Following Houthi missile attacks aimed at Israel and third-country-flagged vessels in the Red Sea, the Biden administration is reportedly considering targeting northern Yemen while creating a new international maritime alliance to try to ensure secure transit.
As a result of the Houthi attacks, international merchant shipping is being rerouted with inflationary consequences for vital global supplies. Washington is weighing whether military strikes would either deter or incite further Houthi action and risk undermining desirable attempts by Saudi Arabia at ending its conflict with the Houthis following Yemen’s stalled but unresolved civil war.
The Houthis’ Red Sea military intervention is attempting to combine ideologically-driven anger at Israel’s military campaign in Gaza with leverage for funding the long-unpaid salaries of northern Yemenis under Houthi control. However, oil revenue, in part limited due to Houthi missile attacks on southern Yemeni oil and related facilities, is managed by the internationally recognized Yemen government based in Aden in southern Yemen. For the so-called “Legitimacy Government,” or LG, to give the Houthi money to pay northern “civil servants” — who include armed fighters — U.S. pressure and Saudi and Emirati backing are needed. But this is highly unlikely.
In southern Yemen, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), founded in 2017 with the backing of the UAE, is preparing to lead the formation of a new state by secession from what it considers a failed, and northern-dominated, Republic of Yemen, or RoY. The STC hopes to exploit what they see as the Houthis shooting themselves in the foot by destabilizing the Red Sea area. After all, the Houthis have, despite a 20-month formal ceasefire, been waging an economically motivated war against the south designed to deprive the LG of revenues and boost the appeal of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah.
For the STC to reemphasize southern ports and oil facilities as an alternative to Houthi-controlled Hodeidah, it needs to somehow secure the whole southern Yemeni coast and to incentivize more inbound shipping.
The Houthis’ relationship to Iran makes it easy for the STC to label it a Tehran proxy. Despite membership in Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” and Iran’s aid in extending their missile technology’s literal reach, the Houthis have their own motivations. The STC is seizing on the Houthi threat to Red Sea security to underline the prospective role of its own “shadow state” in boosting international maritime stability. In this context, this southern state-in-waiting is willing to uphold western security interests and is thus presenting itself as a proactive partner in securing the Red Sea’s Bab Al-Mandab strait and the Gulf of Aden against Houthi attacks.
The STC argues that the proven Houthi threat to Red Sea security is a cynical exploitation of popular Yemeni anger over Israel’s actions against Gaza. A recent STC press conference, headed by the self-styled president of the south, Maj-Gen Aidaroos Zubaidi, called on those seeking to secure the area to beef up the STC’s “naval forces.”The STC, however, does not actually have its own navy or any regular armed forces. In fact, it is debatable if it has any armed units that can be properly described as under Zubaidi’s command.
Southern Yemen exists in an almost parallel universe. Zubaidi enjoys recognition, as does the STC he leads, by virtue of his position as vice-president of the Saudi-backed eight-man Presidential Leadership Council, or PLC, heading the version of the RoY that sits in Aden. The PLC includes Zubaidi’s STC deputy, the former governor of the huge southern governorate of Hadramawt, Maj-Gen. Faraj Bahsani. Yet another military figure in a leading STC political role, Bahsani previously headed the RoY’s 2nd Military Division.
But neither Zubaidi nor Bahsani can offer an armed underpinning to the STC’s claims to be an all-inclusive movement for southern independence.
These men, like other LG members, enjoy their international recognition via the LG, a Yemeni government that is neither a state nor one in waiting. While the LG enjoys the loose loyalty of some RoY military remnants in the south and in some parts of the north, its armed capacity is uncoordinated and riven by unreliable tribal components. And the LG itself lacks popular political support.
By contrast, the STC, based on much anecdotal evidence, enjoys some popular support in Aden and in the other southwestern governorates: Abyan, Lahej and Dhale, and in coastal Hadramawt. In the Wadi area of Hadramawt, however, local saadah (descendants of the Prophet Mohammed) and tribal leaders are more circumspect.
What the STC lacks, even in its Aden base where leading STC figure Ahmed Lamlas is governor, is direct control of armed forces. The Emirati-trained and -backed “police,” the Hizam Al Amni (“Security Belt”) operating in Aden, are formally speaking STC-aligned but are not in practice directly controlled by Gen. Aidaroos, the nominal supreme commander of “the Southern Armed Forces.”
The Amaliqa (“Giants Brigade”), another Emirati-formed force which in 2022 played a decisive role in pushing Houthi fighters out of the energy-rich southern governorate of Shabwa, are only loosely connected to the STC. A rival, Emirati-founded army, the Nokba (“Elite Forces”), was in operation in Shabwa but was displaced by “Shabwa Defense,” which is associated more closely with Saudi Arabia.
In Aden, the STC is busy creating parallel bodies to those of the governorate. It does not see this as unnecessary duplication but rather as trying to fill the vacuum in services provision in a formal governorate structure that it ostensibly runs. The STC is intent on a similar “shadow state” project in Mahra (the governorate that borders Saudi Arabia to its north and Oman to its east).
However, the STC is doing this in far less auspicious circumstances than in Aden. In Mahra, “northern” political and security influence, including that of Al-Islah (Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood) is profound, due in part to demographic realities created by the large numbers of people who have fled Houthi advances and security services that are seen by critics as RoY loyalists.
The Mahran version of Amn Al-Watan (“National Security”) struggles to communicate with its notional “National Security” partner in neighboring Hadramawt. Oil and other essentials carried by road from southwest to southeast Yemen are not protected for their safe arrival in Mahra by any coordination with supposed parallel security bodies in other southern governorates.
To be a plausible partner state of the U.S. and the other western powers who are now moving to protect Israel and Red Sea shipping from the Houthis, the south needs a single unified form of control of the different military and security services that, at best, operate on a governorate basis only.
But the south’s main external sources of support, the Emiratis and the Saudis (the latter having formed separate ”National Shield” forces in Aden and Hadramawt), are not interested in promoting an integrated southern security body. One reason is that these two Gulf states have competing interests in different parts of southern Yemen, and a common unwillingness to push for a sovereign southern state
Southern Yemen under the STC’s would-be leadership is seeking to burnish its western-friendly security and political credentials. However, southern Yemen remains a would-be nation made up of different countries only partly united in opposition to perceptibly northern rulers. For the time being, it looks as if the role of any southern Yemeni state in Arabian Peninsula security will remain rhetorical.
Neil Partrick is the primary author of Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy (2016 & 2018) and is currently writing a book on State Functionality in the Middle East & North Africa. He has just returned from a research trip to southern Yemen where he spoke to a range of political, security and social leaders. His website is www.neilpartrick.com
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.