America Is Not an Innocent Bystander in Yemen

Washington has left a vacuum in the Middle East, letting U.S. allies do as they please—no matter how high the body count.

Yemeni mourners bury the bodies of Houthis killed in a car bomb attack which targeted a Shiite Muslim mosque in Sanaa during a group funeral procession in the Yemeni capital on July 22, 2015.


Until the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, for U.S. policymakers, Yemen was a place of khat chews, faux tourist kidnappings, and warm memories from a summer semester studying Arabic in Sanaa or Aden. The kind of quaint, vaguely amusing stories American officials and students often told about their time there tended to overshadow the country’s impenetrable, dizzying, and dangerous politics. Yemen’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, famously likened ruling the country to dancing on the heads of snakes. He would have known; he was the chief snake. Saleh was assassinated in December 2017 after he double-crossed his allies, who had previously been his enemies.

Despite the fact that Saleh was an altogether unsavory character, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations deemed him an important partner in what they called the “global war on terror.” Even by the standards of Saleh’s misrule, the situation in Yemen today is appalling. According to international organizations, the war that has engulfed the country since 2014 has killed and injured about 15,000 people, about 3 million people have been internally displaced, and more than 190,000 Yemenis have become refugees in nearby countries such as Djibouti and Somalia, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There are currently 8.4 million Yemenis at risk of famine. As in so many conflicts, the hardest hit have been children, an estimated 130 of whom die every day due to malnutrition and disease, especially cholera.

The United States finds itself in the midst of this tragedy, but it is hardly an innocent bystander. Yemen has regularly been the target of U.S. drone strikes over the last 16 years. Those operations have killed a fair number of terrorists, but there have also been plenty of mistakes that have obliterated families, maimed people attending weddings, and blown up guys in pickup trucks who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

U.S. officials have generally expressed regret and moved on to the next target. Yet, since March 2015, when Saudi Arabia entered the conflict, Washington has been a party to a new phase in the war that has brought the country to collapse. Given the scale of human suffering in Yemen, the U.S. role in supporting the Saudis and their partners, the Emiratis, has become deeply controversial. Given the scale of human suffering in Yemen, the U.S. role in supporting the Saudis and their partners, the Emiratis, has become deeply controversial.

Bipartisan legislation to cut off weapons sales to the Saudis was narrowly defeated in June 2017 and again in the spring of 2018, and the U.S. secretary of state recently overruled his staff and signed a dubious national security waiver attesting to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties. Meanwhile, Yemenis continue to die from combat, hunger, and disease. How did we get here?

Beginning in 2004, the Yemeni government (along with the Saudis) sought to destroy a militia of Zaydis, a sect within the Shiite branch of Islam, in the northern part of the country that had coalesced around the charismatic leadership of a onetime politician and religious leader, Hussein al-Houthi. His message emphasized Zaydi empowerment and the destruction of corrupt, autocratic governments.

Houthi was also a 9/11 truther who claimed that the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 were a U.S. and Zionist plot to justify the invasion of Muslim lands. He took up the Iranian revolutionary creed and expanded it, making it his militia’s rallying cry: “God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse upon the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Houthi was killed by Yemeni forces in 2004, but what became an army in his name has lived on.

Saleh’s regime eventually fell in response to prolonged popular protests that stretched from the spring of 2011 until he handed power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who stood for office in an uncontested election in February 2012. Hadi’s rule was short-lived.

Just over two years later, the Houthis marched on Sanaa, and for a while they controlled the streets but allowed the government to function. About five months later, they forced Hadi and the government to flee and started acquiring additional territory. The Saudis then intervened in this civil war. In the abstract, their argument for intervention had merit. Hadi led an internationally recognized government; the Zaydis, with whom the Saudis have been fighting on and off for a long time (though Riyadh supported them during Yemen’s civil war from 1962 to 1967), vowed to overthrow the House of Saud and began receiving assistance from Hezbollah.

The Saudis feared the “Hezbollization” of Yemen and an Iranian plot to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula. Riyadh’s appetite for war, which increased after the Houthis took over Sanaa and established links with Tehran, far outstripped its capabilities, hastening Yemen’s destruction. In some ways, the Saudis’ worst fears have come true. They are now stuck. They can neither win nor withdraw.

And in response to their brutal air campaign, the Houthis—with the help of Hezbollah and Iran—regularly launch missiles at Saudi cities.

The war between the Houthis and the Saudis is not the only fight going on in Yemen. The Emiratis—who benefited from fighting alongside the United States in Afghanistan and in other counterterrorism operations—have a far more effective military than the Saudis, but cannot field as many planes, helicopters, soldiers, and officers. The Emiratis share Saudi Arabia’s fear of Iranian meddling and have worked with what are referred to in media reports as “Yemeni government forces” to defeat the Houthis, but they have also been focused on fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), with some mostly overlooked successes. In one of those gobsmacking twists that tend to emerge in complicated battlefields with multiple actors harboring a variety of political goals, the Emiratis, Americans, and Houthis actually share an enemy in al Qaeda, but given Houthi ties to Iran and Hezbollah, forging an anti-AQAP coalition in Yemen seems out of the question.

It is unclear to what extent any of the protagonists in this lurid nightmare can achieve their goals, but the advantage currently lies with the Houthi-Hezbollah-Iran axis. The Houthis espouse a weird combination of Zaydi empowerment and aspirations reminiscent of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Needless to say, overthrowing the Saudi government and establishing a state based on the Quran is well beyond what the Houthis can achieve, though they can force the Saudis to spend even more money on a conflict that is estimated to have cost them between $100 billion and $200 billion so far, strike fear into the hearts of the Saudi population with missile attacks that might stir opposition to King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and contribute further to the global public relations disaster Riyadh has experienced by prolonging the conflict.

All of this amounts to a win for the Houthis and their friends, Hezbollah and Iran. The Saudis (and Emiratis) want to push the Iranians from the Arabian Peninsula and re-establish the internationally recognized government in Sanaa. Yet, Yemen is broken. There is no central government, except in name, and even though Hadi is internationally recognized, he is not popular with Yemenis.

The Emiratis do not want the Saudis to lose, and they want to deal a blow to AQAP, which means an open-ended commitment to Yemen. As for the United States, it wants to destroy al Qaeda, but mostly it wants the war to end, because the longer it goes on, the worse it gets for Saudi Arabia. Even though U.S. weapons manufacturers are profiting from the conflict, instability on the Arabian Peninsula stemming from a Saudi loss in Yemen would be a significant strategic setback for the United States, especially as the Trump administration signals a tougher line on Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent decision to allow the United States to continue selling weaponry and providing logistical support to Riyadh is likely based on a calculation that increasing the military pressure on the Houthis will defeat them or force them to give up. The problem is that the Houthis will effectively win simply by fighting the Saudis to a draw.

Yemen’s recent history offers another corrective about the consequences of the people power that toppled leaders around the region in 2011 and 2012, including Saleh. This is not to suggest that demands for better government like the uprising that rocked Yemen in 2011 are bad, but rather about how badly they can go awry and how identity and political culture are underappreciated factors complicating the dynamics of post-uprising transitions. Differences over what Yemen is, what it means to be Yemeni, and who gets to decide these questions are being played out in a political arena in which all the serpents are poisonous. The dynamics are similar in other post-uprising states, with different but often tragic consequences.

Most of all, it should underscore for policymakers and analysts that the old U.S.-led order in the region is dying. U.S. allies no longer call Washington before they take action in the region. The Saudis have prosecuted the war in Yemen with little regard for the United States’ views while simultaneously demanding the Pentagon’s logistical support and the uninterrupted flow of munitions. Whether rightly or wrongly, officials in Riyadh did not trust the United States to appreciate their sense of threat or support them.

Americans, deep in the trenches of a culture war, are busy burning their Nikes and obsessing over President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, and they show little appetite for the real wars raging in the Middle East, effectively leaving the region up for grabs. Sadly, a lot of people are going to get killed in the process.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. @stevenacook

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