While The World’s Attention is on Syria, The United States is being drawn into another war in Yemen. How far will it go? The conflict has so far left 7,000 dead, thousands more wounded and displaced some three million people.
The Republic of Yemen, located on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Over 80% of the population relies on humanitarian aid with unemployment at 27%. Before the present civil war, the country tried to achieve some economic progress, encouraging tourism and investment to modernize its oil and gas industries.
In power since 1990 in the unified Yemen, (after being president of the former Yemeni Arab Republic from 1978 to 1990), President Ali Abdullah Saleh has had political survival as his main goal. He has relied on the Salafists and jihadists elements to launch a major offensive against the Houthi separatists in 2004. Those same Houthis have become his allies in the war against Al-Qaeda and in the present conflict against the Saudi backed forces loyal to President Hadi. The United States has also engaged into what has fast become another quagmire in the Middle East – just one that the mainstream media has chosen to ignore. Just how deep can, or will, the USA go in Yemen?
In the wake of the political shakeups in many Arab countries that erupted in 2011, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi won a Yemeni presidential election in 2012. He replaced President Ali Abdallah Saleh, who was, along with Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi and Hosni Mubarak one of the political victims of the ‘Spring’. But the current civil war marks a separate chapter. It is a conflict between the Houthi (Shiite) rebels and forces loyal to the government of ousted President Saleh against those loyal to Hadi’s internationally recognized government. The conflict intensified in March 2015 as nine Arab and Muslim countries joined a Saudi led coalition. In fact, the Houthis had even challenged the Yemeni government in the Saleh years. Saleh’s departure, and his replacement by President Hadi, failed to restore political stability. Instead, Yemen has become a battleground between a multitude of armed groups, religious or separatist. They include the Houthi rebels from the north and AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) in the south. Aware of the deteriorating situation on the ground and the rise of AQAP – new avatar Al Qaeda in the region – the Obama administration has intervened, relying on drone strikes. But, the Americans’ Saudi allies have focused on the Houthi, or Shiite, aspect of the conflict.
The Saudis intervened militarily in Yemen with troops and equipment starting in 2004, long before the ‘Arab Spring’. They have always seen the Houthis, whose origins are in northwestern Yemen, as a threat. The Houthis, themselves, even if to a lesser extent than the Shiite minority of Saudi Arabia, felt marginalized by the Saleh government after the re-unification of Yemen in 1990. They take their name from the head of their clan, Hussein Badreddine al-Houthi. Like the Shiites of Lebanon in the 1970’s and 80’s, they have complained of having been politically, economically and religiously marginalized by the government. But, taking advantage of the post-Saleh weakness in the Central government, in September 2014 the Houthis seized the presidential palace in capital Sana’a with the complicity of some army officers. President Hadi was forced to resign in January 2015. He fled to Saudi Arabia later that year after taking refuge in Aden. As the de-facto leading Saudi military ally, the United States have grown increasingly, if reluctantly, involved in the Yemeni civil war. Until an attack in early October against Houthi fighters, the United States have played only an indirect role against them. Washington is more interested in targeting al-Qaida combatants in the south, using drones. The Houthis were accused of targeting US warships in the Red Sea. Until recently, the United States limited its role in providing logistical support for the Arab coalition – which includes an ever more reluctant Egypt as well as the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. This might include in-flight refueling for aircraft and intelligence.
The Pentagon claims the attacks were in self-defense to protect personnel and freedom of navigation in the Bab al- Mandeb strait. As for the Iran backed Houthis, their attack on US ships can be explained by their desire to show the Americans that there was a price to pay for their support of the Saudis. Apart from the ‘regional’ – or at least Muslim dimension – of the conflict. One of the big questions is just how far the Americans – who are about to face a most critical presidential election – will go in Yemen. Do they have the appetite to open a new front? President Obama will be reluctant to do so, but Hillary Clinton, who was one of the architects of the ‘Arab Spring’ might be more inclined. Fearing guilt by association, the Americans have warned the Saudis, after their airstrikes killed 140 civilians, that Washington has not given Riyadh a ‘blank check’. So the Americans are trying to keep a certain distance. But, suggestions that, as noted by The Soufan Group, that the Houthis are receiving Iranian weapons and funds – in a similar way as does the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah – will make it hard for the United States to extricate itself from the ever more multifaceted Yemeni conflict. In the years following the attacks of 11 September 2001, Yemen has taken a major importance to the Pentagon strategists. But, the attack against the USS Cole on October 12 2001 in the port of Aden was had already alarmed the US authorities. Their interest was initially al-Qaida based, but the present conflict is drawing them into much more of a Syrian style sectarian affair.
The fact that the Houthis can hit American ships, make it clear that the air, sea and land blockade that the Arab coalition has established around Yemen has failed. The war in Yemen has so far left some 7,000 dead, thousands more wounded and displaced some three million people since the Arab coalition started to intervene in March 2015 according to the World Health Organization. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the vanguard of Sunni diplomatic action work in the Yemeni crisis has leverage over the United States and the latter’s policy in the region. The GCC, since its foundation in 1979, has been to contain Iranian, and Shiite, expansion. No doubt, the GCC will try to secure more American support. But, the American public, given the strong support for former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and even Donald Trump to some extent, will not want Congress to allocate additional resources to President Obama – or his successor – to play a heavier role in the fate of Yemeni politics.
The agenda of the United States differs from that of the petro-monarchies of the GCC. Washington wants to ensure some kind of balance in Yemen between the clans and the religious factions. When the Houthis took the presidential palace in 2015, hey complicated the situation. But, the Saudis want to evict the Houthis from Yemen altogether, thwarting what they see as Iran’s plans at any price. So far, the Saudi led he coalition has failed to meet its goals. They have suffered military setbacks and reluctant coalition members – like Egypt. Pakistan did not join – it’s cooperating with Iran these days – and the UAE abandoned the coalition. The political compass in the US, meanwhile, suggests that the winner of the November presidential election will have a weak mandate for participating in foreign conflicts. At least for the early period of the new president’s tenure, the Saudis will likely have to face the Houthis in Yemen with less rather than more US support. The return of Iran in the ‘international community’ has not improved the Saudis’ prospects.