Why Does Yemen Matter?
There are several different views in the U.S. on the Yemen War depending on who is making the pronouncement. One views the U.S. as supporting a naive and destructive effort by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to restore the previous Yemeni regime. A second asserts that Yemen matters because of its geostrategic importance to the U.S. A third holds that the war is a mistake because it is a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shias that can have no positive outcomes for U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Bruce Riedel, writing in Brookings and elsewhere, has attempted to provide the basic facts about the Shia Houthi rebels, who are of course Yemeni, and why we are enmeshed in a conflict that goes back at least several generations. In a series of recent articles, he describes their origins and brings us up to date on how a seemingly backwater breakaway movement seeking autonomy in Yemen has become a surrogate of Iran in its sectarian warfare against member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
One key indicator of the strategic nature of the conflict was U.S. President Donald Trump’s reference to Tehran’s role in Yemen, in remarking that the Iran nuclear agreement placed “no limits at all on its [Iran’s] other malign behavior, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world.”
In Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s follow-up to the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, he mentioned Iran’s role in Yemen. “In Yemen, Iran’s support for the Houthi militia fuels a conflict that continues to starve the Yemeni people and hold them under the threat of terror,” Pompeo said. “The IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] has also given Houthi missiles to attack civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and to threaten international shipping in the Red Sea.” As one of the 12 conditions for restarting nuclear talks with Tehran, he noted, “Iran must also end its military support for the Houthi militia and work towards a peaceful political settlement in Yemen.”
Yet this Iranian assistance to the Houthis is seldom a news headline. Most often, reporting on the conflict highlights the humanitarian costs, with little effort to provide information on the contenders’ incentives to keep fighting. According to the United Nations, more than 10,000 people have been killed and over 53,000 injured in the conflict. This is in addition to 3 million who fled their homes along with countless others who are “living with the threat of mass starvation and disease, including the world’s worst cholera outbreak.”
With the news that U.S. Special Forces are engaged in the southern border of Saudi Arabia assisting allied troops to locate and destroy missile sites aimed at targets in the kingdom, it is vital to take a broader look at the conflict, avoiding images that feed retribution rather than reconciliation, and dissecting efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement to the war.
As one commentator noted about Senate hearings on the U.S. presence in Yemen, “Senators certainly should be asking these tough questions, yet their narrow focus resulted in a missed opportunity to ask equally important questions about the opaque U.S. mission to fight terrorism in Yemen, which the Trump administration has conducted with growing intensity.” The same article pointed out that the Houthis are but one of the terrorist groups operating in Yemen: “In late 2017, United States Central Command (CENTCOM) assessed that the Islamic State’s Yemen presence had doubled in size over the last year and that it uses the country as a hub to direct attacks against America and its allies.”
The troubling challenge of accepting a scenario in which the U.S. is a “bad actor” is the means by which the Houthis spread their mission. Just as with areas under the control of extremists in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis have adopted their tactics to bludgeon local communities into supporting militant positions, down to inculcating young people with an intense hatred for the U.S. and its allies.
Every day, according to sources on the ground and interviews conducted in liberated areas, as well as confiscated schoolbooks, classes for local youths and Houthis begin with a chant called al-sarkha, with the goal of recruiting child soldiers. It goes: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews; Islam is the answer.” It is repeated in schoolbooks, on flags, graffiti, stickers, and other media. To Houthi leaders, as with militants of past generations, Zionism and the U.S. are the key culprits manipulating Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who would otherwise be incapable of managing the war.
It is with this vivid scenario in mind that we need to balance the competing claims: The Gulf Arabs are determined to restore the previous Yemeni government, while the other side, led by Houthis trained in Iran, wants to set up their own emirate in what is now northern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia. Since Iran has become the enabler of the Houthi rebellion, the war has become an existential issue for Saudi Arabia in the spiraling conflict between Sunnis and Shias.
The pressure is on both sides to move toward a negotiated settlement, perhaps by offering and financing an autonomous Houthi area in northern Yemen. The most recent UN resolution unfortunately calls for disarming the Houthis and leaving occupied areas before talks begin. A new resolution is needed that takes into consideration the physical and psychological obstacles to overcome. Former neighbors, now at war, need strong social, economic, and humanitarian support to put the past behind them.
GCC members have already begun the process of pledging aid to rebuild Yemen. Yet the path forward is not simply to disarm and join hands. As Osamah al-Rawhani, program director of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said, “The international community could show its serious commitment to achieve peace in Yemen by working towards a new UN resolution that pressures all sides to bring this conflict to an end. Yemenis have suffered for so long.”
The longer the situation on the ground is not addressed effectively to stop hostilities, the more likely a generation of young Yemenis and Houthis will grow up to mistrust and label their counterparts as enemies. This has long-term consequences for Yemen, the Middle East, and U.S. stability and security objectives to protect the homeland and America’s allies abroad.
The Trouble with Black and White Perspectives
I spent a year in Yemen in 1974 as U.S. Peace Corps Training Director. It was a remarkable place, historically, culturally, and socially. It was the prototype of Arab tribal society. Since then, having worked in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world, I saw first-hand the contributions expatriate Yemenis played as shopkeepers, domestic help, semi-skilled labor, and builders of the local economy.
Looking today at the Houthi forces and their tactics of inculcating their ideological messages is difficult to reconcile with the gracious and accommodating people I experienced then. Usually, youth are enlisted as flag bearers, carrying on the customary role allocated by resistance movements to inoculate the young and marginalized into their ranks. When the al-sarkha is chanted, it reflects the creed of those who believe that a movement need only be in opposition to be credible. Often guided by an ephemeral vision of victory over an oppressor, it provides little in the way of a substantial prospect for peace and prosperity. Victory is all that matters.
When I lived in Yemen, it was a romantic location beyond description, with no running water, intermittent power, few Yemeni English-speakers, and the seeds of coming conflicts being sown daily. Much like Mali and the Western Sahara, there were pockets of tribes that resisted any central government role, demanding autonomy, and a fair share of the country’s few resources.
How a seemingly remote, inter-tribal conflict turned into the awful and desperate situation that is Yemen today can largely be attributed to external forces: Saudi Arabia and Iran being the most recent. They have infused their Sunni-Shia confrontation into the fiber of the life of Yemen, disrupting any opportunity for the initial agreements arrived at through a national dialogue to bear fruit. Iran enabled the Houthis to acquire the arms and discipline needed to join with former president Abdullah Ali Saleh to overthrow the democratically elected government and put an end to any aspirations for national reconciliation. They quickly took over some 70% of the territory, and, with an ISIS insurgency in the southeast of Yemen, ensure that the country would be damned into instability for some time.
This is not to excuse or justify the reactions of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Arab Coalition battling the Houthis. Those transgressions are well publicized, if sometimes exaggerated. Those Arabs will eventually go home; there really is nothing to keep them in Yemen. What is of concern is how the Houthis are changing the character of the Yemenis, so that retribution trumps reconciliation and coming generations are imbued with norms that are hardly conducive to compromise and innovation.
As recounted in a recent publication, “The Houthis originally sought an end to what they observed as efforts to marginalize Zaydi communities and beliefs; but their aspirations amplified both in magnitude and resolve in the wake of the 2011 uprisings (Yemen’s Arab Spring) and government collapse, and embraced a broader populist, dissident message to counter the establishment.” As the civil war wore on and control of territory and people moved back and forth between the combatants, the Houthis undertook re-education of the people and youth under their control both to reduce dissident voices and to build a generation of committed fighters.
They dusted off educational methods evolved from Mao’s China and Fidel’s Cuba to more recent versions adapted by Iran and Da’esh, to foster a behavioral outlook filled with an acute anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. This view encourages youth to rage against the U.S. and Israel as the primary evil attacking Yemen by manipulating Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab countries and European allies.
But extremist ideology is only one part of the complex threat from this distant conflict. Yemen has a geopolitical prominence as the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The Houthis continue to threaten maritime transit of naval forces, oil tankers, and freighters. The threat to freedom of navigation and the world’s oil and commercial goods transiting the Red Sea via the Bab al-Mandeb Strait cannot be ignored. Ironically, this is also not in Iran’s interests if it were ever to resume commercial shipping through the Suez Canal.
Iran has a long-term stake in stoking the Yemen conflict, both as the weak southern border from which to attack Saudi Arabia to expanding its footprint on the Arabian Peninsula. It continues to gain strength throughout the region via local militias trained and mobilized by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Additionally, the Arab Federation for Human Rights found that the Houthis have planted more than half a million anti-personnel mines in different parts of Yemen, not to mention mines in sea lanes.
These challenges — radicalized youth, aggression against Yemeni and Saudi civilians, missiles used against a range of land and sea targets, and the fundamental issue of what will happen to this lost generation of Yemeni young people who could be the next terrorist threats to the U.S. and Europe — argue for a more concerted effort to reduce the violence, support revised and realistic UN efforts for a national reconciliation, and provide the ingredients for long-term, inclusive and sustainable solutions.
The U.S. must bring its influence to bear on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Arab Coalition, as well as Russia, to bring the parties to the table with few preconditions. Unfortunately, according to a UN report in January, “the UN Panel of Experts suggested that neither side’s leaders have suffered enough to make them compromise—in sharp contrast to their civilian constituents.”
There is never a fortuitous time for taking risks for peace. The international community must recognize that further delay at peace-making will only wreck more lives, spread even more catastrophe among the civilian populations, and harden positions beyond compromise. The time is now for responsible actions that lessen threats emanating from the Yemen war and its consequences for the youth and people of that country.
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