Yemen in Crisis
By Sergio Valente
The United States and their allies recently declared victory in the Syrian city of Raqqah, but keen observers have been quick to recognize the cost of this victory. Many of the main population centers across Syria are in disarray; Syrians have been displaced and their homes ruined. What happened in Syria could provide a lesson to American policy-makers about the risks of aggressive military interventions and the escalation of conflict. Few Americans appear to be concerned about the Yemeni Civil War. While it lacks the attention-grabbing headlines of Syria, it is certainly an important geopolitical crisis that must be handled with care and responsibility. If Yemen is mishandled, it could lead to more violent extremism across the Middle East and the further entrenchment of radical ideology for years to come.
Last November, news of a missile being launched from Yemen to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, garnered international attention. Saudi Arabia immediately pointed a finger at Iran, who not only has been supporting the Houthi rebels, a shia group who has attempted to oust the Yemeni government and purportedly fired the missile, but seem to have created the missile itself. To casual observers this may appear to be just another escalation in the geopolitical struggle for regional hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but this one missile may have important consequences for the war-torn country of Yemen.
In order to understand the potential impact of the missile launch on Yemen, it is important to understand the context in which it occurred. The Yemeni Civil War began in 2014 when Houthi rebels, who represent the Shia minority but also receive support from some of the Sunni population in Yemen, took control of much of the northern Saada province and neighboring areas. In 2015 the Houthi’s took control of the capital and President Hadi was forced to flee the country. In response, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of nine countries, with American, British, and French support, to reinstate Mr. Hadi. The coalition was successful in securing land in the south and President Hadi was able to return from exile. However, after nearly three years of Saudi-led intervention, the country has arrived at a stalemate. The Houthi’s still control the north and central areas including the seat of the Yemeni government. The international recognized government supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies, control only the south.
The civil war has been extremely costly for the Yemeni people. Over 10,000 have died, including hundreds of children, while many more were wounded and over 70% of the population is in need of aid. Cholera outbreaks across the country, a result of damaged or poorly maintained pipes and infrastructure, have devastated many communities. There have been modest improvements in combating Cholera recently, but the humanitarian situation overall continues to deteriorate as winter approaches. Despite the severity of the humanitarian situation in Yemen it has received comparatively little coverage as it has been overshadowed by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In its attempt to achieve its strategic and military goals Saudi Arabia has inflicted a heavy toll upon Yemeni civilians, which has been cause for some to denounce the coalition.
Despite Saudi air strikes, the military fronts of the war have been relatively stable in recent months. Little ground has changed hands and none of it has been strategically significant. However, multiple reports have indicated that the Saudi-led coalition will attack on the valuable port city of Hodeidah, which is currently controlled by the Houthi’s. There is no way to confirm these reports on the ground, but Saudi and coalition military leaders met in Riyadh on October 29th and discussed such an operation. The coalition insisted that any attack on Hodeidah would need to be led by the United States. It remains unclear whether the United States wants any part of such an operation or how much support the coalition expects. So far the United States has conducted drones strikes against Al-Qaeda and ISIS and supplied intelligence to Saudi Arabia, but has stopped short of playing a direct role itself in the fight against the Houthi’s.
However, this might all change after the recent missile attack against Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has already closed off all land, sea, and air borders with Yemen, although it is allowing humanitarian resources in, and it is unclear if there will be further escalation. This may be the tipping point that galvanized Saudi Arabia into striking at Hodeidah. It seems unlikely that Saudi Arabia will back down as a result of the Houthi attack; there rhetoric in response to the missile has only escalated and Saudi Arabian foreign policy in general has become more aggressive, especially as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s influence grows.
Seizing Hodeidah would be an important victory for the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi’s government. It is a large city with access to international trade and importantly foreign aid. But some fear that the costs could outweigh the benefits. In fact, one analyst worries it could cause the situation in Yemen to deteriorate further. Maged Al-Madhaji, an analyst from the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies fears that the United States and the Saudi-led coalition may target the port of Hodeidah. Al-Madhaji cautions that such an attack would be a strategic blunder of massive proportions. Hodeidah is the entry point of a large portion of the humanitarian aid the northern Yemeni populations relies on and an attack would cut them off from it. It would also harden the resolve of the Houthi and give them fodder for propaganda. The Houthis could cast themselves as the noble defenders of a foreign invasion and point to the Yemeni citizens who would inevitably become part of the collateral damage of the attack. The end result would be a situation in which peace is forestalled and the conflict continues with a political solution even further out of reach.
But the conflict doesn’t need to escalate. There have been recent divisions between the Houthi rebels and remnants of the now-deceased former Yemeni president Saleh who collaborated with them to govern the north. While it would be a stretch to predict that this disunity could lead to peace, it could provide the basis for a ceasefire and a gradual return to stability, and eventually, perhaps a long-term a political solution. Saudi Arabia could also leverage the recent Houthi-attack as an opportunity to achieve a political solution. Given their recent rhetoric it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will elect to follow such a peaceful path, but it is the role of their coalition members, which includes not only the United States but also Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and others, to push for a long-term solution to Yemen rather than a military escalation that will deteriorate the situation for the Yemeni people and breed further discontent and desperation.