Amid unabated fighting in Yemen and an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that has left millions struggling to find food, the United Nations Security Council decisively approved a resolution on Tuesday that targets Shia Houthi rebels with an arms embargo and sanctions — but what effect the resolution will have on the conflict, if any, remains unclear.
Arab states represented the text, authored by Jordan, as offering clear support for Saudi-led airstrikes on Houthi forces, which are now in their third week. Russia had wanted a countrywide arms embargo, applying to government forces as well as the rebels, but after several weeks of negotiations only filed an abstention, allowing passage of the resolution by a vote of 14-0.
Gulf States and Western officials have accused Iran of supporting the Houthis. Russia is seen as Iran's closest ally among permanent members of the Security Council. It had requested a pause in the airstrikes during the negotiations, ostensibly to allow aid and medical supplies to reach beleaguered areas. The Arab nations claimed that a pause would let the Houthis regroup, and the final text only urged parties to "facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance."
The resolution's other elements, including a reiteration that the Houthis immediately lay down their arms and withdraw from areas seized in recent months, are binding and explicit.
Three top Houthi commanders, including rebel leader Abdul-Malik al Houthi, were hit with arms embargoes, as were former president Ali Abdullah Saleh — a onetime Houthi foe who is now believed to be aiding the insurgency, though he denies doing so — and his son Ahmed. Ahmed Saleh and al Houthi were also targeted with travel bans and global asset freezes. The council already imposed such sanctions on the former president and the two other Houthi commanders — Abdullah Yahya al Hakim and Abd al-Khaliq — in November.
The arms embargoes extend to those acting on behalf or under the direction of the three Houthi leaders and both Salehs — everyone from foot soldiers to high-level commanders.
Houthi leaders follow a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaydism, and have long been a force in the country's north. During his presidency, Saleh targeted the Houthis in a series of wars in the 2000s. After he was deposed during Arab Spring protests in 2012, Saleh switched tracks and began to support the group, allegedly as part of a plan to install his son in power.
Despite the focus on Iran's role in the crisis, the Houthis have benefited significantly from alliances with forces loyal to Saleh and Saleh's son, who until last month was head of the country's Republican Guard. Those forces likely have access to significant arms stockpiles, in addition to what the Houthis already possess from years of conflict. It is unclear to what extent the Houthis and their allies are currently receiving arms shipments from abroad.
The Houthis won control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in September before withdrawing some of their forces as part of a short-lived UN peace deal, which stipulated the formation of a new government and the drafting of a new constitution. Clashes in Sanaa erupted again in January amid a dispute over the constitution, with the Houthis seizing the presidential palace and the private residence of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to increase its leverage over the government.
Facing Houthi demands, Hadi and his government resigned. On February 6, the Houthis declared that they had taken over Yemen. Hadi had been placed under house arrest, but soon fled to the southern port city of Aden, where he rescinded his resignation and said that the Houthis actions since September had been unconstitutional.
After wavering and appearing uncomfortable overseeing Yemen's government, the Houthis began a rapid offensive southward in March, spurring a Saudi-led Arab coalition to being air strikes against Houthi targets. Hadi traveled secretly to Saudi Arabia, where he is being hosted in Riyadh, as the kingdom launched its airstrike campaign.
The United States, France, and the United Kingdom have expressed support for the Saudi intervention.
"For months the Security Council has clearly and unequivocally demanded that the Houthi withdraw from government institutions, cease hostilities, and return to Yemen's agreed upon political transition," US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told the Security Council on Tuesday, noting that Houthi actions have "caused widespread violence and instability that threaten the security and welfare of the Yemeni people as well as the region's security."
Russia complained that the resolution was too narrow in scope.
"The co-sponsors refused to include the requirements insisted upon by Russia addressing all sides to the conflict to swiftly half fire and begin peace talks," Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said after the council's vote.
Yemeni ambassador Khaled Hussein Mohamed Alyemany meanwhile accused Iran of aspirations to become a "hegemon" in the region.
"We refuse the influence of Tehran in our domestic affairs," Alyemany told reporters. "The international community sent a very clear message to the Houthis that they should abide by international law, stop their coup, and return the kidnapped state to the legitimate government of Yemen."
Saudi Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi echoed his colleague, calling the vote "a very clear endorsement of the operation undertaken" by members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Al-Mouallimi said that Saudi Arabia was working to expedite the transfer of wounded Yemenis to hospitals in Saudi Arabia, but Alyemany noted that only "dozens" had been moved so far.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, and protracted fighting has left its population with sporadic access to electricity, medical care, and sustenance. Last year, the UN determined that more than 40 percent of Yemenis — some 10 million people — faced food scarcity. In Aden, the site of some of the most brutal fighting in recent days, all of the bakeries are reportedly closed due to a lack of flour.
At least 364 civilians have been killed since the start of the airstrikes on March 25, including 84 children. According to the UN, the fighting has hit schools, hospitals, and public buildings, displacing 120,000 Yemenis. The violence has also endangered some 250,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia, that had sought shelter in Yemen.
On Tuesday, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al Hussien called for investigations into reports of civilian casualties caused by all sides in the conflict.
"Such a heavy civilian death toll ought to be a clear indication to all parties to this conflict that there may be serious problems in the conduct of hostilities," he said.
Yemen's spiraling chaos has benefited al Qaeda's local affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is based in the country's sparsely populated south and east. The faction has been targeted by US drone strikes for years.
On Tuesday, a statement posted by AQAP on Twitter said that one of its top commanders, Ibrahim al-Rubaish, was killed along with four others by a drone strike on Monday. Al-Rubaish had previously been detained by the US at its base in Guantanamo Bay before being released in 2006 as part of a Saudi rehabilitation program for former terrorist fighters. He later joined AQAP, and had a $5 million bounty on his head.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford