Whose War in Yemen?
For much of the past year, the country of Yemen in southern Arabia has been convulsed by civil war and foreign military intervention. Especially since the capture of the capital city, Sana’a, last September by a Zaydi Shi’ite militia called Ansar Allah—more commonly known as the Houthis—Yemen has been in political turmoil. Since then a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led military intervention has intensified the country’s civil strife and brought about a humanitarian catastrophe affecting more than 20 million civilians. Though most Americans may not realize it, the U.S. is helping to wage war on yet another country in Middle East and supporting a policy that is inflicting enormous suffering on an entire people. The effects of this reckless intervention will likely include the further empowerment of jihadist groups in Yemen, amplified resentment of U.S. interference in the region’s affairs, chronic political instability, and a massive loss of life from famine and disease.
Yet despite the central role of U.S. clients including Saudi Arabia and Egypt in prosecuting this war, and the intelligence and logistics support provided by the U.S. and Britain, the conflict in Yemen has received only sporadic coverage in Western media. The ill-advised U.S. role has gone mostly unnoticed here at home, and there has been no real debate about our involvement. By contrast, Yemenis are only too aware of U.S. support for the campaign that has wrecked their country.
The main reason for the Saudi intervention was fear that the Houthis would control too much of Yemen, which Riyadh perceived as a threat to its influence. Based in northwest Yemen’s Saada province, the Houthis have periodically opposed the Yemeni government during the last three decades, and in the past 10 years this has led to armed insurrection. Yemen’s internal conflicts have long been driven by local grievances and disputes over the distribution of power within the country, and the latest struggle is no different. The Houthis previously fought a war with the national government headed by then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010. Saleh had been president of North Yemen and then of united Yemen for more than 30 years when he stepped down in 2012, in the wake of popular protests against his continued rule. Though Saleh is himself a Zaydi Shi’ite, that did not stop him from attacking the Houthis and ordering the death of the insurgent movement’s founder, Hussein al-Houthi.
Once Saleh was deposed, the Houthis opposed his former vice president and successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had taken over following an “election” in which he was the sole candidate. Following the Houthis’ seizure of the capital, Hadi was under increasing pressure to resign, which he did in January of this year. Hadi then fled to Aden and rescinded his resignation. Faced with further Houthi advances, he and his government fled to Saudi Arabia.
It was Hadi’s effective overthrow and flight from the country that prompted Saudi Arabia and a coalition of other predominantly Sunni Muslim states to blockade Yemen and begin bombing its major cities in an attempt to put Hadi back in power. And in one of the many odd twists to the war, Saleh and his allies have since banded together with the Houthis in shared hostility to Hadi, and as a result a large part of Yemen’s armed forces have sided against their nominal president.
The fighting in Yemen is frequently portrayed as a sectarian proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but as the facts show this is overly simplistic and quite misleading. The Saudis and their allies have sought to frame the conflict in these terms to win international backing for their campaign. Contrary to the story being told by the Saudi government, however, the role of Iran in sponsoring and arming the Houthis has been negligible, and viewing the militia as an Iranian proxy over which Tehran has control is simply wrong. In fact, Iran’s government advised the Houthis not to take Yemen’s capital. While Houthis are Shi’ites, they and most Iranians belong to separate and opposing sects, and while they echo some Iranian slogans against America and Israel, they have been focused on internal Yemeni matters. The Houthis have no love for the U.S., but neither are they our enemies. Because of their hostility to Saudi Wahhabism and other forms of extreme Sunni Islam, the Houthis are fiercely opposed to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and until this year that made them America’s de facto allies against local jihadists.
Yemen is the poorest Arab country, and even before the current war its population relied on humanitarian aid. Inadequate water and food insecurity were already serious problems, and the country was heavily dependent on imported foodstuffs. That has made the Saudi-led air and sea blockade that much more devastating. Thanks to the blockade, aid organizations have enormous difficulty getting supplies into the country, and normal commercial imports are at a fraction of what they were before March. The aid organization Oxfam estimated in July that six million Yemenis were on the verge of starvation, and altogether 13 million—half of the country’s population—were in dire need of food. Earlier in the summer the UN classified Yemen’s humanitarian disaster as a Level 3 crisis—the highest level, which puts Yemen in a category whose only other current members are Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan.
The Saudi attack on Yemen has been remarkably destructive. As bad as Yemen’s conflict and internal problems already were, the decision by outside governments to intervene militarily and impose a blockade has made conditions there much, much worse. The bombing campaign has inflicted significant damage to the country’s infrastructure, has caused nearly 2,000 civilian casualties, and has internally displaced a million people. The blockade has brought the country’s health services to the brink of collapse. Fuel shortages have meant that Yemenis lack the resources to keep their generators and pumps running. That, in turn, has deprived them of access to clean water, which has contributed to unusually large outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever. When they do not come under attack, hospitals frequently lack both the power and the necessary medicines to provide treatment for the injured and sick. Brief humanitarian “pauses” in the fighting have been too short to do much good.
The Saudis’ war on Yemen has been plagued by many of the worst mistakes characteristic of foreign military interventions. It is as if the government in Riyadh watched the blunders the U.S. committed over the last 15 years and chose to emulate them. The campaign was launched impulsively, with very ambitious goals but without sufficient means to achieve them. The Saudis justified the war by grossly exaggerating a foreign threat and conjured up an imaginary Iranian role in the conflict. They underestimated their enemy in country and did not anticipate the costs and difficulties of their intervention. King Salman and his ministers planned only for a best-case scenario and had no fallback plan when their original one failed. They aligned themselves with an exiled leader with little domestic support and tied themselves to local forces whose goals are at odds with their own.
All of the pitfalls of the intervention were obvious at the start and were pointed out at the time. All of those warnings were ignored, and the U.S. keeps increasing its involvement in the conflict despite the fact that it could have easily refused to offer any backing to the Saudi campaign. The U.S. government didn’t know what the Saudis hoped to accomplish, and some American officers clearly saw the danger of supporting an attack on a group that was hostile to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. No one with any understanding of local conditions in Yemen thought the intervention would succeed.
The campaign has even alienated many Yemenis who oppose the Houthis. Because of Hadi’s support for the war, most of the country’s people have turned against him. “The possibility of the Shah returning from the grave to Iran [is] bigger than Hadi going back to Yemen,” Yemeni analyst Farea al-Muslimi tells the Guardian. Even if the Saudis could somehow find a way to put him back in power, his rule would likely be brief.
The political goals of the intervention seemed farfetched from the start and remain so. The country isn’t being stabilized by Saudi military action but instead has been thrown into the worst political and humanitarian crisis of its modern history. The Houthis aren’t losing ground but have been taking over new territory with the cooperation of local authorities. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now governs a large portion of eastern Yemen, and it has been left largely untouched by the Saudi-led coalition.
Yemen is not the only loser here. Saudi Arabia’s security is worse than it was before the campaign started, and the more instability that it creates in Yemen the worse things will be for Saudi Arabia over the long term. A war launched to demonstrate the strength of the activist policy of the new Saudi king has shown the leadership in Riyadh to be reckless and incompetent. U.S. support for that policy, meanwhile, has shown the Obama administration to be sycophantic in its desire to “reassure” an abusive client government.
Congress has contributed to the problem. The only thing members of Congress have said about the U.S. role in Yemen is that it had been too little and too slow, and there has been no meaningful opposition to the U.S. role from either party. Members of both parties seem to buy into the propaganda line that the Saudis are combating Iranian “expansionism.”
The Saudis have been battering and strangling their poorer neighbor for months, with little to show for it. Almost everything that critics feared could happen has already happened. There was never any good reason for the intervention, and by backing the war the U.S. has done real harm to its own security interests. The administration has done this all so that our government can reassure a group of vicious authoritarian regimes that we will enable them in their most reckless and costly policies. In spite of that, the war has generated virtually none of the outrage or criticism here in the U.S. that has been common in response to other recent unwise wars.
Daniel Larison is a senior editor for The American Conservative. His blog is www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/.