This photo shows Amal who is looking at her destroyed home in Sana’a after it was hit by an airstrike in April 2015. A girl looks at her destroyed home in Sana’a, Yemen. © UNICEF/UN018341/Jahaf

The Conflict in Yemen Takes A Dangerous New Turn

The conflict in Yemen is something that I’ve returned to frequently in this podcast over the years. The very first Yemen episode I published was in early April 2015. This was just two weeks after Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen, turning a local civil war into a regional conflict.

Back then, Saudi Arabia and a coalition that included several gulf states (and with American backing) launched a military offensive on behalf of the internationally recognized government of Yemen. This government had been overthrown expelled from the capitol city, Sana’a by an insurgent group often referred to as the Houthi rebels.

Six years later, Houthi rebels still control Sana’a, as well as many key cities, towns and ports in Yemen. Meanwhile, the conflict has metastasized. It now includes not only fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, but also several localized conflicts.

This conflict has made Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Millions are displaced and much of the country is on the brink of famine.

But as bad as things are right now, it looks like its about to get worse. Over the last few weeks, the Houthi rebels have mounted anew offensive in a region east of the capitol, called Marib. Some 400,000 people live here — these are mostly people who have been previously displaced by fighting elsewhere.

Just as this offensive is intensifying,  international diplomatic efforts around resolving parts of the conflict are starting to pick up after years of stasis. This is in large part due to the Biden administration declaring that it will no longer support the Saudi-lead war efforts in Yemen. Also, President Biden has appointed a new presidential envoy to lead US diplomacy on Yemen.

My guest today, Gregory D. Johnsen is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and an internationally regarded expert on the Yemen conflict. From 2016 to 2019 he served on the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen. This is a group that is tasked with monitoring compliance with arms embargoes and sanctions imposed by the Security Council.

We kick off discussing the situation in Marib before having a longer conversation about the recent history of the conflict in Yemen and where it may be headed next.



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Transcript is lightly edited for clarity. 

Why the Houthi Military offensive in Marib is So Concerning

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:04:03] Marib is out in central Yemen, it’s east of Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, which is held by the Houthis.  Marib, in pre-unification, Yemen, which is back before 1990, was a part of north Yemen. Marib is significant for a couple of different reasons. Marib has, at least in Yemen standards, fairly significant oil fields, which is something that the Houthis desperately need, because right now the Houthis control the northern Yemeni inlands, where about 60 to 70 percent of the population lives. The Houthis are basically landlocked, with the exception of the Hodeida port, which is in the Red Sea coast. But even though Houthis have control over most of Yemen’s population, they don’t have control over most of Yemen’s natural resources, the oil and the gas fields, which are in places like Marib, as well as in neighboring areas, as well as further east.

[00:05:00] So Marib is important for the Houthis economically. If they can take that city, if they can take that, then they can get a hold of the oil fields, which then will help to make them self-sustaining. And their goal is at least the way I see it, to form themselves into some sort of a nation-state. And they’ve taken some steps towards that in the last couple of years. So if they take those oil fields, that puts them in a good position economically to resist any outside pressure to sort of give up what it is that they gained over the past few years and become part of the unified Yemeni government by taking Marib, they would basically give themselves the leverage in the position to remain an independent entity ruling over over the north. It would also simultaneously further weaken this anti Houthi coalition, which is a number of different Yemeni groups, the Yemeni government, as well as the Saudi led coalition, which right now really has control over over the border, particularly one group, a political party with allies in the military known as islah is part of the anti Houthi coalition, but they have a number of enemies within that coalition. And so that infighting, that bickering, what the Houthis are attempting to do is push through and take the city of Marib, and then they’d also be poised to move farther east. And this is a this is an offensive that has been ongoing since early 2020.. But over the past two weeks and we’re talking now in mid-February has really picked up steam.

Mark Goldberg [00:06:30] So my understanding is that this region, Marib, was rather sparsely populated until the war in Yemen broke out and escalated in 2014, 2015 and since then has seen a lot of IDP’s land in this area. I think I saw a briefing from a humanitarian agency saying that the population went from like forty thousand to four hundred thousand in just a couple of years. Does that strike you as correct? And second, it would suggest that should fighting intensify in this area, you’re talking about just a massive humanitarian catastrophe that could unfold?

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:07:11] Yeah, I mean, Yemen, the country is really a massive humanitarian catastrophe. And this this will just make it make it worse. Would you said, Mark, is exactly right. Marib is a place that was relatively sparsely populated up until the beginning of the war. And you saw a number of families that were moving from Sanaa when the Houthis took over and from the Northern Highlands is that these sort of expanded their reach. They were fleeing in different directions. And one of those directions was out toward Marib, which was under the control of the Yemeni government. And so there’s a number of IDPs that live there. There’s also African refugees who are on their way to Saudi Arabia. There’s a couple of encampments of those out there. There’s some IDP camps.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:07:52] And so what happens if the Houthis come in? Then you’ll see —  and I think we’re already starting to see this, at least from some of the the Yemenis I’ve talked to there on the ground — that some of these IDPs are moving and they’re moving into places like Shabwah. They’re moving farther south or they’re moving out east. So Yemen, as is unfortunately so often the case over the past six years, what is the world’s most dire humanitarian crisis continues to get worse.

The Three Different Wars in Yemen Ongoing Simultaneously

Mark Goldberg [00:08:19] And you know, we’re speaking a day after the Security Council held a briefing on Yemen, I caught some of it.  And, you know, it was interesting to me is that you had this juxtaposition almost from people like the U.N. envoy in Yemen to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and the top U.N. humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, you know, talking simultaneously about the disaster that is potentially unfolding in Ma’rib and the humanitarian disaster throughout the country, but also that there is this seeming potential for a new diplomatic opening in Yemen with the new administration.  Can you discuss the significance of some of the Biden administration’s new early moves on Yemen and what difference those moves might make in the trajectory of the conflict?

[00:09:17] Yeah, and here I think it’s it’s it’s important to talk about what I think is happening on the ground in Yemen. So I think we often talk about Yemen as being this country that that is at war. And that’s true. But I think we often talk about Yemen as being part of this one war. And I think it’s more helpful to think about Yemen as being there’s three separate but overlapping wars that are taking place simultaneously in Yemen. And there’s and I think it’s just helpful to name them real quickly.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:09:49] So there’s the US led war on terrorism, which is the US war against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS. This is a war that’s been going on basically for the last 20 years since the US, the Cole attack in 2000, but certainly since 9/11. So that war is going on. No one’s talking about ending that war. The US has made very clear that it’s going to continue counterterrorism operations in Yemen so that.

Mark Goldberg [00:10:12] And this war has primarily been waged through drone strikes and the like. Right?

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:10:18] Yeah, drone strikes. There’s been fixed wing aircraft. The US has shelled suspected al Qaeda encampments, some of which turned out not to be al-Qaida encampments with with naval ships off the coast of Yemen. So the US and there have been a few raids. In fact, very early in the Trump administration, there was a SEAL raid which which led to the death of one US special operator, as well as some Yemeni civilians in Yemen. So but but there’s there’s not a lot of boots on the ground, if you will. It’s mostly been drone and air strikes.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:10:48] The second war is the war that gets the most most of the attention. This is the Saudi led war, which Saudi Arabia sees themselves as fighting an Iranian proxy in the Houthi. So this is what I would term almost the regional war. And when we think of Yemen and being a war, this is the war that we tend to think of.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:11:07] The war that we miss — which I think is the important one of the one of the really important things which I don’t know if the Biden administration has a great handle on right now is the local Yemeni civil war. So everything that the UN and the US are doing is right now devoted to what I termed the regional war, the Saudi led war against the Houthis. So the US named a special envoy to Timothy Lenderking. As soon as the Biden administration came into office, he’s going to be working with the UN special envoy. And basically what they’re trying to do is bring an end to this Saudi led war against the Houthis, get the Saudis to withdraw, establish some sort of a peace deal between the Houthis and the Yemeni government.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:11:51] The problem with this approach is that it basically ignores this third war, this sort of a local Yemeni civil war. So the Houthis and the Yemeni government in this third war in the civil war are only two of a multitude of actors. And so you could have a situation where Saudi Arabia withdraws from Yemen tomorrow, but the war in Yemen goes on and on and on. And in fact, the humanitarian situation gets worse because then you have all these various armed groups that basically are just trying to seize and hold as much territory as possible. And so I think that that’s where it makes the situation really complicated, is that the Biden administration, the UN, are very eager to sort of work and put pressure on Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration and the UN don’t have a lot of leverage on the Houthis, which is one of the reasons that we’re seeing, say, the Houthis advance toward Marib right now in twenty twenty one in a way that the Saudis and the Emirates were not able to take Hudaydah in 2018.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:12:50] If you remember back to that point with the US, put some pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE not to go in because of fears of the humanitarian fallout from that military offensive. The US doesn’t have that same sort of leverage that it can use to pressure the Houthis and so that Houthis are continuing to to move toward to move toward moderation.

Mark Goldberg [00:13:10] And I think it’s worth emphasizing that last point that, you know, a couple of years ago, the Saudi led coalition. We were trying to attack this port, this key port, Hodeida, held by the Houthis in the U.S. at the time, and the U.N. fearing a humanitarian catastrophe, should fighting disrupt operations at the port pressed successfully the Saudis and their mayoralties to hold off on that offensive and actually were able to pass a Security Council resolution creating some sort of monitoring mechanism in that area.

Mark Goldberg [00:13:48] But you’re saying that that same dynamic because of the US lacks leverage over the Houthis, because the U.N. lacks leverage over the Houthis. There’s no ability to stop that offensive in Ma’rib right now. Is that a fair characterization?

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:14:04] It is. And I would also say that when looking back at Hudaydah, the UN sort of put this deal together and we don’t need to go back and sort of relitigate past history. But the US put the UN put this deal together that was supposed to see sort of the Houthis hand over control of the port and the city. And that was a deal that and even this monitoring mechanism, it just never really came to fruition. And in fact, did the WHO data who data deals been pointed to over the past couple of years as being a failure? And I think everybody but the UN at this point admits that it’s been a failure.

[00:14:39] But on the point with with regards to moderate, certainly the US and the UN lack any sort of diplomatic pressure that they can put on the Houthis to get them to to cease the offensive into Marib. And looks a little bit worse for the US and for the Biden administration is that the Marib offensive really started picking up steam again in early February — right, as the Biden administration was revoking the terrorist designation for the Houthis. So the Trump administration on the last day, last full day that the Trump administration was in office, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. This was on January 19th of this year. The Biden administration came into office, said they were going to do a review. They did that review. Secretary of State Blinken then revoked the foreign terrorist organization. Just as the US was doing that, the Houthis really started to press toward toward more of which a number of Yemenis have taken as the US revoking the designation —  a number of Yemenis have pointed to that and saying that it really emboldened the Houthis. I don’t quite buy that argument. I think the Houthis were going to do what the Houthis were going to do anyways. But certainly the optics don’t look particularly great for the US.

Mark Goldberg [00:15:54] And it’s well, it’s worth also pointing out that the reason the U.S. revoked this designation was the fear from the humanitarian community that designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization would massively disrupt ongoing humanitarian operations. So you had like every humanitarian agency, almost everyone I could think of was stridently opposed to this designation for fear that it might mean that they would have to cease work in parts of Yemen controlled by the Houthis.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:16:28] Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. The the designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization was not going to do anything to change the behavior of the Houthi leadership, the Houthi leadership. It was largely going to be insulated from the shore, the food shortages or the medicine shortages or anything like those that was going to impact the Yemeni civilians long before it had any sort of an impact on the Houthi leadership. And it was really, in my opinion, a very poor decision by the Trump administration and something that created a lot more problems for the Biden administration than than they really needed as they as they attempted to to go in. It was essentially using the civilians in Yemen as a as a pawn.

Mark Goldberg [00:17:12] But I do get your point that in Yemen, that appearance that this offensive by the Houthis was started around the same time that the designation was lifted seems problematic.

Can the War in Yemen Be Brought to an End through Diplomacy?

Mark Goldberg [00:17:24] I wanted to ask you, though, who does have diplomatic or any sort of leverage over the Houthis at the moment? And, you know, is there any opportunity to exert whatever leverage there is to get the Houthis to roll back this offensive?

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:17:41] Yeah, so that’s a couple of different questions. So I’m not sure on the offensive right now. I don’t know if there’s a whole lot of steps that can be taken. I think the offensive we’re now at the point where the offensive is either going to succeed or it’s going to fail on sort of the military front. And I’m not sure if the diplomatic track is flexible enough or quick enough to really make any sort of changes over the next couple of weeks or months. The long term, I do think that there are opportunities to create leverage vis a vis the for for both the US and the US.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:18:19] So right now, we’ve talked about the issue these and the US re revoking the foreign terrorist organization, and we should be clear, the Houthis have carried out a number of very horrendous acts. They’ve disappeared people. They’ve cracked down on women. They’ve arbitrarily detained journalists. They’ve dynamited homes to their opponents. So they’ve acted in a very poor manner. And they’ve, I think, are probably guilty of a number of different war crimes for for their conduct in Yemen.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:18:48] The UN and the US both have targeted sanctions programs against Houthi leaders. So the problem with this, however, is the way that the UN in particular designed the targeted sanctions program was the UN basically designated the top Houthi leader, as well as one of his younger brothers and a top lieutenant, and they did both of those designations to came in November of 2014 and one in April of 2015. So the UN played their sort of sanction card very early in the game, right after the duty’s took control of Sanaa. And they sanctioned instead of sort of starting at the mid level and slowly sanctioning people and allowing the Houthis to sort of feel the pressure as it built up the UN sanction the top people immediately. And then once it played that card and that card didn’t work, then it now has no other cards really to play when it comes to sanctions. So it’s very difficult then to sort of go back and start sanctioning mid-level people and try to get the two things to to change their behavior in any way over 2021 or into 2022 or into twenty twenty two. That being said, I think that both the US and the UN can’t can do some things.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:20:04] There are some steps that they can take. So the Houthis are aware of where they live and they know that Saudi Arabia is right on their border. Saudi Arabia’s militarily stronger than the Houthis, even though the Houthis have been able to hold and defend this territory in northern Yemen, which is pretty rugged and for the most part, very mountainous territory up there. The Houthis know where they live. And I think that the Houthis would be amenable to some sort of a deal with Saudi Arabia. The difficulty, though, for the US is trying to work a situation in which you’re able to put Yemen back together as one state.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:20:41] So that would be the goal for the US. That would be the goal for the Yemeni government, but that would require convincing the Houthis that they would go from being essentially the state in northern Yemen to being part of a unified Yemeni state. And I think that’s really the the key question right now is can you can you convince the Houthis that they should be part of a unified Yemeni state? And I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to do that.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:21:06] So then you have to look at what does a fractured or a fragmented Yemen look like. So the Houthis would probably be very happy to create some sort of a peace deal or a treaty with Saudi Arabia that kept them in charge in Sana’a. That’s what Saudi Arabia that’s what the Yemeni government that’s what the US has said that they don’t want to do. And so that’s really the problem that the diplomats face at this point.

Mark Goldberg [00:21:31] I mean, you are describing what just sounds to me like such a fraught diplomatic agenda. And frankly, it seems like the prospects for success of any sort of political agreement between, say, the Houthis and the Saudis seems very remote, let alone the other multitude of local conflicts that you suggested are another layer of conflict in Yemen. So I guess barring any potential diplomatic solution or political solution, what can be done, if anything, to at the very least reduce the level of humanitarian suffering in in Yemen? I mean, basically that based on everything you’re describing, it sounds like, you know, there is no peace coming any time soon. Is there anything that can be done to at least not make Yemen not the worst humanitarian situation in the world?

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:22:29] Well, I think so. I think there can be some sort of a peace when it comes to the second war, the regional war that the US and the UN are really working on. And I think Saudi Arabia is looking for a way out and the US is certainly in a position to pressure Saudi Arabia. Then the question becomes, can the Houthis, will the Houthis actually agree to this? And then what happens after Saudi Arabia withdraws? And this local civil war, if you sort of buy the argument that I made earlier, what happens with this local civil war takes off? Does it become a situation like Afghanistan in the 1990s where the major players pull out and it’s just these various local warlords who are fighting it out?

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:23:10] I think that the counterterrorism issue, I think shipping lanes and I think the humanitarian crisis suggest that the US and the EU. And Saudi Arabia would continue to be involved there, and I think that’s that’s the hope is that if if this regional war can can end, then the US and Saudi Arabia and the people who are going to be financing Yemen’s reconstruction, if we ever hopefully get to that point, are countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they’ll be sort of bearing the brunt of that costs, getting them to continue to exert pressure on the players on the ground to come to some sort of a solution.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:23:48] But I think the really difficult problem is going to be Yemen is basically Humpty Dumpty. It’s fallen and it’s broken into all of these numerous pieces. I count about seven right now. And the question is, can we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? And I’m not very optimistic on that question. I don’t think Yemen can be put back together again as one state or as two states. But then where that leads the US, where that leaves Saudi Arabia, where that leaves sort of the regional situation really remains to be seen. And if you have a situation like that and if you have a broken economy and we haven’t really talked about Yemen’s economy, but Yemen essentially has two economies, which is driving part of the humanitarian crisis at the moment is rapid, rapid inflation, the decrease in value of the Yemeni riyal over the past six years, which means people’s salary stays the same, but their their money buys much, much less than it ever has before to the point where many families have to go into debt in order to try to buy food. And people are just surviving. And if this war continues to go on for the next few years, then you’re looking at even a much worse situation than we’re currently in. So there’s not a as everyone talking about Yemen these days, there’s not a lot to be optimistic about.

Yemen Has Two Different Central Banks. How Economic Warfare in Yemen Perpetuates Suffering

Mark Goldberg [00:25:06] Do you have like another couple more minutes? I had a question on the economy thing, this question now might seem like a tangent, but you opened it up by mentioning the Yemeni economy.  One thing that I have been struck by and to be honest, I really don’t understand how this works, but there are apparently like, what, two different central banks in two different currencies and that each bank and each currency are like using inflationary pressures to try to starve the other side? Like, I don’t quite understand, like the economics of how that works. But can you just describe that situation, which seems just absolutely sort of wild and really terrible to me?

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:25:49] Yeah, it’s it’s a really bad situation. So basically, the Houthis took over the capital of Sana’a in October of 2014. And really by January of 2015, they had placed the then transitional president, President Hadi, who’s still the president today. President Hadi is someone who came into office in 2012, is supposed to be there as a transitional figure for two years, ending in 2014. Well, it’s 2021– and he’s still in office. So the Houthis took control of the capital. And in the capital was the central bank. President Hadi, who is under house arrest, escaped, went south the Aden and eventually went into exile in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia starts this war that they call Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015.  In 2016, so about roughly a year after after the war started, President Hadi is worried that the Houthis are doing funny things with the central bank in Sana’a. So he decides, and it should be pointed out, that he goes against the advice of most of the people in the IMF, the World Bank, the UN, the US. Everybody is telling him not to do this, but he goes ahead and he does it anyways.  He splits the central bank and basically cuts off the central bank in Sana’a, cuts it off from the international banking system. And he starts a new central bank in Aden, which was his temporary capital. So now you’ve basically split Yemen in in two split the economy into.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:27:19] The problem is, once you have one sort of semi functioning bank and you break it and you try to make two new ones, or at least for Hadi, one new one in  Aden, and the Houthis are trying to put the one together back up in Sana’a, then you have the situation where neither of them really work. And so it took the central bank and odd until really 2017 before it can really even get back onto the international banking system and start to do the things that it was supposed to do.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:27:47] There was a currency shortage, so the Yemeni government started to print new currency abroad and then bring it back. The Houthis have banned that new currency from coming into areas under their control. So between the split of the two central banks, between the currencies, it’s all Yemeni Riyals —  but there were some new banknotes that are issued that the Houthis don’t recognize that the Yemeni government does recognize. And, of course, as we talked about earlier, 60 to 70 percent of the population is under Houthi control. But the Houthis aren’t recognized as an international state except by two countries — this is Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s syria are the only two countries that recognize the Houthis.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:28:27] So you have this situation now where you have two separate economies. And in fact, the Yemeni reale is trading at vastly different rates in the capital of Sana’a versus Hadi’s temporary capital of of Aden. And should also be pointed out that President Hadi does not even have control over his temporary capital of Aden. This is mentioned this is held by a group we haven’t mentioned yet, a southern secessionist group called the Southern Transitional Council. They have military control over Aden, where Hadi Central Bank is is located. So it just if we go back to, say, January of this year, a month ago, the Yemeni riyal was trading at, I think about eight thirty two to one against the US dollar in Aden and trading at about six hundred to one against the dollar in in Sana’a. And of course, there are a number of businesses in Yemen that have offices in Sana’a or in Aden. And so when you have a currency that’s trading at different values, of course, that opens up all sorts of opportunities for for less scrupulous dealers and people looking to to make some quick money.

Mark Goldberg [00:29:33] I mean, this is just like a mess on top of a mess.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:29:36] Yeah, it’s it’s a very, very bad situation politically, economically there. And, you know, it’s been going on for six years. There are no easy off-ramps to to solve all of Yemen’s different wars, to solve all of the different crises. There’s a shrinking economic pie in Yemen. And the longer the war goes on, the more armed groups we see sprouting up that are all trying to get a larger and larger piece of what’s becoming a smaller and smaller pie. And that’s driving a lot of the conflict. And also, I mean, we should be honest, the conflict is good for some of these armed groups. They’re doing a lot more. They’re making a lot more than than they would any other way. And Yemen is in such a bad situation right now that in many areas of the country, the only opportunity for young men to find employment is through an armed group or through the military.

What Should  the Biden Administration Do About Yemen?

Mark Goldberg [00:30:29] So lastly, is there one or two or three things that you would recommend the new Biden administration do to at least nudge the situation in a better direction right now?

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:30:42] Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the Biden administration is taking a lot of good steps. I mean, this war started. The Saudi led war in Yemen started under the Obama administration. The Obama administration signed off. The Trump administration gave the Saudis largely a green light for for much of the Trump administration’s four years in the Biden administration has been pulling back and is trying to use US leverage to get Saudi Arabia out.

Gregory D. Johnsen [00:31:07] I think the thing the most important thing for the Biden administration is to have a clear eyed view of what’s actually happening on the ground and not to confuse the end of the Saudi led war in Yemen with the end of the war in Yemen, because the war in Yemen is not going to end when Saudi Arabia withdraws from Yemen. And that’s going to be when the US really needs to have utilized a lot of its diplomatic muscle in Yemen is the day after Saudi Arabia withdraws. And I think if the Biden administration really needs to be preparing for that day right now.

[00:31:45] Well, Gregory, thank you so much for your time, this was very helpful.

[00:31:48] Yeah, absolutely.