Yemen's Sprawling Crisis Is Not Just Another Dirty Little War

Why you should care

The U.S. must ensure this country does not become another haven for Iran-backed terrorists.

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Geo facts & figures

As the war in strategically located Yemen grinds on into its third year, there is no end in sight for a conflict that the U.N. is calling the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. Citizens of this small impoverished Gulf country pay an enormous price for the proxy war being fought on their soil between two regional giants, Saudi Arabia and Iran; the U.N. puts civilian casualties so far at 17,000, including at least 6,660 deaths.

The military situation is a swirl of competing causes, groups and alliances — sufficient to make any strategist’s head hurt.

On one side is the Iran-supported Shiite tribal movement — the Houthis, avowedly anti-U.S. and anti-Israel. They gained control of the capital, Sana’a, in 2014, in the chaos following a governmental transition brought on by Arab Spring protests in 2011. The formal government displaced by the Houthis took refuge in the southern city of Aden, although its leader, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, is holed up in Saudi Arabia.

Adding to the complexity are the differing objectives of the Saudis and their major coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis are seeking to restore the Hadi government, but the UAE, hoping perhaps to gain a strategic foothold at the confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, supports instead a quasi-governmental group that wants independence for South Yemen — the south was governed by a separate communist government until 1990, when it collapsed coincident with the fall of communism elsewhere.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the human suffering this war has caused.

The U.S. supports the Saudi-led coalition with limited assistance on intelligence and logistics, such as midair refueling for aircraft from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The Houthis are greatly outgunned. They depend mainly on small arms and missiles, most of which come from Iran. They have no air force to combat the Saudis, who’ve carried out around 100,000 bombing raids. Saudi coalition navies have slowed or blocked resupply through most Yemeni ports. Still, the Houthis control northern Yemen and cling to the capital — and most Yemenis continue to live under their rule. The coalition is now hoping to break the stalemate with an assault on the key northern port the Houthis still control, Hodeidah, through which they get most of their remaining supplies.

Surviving in the background of all this is al-Qaida’s most dangerous regional affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It has come closer than any other al-Qaida group to successfully attacking the U.S. homeland in recent years. It narrowly missed with the failed “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who almost succeeded in blowing up a U.S. airliner over Detroit in 2009. And although AQAP appears recently to have lost its principal bomb maker to a U.S. strike, it also was behind the attempt to penetrate U.S. airspace with printer cartridge and laptop-based bombs. AQAP has lost a lot of the territory it controlled three years ago, but it’s still operating in at least seven of Yemen’s 21 provinces. The group is far from stamped out.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the human suffering this war has caused. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres estimates that a child dies every 10 minutes from preventable causes. Moreover, Yemen is ground zero for cholera, with the largest epidemic in the world involving more than 100,000 victims. Doctors Without Borders reports, meanwhile, that half of the country’s medical facilities are closed, and others are simply unreachable because of checkpoints, snipers and crossfire. Regarding civilian casualties, the U.S. has worked to limit them by refining Saudi/UAE targeting practices; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week certified to Congress that both countries are working to reduce such casualties.

This conflict is not just another dirty little war. Yemen has a broader strategic significance recognized by both the Saudis and the Iranians — and by the U.S. Yemen sits at the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, an 18-mile-wide waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean through which pass 4.7 million barrels of oil a day, along with goods heading toward Europe and the U.S. from the Persian Gulf and Asia. The Houthis have already lobbed missiles at a U.S. warship in the strait.

With Iran supporting the Houthis, a fear expressed by scholar Michael Knights (who has visited Yemen battlefields) is that over time, Iran could mold the Houthis into what he calls a “southern Hezbollah” — that is, a Gulf-based group with tactics and goals mirroring the influential Iran-allied one in Lebanon that is behind much terrorism in the region. This means that if there is ever a cease-fire and peace deal in the war, the U.S. will need to give high priority to ensuring Iran does not have unrestricted logistical and other access to Yemen. That would give Iran the wherewithal to keep the Houthis stocked with weapons and funds — maintaining their clandestine supply line to Hezbollah through Syria is a major motivation for Iran’s heavy engagement in that conflict, and Tehran almost certainly has comparable motives for its engagement in Yemen.

The U.N. mediator charged with working toward a Yemen settlement has not given up, even though his most recent attempt this month collapsed when the Houthis failed even to show up. So, this fight looks likely to drag on until the sides are exhausted or, as in Syria, one coalition prevails. In Syria, Russia and the Assad regime have come out on top. In Yemen, the Houthis and Iran appear to have the better prospects over the long term, given the enormous and costly effort the Saudi coalition has made to such little effect.

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