In the coastal city of Hodeidah, the most catastrophic elements of Yemen’s civil war present themselves: death, deterioration, and disaster. The city’s port once bustled with shipments containing 80 to 90 percent of Yemen’s imported food supply, but the densely populated urban center is now a microcosm for a country embroiled in crisis. In October 2014, Houthi rebel forces took control of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, and seized the Hodeidah port. In response to the rebel’s acquisition, Saudi-led forces bombed Hodeidah eight months later, destroying the cranes and warehouses that enable ships to deliver food, water, and medicine to Yemeni citizens, 18 million of whom are in desperate need of aid.
Roots of The Conflict
Yemen’s civil war is rooted in a 2011 uprising that pressured former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to cede power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Mr. Hadi, recognized by the international community as the legitimate president, struggled to combat Al-Qaeda insurgents, separatists in Southern Yemen, and food insecurity. The Houthi rebels, members of Yemen’s minority Zaydi sect of Shi’ism, capitalized on Yemen’s instability by capturing the northern Saada province. The Houthi movement opposed ousted–president Saleh, also a Zaydi Muslim, in a previous civil war; however, this time, he aligned himself with the rebels and helped Houthi forces takeover Sana’a. This hostile operation positioned Saleh as the leader of the Houthis and signaled the official start of the Yemeni Civil War.
Alarmed by the rising power of Houthi insurgents, Saudi Arabia began a military campaign in 2015 alongside nine nations, including the United States, to restore the deposed Hadi government. Iran, in contrast, chose to back the Houthi movement by providing rebels with a steady stream of arms and supplies. A close ally of Saudi Arabia, the United States has provided extensive military, logistical, and intelligence support to the Hadi campaign. After two years of fighting, however, Hadi and Houthi forces appear unable to put an end to the Yemeni Civil War without the support of the foreign powers entrenched in the conflict. With Iran and Saudi Arabia engaged in a misunderstood, reactionary war, the international community can only facilitate meaningful conflict resolution by acknowledging its culpability in the crisis, identifying each actors’ motivations, and changing its approach toward peace initiatives.
The extensive, under-the-radar support the United States provides to the Saudi-led coalition indicates that U.S. interests in Yemen are deeper than combatting extremism. Between November 2013 and March 2016, the United States authorized more than $35.7 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. These deals were intended to support airstrikes in Yemen and provided the Saudi army with thousands of bombs and warheads. In late May, President Trump took these lucrative sales a step further by closing a $110 billion deal. The Trump administration has been slow to provide the media with a complete account of the reported totals, but the package is said to include a number of non-airstrike related technologies, including radar systems, patrol boats, and THAAD missile defense systems.
Aid to the Saudi campaign, however, is not limited to weapon sales. As of November 2016, the United States flew almost 1600 refueling missions for Saudi and Emirati planes circling Yemen. Aerial refueling jets take off from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey or from ships in the Arabian Sea and link up with Saudi F-15s and UAE F-16s in international airspace––allowing planes to conduct longer, more lethal combat missions. Nadwa Dawsari, a nonresident Senior Fellow at The Project on Middle East Democracy and founder of Partners Yemen, argued that this sort of indirect involvement in Yemen has only added to the violence plaguing the failed state in an interview with the HPR. “Yemen has become increasingly less of a priority to the U.S. since 2011. Now, over the past couple of years, … the U.S. government has outsourced Yemen to the Saudis, politically, and to the Emiratis, counterrorism-wise.”
Despite forming the backbone of the Saudi campaign, the United States exerts little control over how the Saudi-led coalition uses its arms and resources. Airstrikes targeting schools, hospitals, and refugee camps violate the Law of Armed Conflict, an international law governing military conduct in armed conflicts. President Obama addressed U.S. complicity in LOAC violations by issuing a no-strike list to Saudi Arabia, and although the list failed to change Saudi actions, the Trump administration risks endangering its alliance with Saudi Arabia if it condemns the military campaign any further. On the other hand, if the United States were to withdraw its support from the coalition, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud would likely have no choice but to extricate his forces within a period of a few months. This would prove a major victory for the thousands of rebels injured and killed in Saudi airstrikes, but is unlikely to occur as long as the United States continues to place a high value on its alliance with Saudi Arabia.
While the desire to maintain positive relationships with Saudi Arabia may be valuable, U.S. military involvement in Yemen only hinders efforts to create peace in the region. The United States both advocates for stability in Yemen and provides the Saudi coalition with the support to wage a violent war; however, to truly advance the peace process, it must rectify the inherent contradiction between these two goals.
To a large extent, Iran and Saudi Arabia are using Yemen as an avenue to assert their respective dominance in the Middle East, but it is an oversimplification to characterize the Yemeni conflict as merely a proxy war. In an interview with the HPR, Adam Baron, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, cited three key factors that pushed the Saudis to launch Operation Decisive Storm: Houthi military exercises near the Saudi border, an announcement that there would be direct flights between Sana’a and Tehran, and Houthi airstrikes against the compound holding Hadi. “The [proxy war] argument that you often see is couched in the idea of this whole Iran and Saudi battle for regional power, but in a lot of ways, that comes out of the fact that as far as the Saudis are concerned, a number of red lines were crossed by the Houthis and their allies in Yemen that compelled them to take action,” said Baron.
Similarly, Iran’s presence in Yemen was more of a reaction to Saudi politics in Syria than a show of support for the Houthi cause. In an interview with the HPR, Dr. Kenneth Pollack, a former analyst for the CIA and two-time member of the National Security Council, described Iranian involvement in Yemen as a move to retaliate against the Saudis for supporting the Syrian opposition instead of Bashar al-Assad, one of Iran’s most important allies. Although the Yemeni Civil War displays elements of a proxy war, characterizing it solely as a battle for regional influence ignores the many pent-up grievances fueling the conflict. “Yemen was an opportunity for the Iranians to turn around and do to the Saudis in Yemen what the Saudis were doing to them in Syria,” he said. Dr. Pollack cites this as the reason why Iranian involvement in Yemen started ramping up in 2013 and 2014, prompting Saudi intervention in 2015.
To set aside the policy-based motivations of Iran and Saudi Arabia in favor of a purely religious argument would be equally as misguided. Dr. Pollack points out that the Sunni and Shi’a divide between Hadi and Houthi forces is “less than meets the eye.” The Houthis are Zaydi Shi’ites and share only a baseline level of commonality with Iran’s branch of Shi’ism. Although the potential of gaining a Shi’ite ally in the Middle East would be an added bonus to a Houthi victory, Iran and Saudi Arabia are under no impression that Yemen’s branch of Islam will drastically shift the 10 to 85 percent balance of Shi’ism and Sunnism in the Islamic world.
A New Approach to Peace
Misunderstandings on the part of the United Nations and the international community have led to the continued failure of peace initiatives in Yemen. In June 2015, negotiations in Geneva dissolved after combatants refused to observe the U.N. ceasefire and meet face-to-face. A little over a year later, peace talks again collapsed in Kuwait when Saleh refused to accept a U.N. sanctioned peace deal and instead called for the installation of a ten-person governing body in Yemen. Both sets of negotiations, however, only included individuals who are insulated from the effects of the war rather than those who have a strong understanding of local grievances. Yemen’s vicious cycle of failed peace initiatives is a direct reflection of this focus on the elite, or as Dawsari described them, “the spoilers.” Instead of initiating peace talks in a new location with the same leaders at the table, the solution to Yemen’s crisis exists at the local level rather than within the same lopsided power dynamics that plague Yemen’s history.
The long-term solution may instead lie in whether the Hadi and Houthi see negotiations as both necessary and equitable. The international community has failed to create a stalemate in which neither side can achieve a military victory, craft a power-sharing agreement that disperses economic and political power evenly, and convince both parties that the first two conditions will endure––the prerequisites to ending any civil war peacefully in Dr. Pollack’s opinion. With the Saudi coalition showering bombs on Yemen in an effort to turn the tide of the war and Saleh refusing any peace deal that involves President Hadi, the conflict between Pollack’s conditions and the situation in Yemen are both striking and discouraging.
A successful peace deal may also be the key to stopping the spread of extremism. Yemen’s disenfranchised population and lack of national cohesion offer Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State prime recruiting ground to both grow their support base and spread their message. By failing to address the danger of this environment, and by isolating the issue of extremism from the bigger picture, Baron argues that the United States cannot effectively combat terrorism in Yemen. “These are groups that are taking advantage of the breakdown of the state, the breakdown of control, and the breakdown of Yemen’s social fabric to take their operating space,” he said. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other homegrown radical militias wouldn’t exist in their current capacity if there were not a civil war. Rather than simply targeting radical individuals and groups, tackling the conditions that allow extremism to thrive would be a far more effective approach to facilitating stable governance in Yemen.
In addition to counterrorism, the foreign policy implications of the Yemeni Civil War are vast. The international community and media regard the conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran or a religious war instead of a series of economic, political, and social grievances between Hadi and Houthi forces. In 2016, for example, the New York Times published an article on Yemen describing the current conflict as an “underlying proxy war.” These fundamental misunderstandings have resulted in negotiations that fail to address the obstacles to peace in Yemen; without a proper understanding of those issues and motivations, the United States and other international actors are unlikely to see any progress.
Amidst the political chaos and failed negotiations, however, there remains a constant: Hodeidah. No longer the source of the Yemeni people’s sustenance, the Hodeidah port encapsulates the effects of the Middle East’s least-known and most destructive war. For the United Nations and international community, the devastation there is the byproduct of negotiations that have failed to produce substantive and productive discussion. As for the 18 million Yemeni people in need of humanitarian assistance, the war as a whole and destruction of Hodeidah are something far worse: reality.
Image Credit: Ibrahem Qasim/Wikimedia Commons