruins.
But experts warn that even if Saudi Arabia agrees to end military operations, the war in the country would be far from over – and could get even more fierce.
It started as a civil conflict between Yemeni factions and turned into a full-blown war in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily to support the embattled government there. But it eventually became a proxy war between Iran – which has been accused of arming the Houthis – and Saudi Arabia, and the main arena for their competition for regional influence.
Now, both Riyadh and Tehran are keen to bury the hatchet, and analysts say their agreement to normalize ties likely includes provisions to ease their rivalry in Yemen.
Ahmed Nagi, a senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group think tank in Brussels, says that the rapprochement may change the regional calculus around Yemen, but is less likely to resolve its internal conflict as quickly.
“We may see a change in the regional element of the conflict,” Nagi told CNN, “But things may prove more difficult on the local level, since the conflict is essentially a domestic (one) and not a regional one.”
While the UN is now focused on extending the ceasefire in Yemen, which has largely held since April 2022 despite failure to officially renew in October, “things may take a long time before we see local change to the conflict,” Nagi said.
Yemen’s conflict had been festering for over a decade. In 2012, protesters unseated then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh a year after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings swept through the region.
In 2014, Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sanaa, and eventually pushed aside then-President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The conflict was compounded when in 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a military coalition that intervened in Yemen to restore Hadi’s internationally-recognized government. The Houthis and the coalition have both been trapped in a deadlock ever since.
The Houthis have rejected a Saudi offer to host talks between Yemeni factions, saying Riyadh is party to the conflict and cannot be an honest broker. But they are now holding direct talks with Saudi Arabia, sidestepping the local groups with whom they are at war, as well as the United Nations, which has for years tried to broker a peace agreement.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC), a United Arab Emirates-backed secessionist group that controls southern parts of Yemen, told CNN in a statement that it won’t be bound by any Saudi-Houthi agreement that touches on matters related to the south “whether administratively, security-wise or in matters related to resource-sharing.”
“Riyadh (has) isolated all the relevant stakeholders from these talks,” it said, adding that it supports the negotiations if they are limited to extending the truce and touch only on Saudi security concerns.
A UAE official told CNN in a statement that the country “supports efforts by Saudi Arabia to directly engage with the Houthi militias” and appreciates its role in “advancing multilateral efforts to reach a political solution to the crisis in Yemen under the auspices of the United Nations.”
The UAE is a member of the Saudi-led coalition but partially withdrew its troops from Yemen in 2019.
Some analysts say that a hasty Saudi withdrawal from the country could empower the heavily armed Houthis and give them a free rein to spread their influence unhindered.
“If Saudi Arabia continues to wait for a Yemeni-Yemeni agreement before it leaves, then it will wait for many years,” said Taleb Al Hassani, an editor for the Houthi-run Al Masirah news channel, who is close to the group. The Houthis “are now focused on how Saudi Arabia and the UAE can exit the conflict” and bring Yemen to the pre-invasion status-quo, when they took control of the capital, he told CNN.
Once the coalition withdraws, Yemen will either witness “quick mediation” with the help of a neutral party, or fall back into civil war, Al Hassani said. In both cases, he added, the Houthis are likely to emerge victorious.
Nagi of the International Crisis Group agreed that “Houthis feel that they are winning the war.”
What post-war Yemen may look like
The UN is pushing for a nationwide ceasefire in Yemen as it tries to “build on the current momentum towards an inclusive, sustainable political settlement.”
Several scenarios have been floated about what a post-war Yemen may look like. The STC wants to see Yemen return to the pre-1990 situation when the country was split into North Yemen and South Yemen, it told CNN.
The Houthis reject the prospects of a split, even into a confederation, and have insisted on a unified Yemen where they control the capital. That scenario is not one that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to accept and it could even draw them back into the war, analysts say.
“Saudi Arabia is betting that deals with Iran and the Houthis will allow it to extricate itself from Yemen. But that is shortsighted at best,” wrote Gregory D. Johnson, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW) and a former member of the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen.
“The Houthis aren’t about to stop fighting their rivals in Yemen, no matter what deal the group signs with Saudi Arabia,” he wrote. “And that reality is dangerous for the kingdom, which could easily find itself sucked back into the conflict in Yemen.”