There’s desperation among the Houthi rebels in Yemen. This desperation is emanating from their failure to turn the course of the conflict in Yemen in their favour, which is reflected in Sunday’s seizure of an Emirati-flagged vessel off the country’s coast. The hijacking of the Rwabee near the port of Hodeidah is a new low for the rebels who have been pushed to a corner by government forces.
The Arab world’s most impoverished country, meanwhile, struggles to find its footing after decades of war and civilian strife that shows no signs of abating. The Houthis have themselves to blame for the humanitarian crisis. Their attempts to force a solution through militant tactics — drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and hijackings of civilian vessels — are an attempt to deflect attention from the grim situation in the country. Their failures at governance are for the world to see. They have reneged on peace agreements brokered by the United Nations not once, but multiple times and the stalemate is eating into the vitals of Yemeni society.
The seizure of the vessel is a desperate attempt to escalate the conflict while the international community is dealing with a health crisis caused by the pandemic and the current Omicron wave. It is clear that the rebels are keen to widen the scope of the conflict and draw other countries into a military role in the region. There is reason to believe that the incident is also linked to the nuclear talks the EU, China, Russia, and the US are holding with Iran. For Tehran, this is a bargaining ploy as it uses its proxy in Yemen to target ships plying the region while keeping the region in a state of perpetual tension.
Drone attacks and this escalation at sea keep the fire of war burning. Iran wants it that way to gain concessions from the big powers while forcing the US to lift sanctions that are crippling its economy. Saudi Arabia has threatened to strike back at Houthi targets in Yemen, but the situation poses a delicate balancing act for the kingdom that backs the government in the south of the country. The Houthis control the north, and Sanaa the capital but recent reverses in the conflict have forced them to rethink their strategy.
The Rwabee housed a floating hospital and carried supplies, and its seizure proves the Houthis are targeting soft targets at sea. This hijacking follows Southern Transitional Troops in Yemen retaking a vital oil-rich region in the province of Shabwa from the Houthis. The troops have Usaylan in their grip and are now pushing towards Bayhan and Ain. Pressure is certainly building on the Houthis. This hijacking could also be revenge for the recent back-to-back losses on the battlefield.
It is clear to the Houthis that a military victory is impossible. The Arab coalition has too much firepower at its disposal and a full invasion would lead a larger humanitarian crisis in the country where millions are starving. This is a situation they are trying to avoid which also presents a dilemma for the international community. Only a diplomatic solution will solve the real problems of the people of Yemen. For that to happen the Houthis should release the ship immediately and break free from Tehran’s yoke to work with Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia.
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