Yemen: An Escapable Disaster - Why the United States Should Avoid Military Intervention
Andrew Byers and Faith Stewart
Yemen currently faces a multi-dimensional crisis that represents both a national catastrophe embroiling Yemen’s neighbors and a microcosm of the problems existing throughout the greater Middle East. Yemen’s central government has collapsed entirely, resulting in a failed state that has yielded large swathes of territory to non-state actors. A humanitarian crisis has emerged out of the country’s civil war, with a famine affecting millions, a cholera epidemic, and approximately 14,000 civilian deaths. Other powers in the region have intervened, with Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller Gulf states supporting one faction and Iran another. However, rather than bringing about an end to the current crisis, these interventions have only fueled the civil war with endless streams of arms and military operations. Other factions, including a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) and an Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have also established strongholds in Yemen through which they control territory and conduct attacks.
Just as Syria’s ongoing civil war and ensuing humanitarian crisis have had global implications, Yemen’s current crisis and internal collapse affect both its immediate neighbors and regional prospects for peace, order, and stability. There are virtually no good options for further outside intervention in Yemen by the United States or other parties. The United States has no significant interests in Yemen, and no prospects for successfully bringing about a peaceful resolution to the current conflicts there or the creation of a stable, post-conflict civil society. The United States and the international community could, and should, help to alleviate some of the civilian suffering inside Yemen—though even purely humanitarian efforts will be made all the more difficult by the ongoing struggle for control of Yemen, much like the situation in Somalia in the early 1990s. However, forcibly establishing a functioning central government and peaceful civil society is well beyond the capacity of any outside power, making the United States’ “least bad” policy option a limited, solely humanitarian effort.
Background and Recent Events
Yemen’s current crisis began in February 2015 when the Houthi-led Supreme Revolutionary Committee forced the resignation of the internationally-recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthis are a religious-political movement that took over the government in Sana’a with the support of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis now control most of northern Yemen and are opposed by the Saudi-led military coalition that supports the restoration of Hadi’s government. While the United States has purportedly provided intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-Hadi coalition, Iran is believed to be aiding the Houthis, providing them with cash, drugs (used for funding), and arms shipments, including anti-tank guided missiles, armed drones, and surface-to-surface missiles smuggled into Yemen by sea.
On November 4, November 30, and again on December 19, the Houthis launched Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia. Although the missiles were either intercepted or had no significant effect, Saudi Arabia has chosen to view the attacks as a declaration of war by the Houthis’ Iranian sponsor. In response to the November 4 launch, Saudi Arabia blockaded all of Yemen’s ports for a week. The blockade exponentially impacted Yemen’s already devastating humanitarian crisis, leaving 900,000 people without access to Red Cross-supplied chlorine tablets intended to combat the cholera crisis. Despite Saudi Arabia’s partial reopening of ports, the effects of the blockade will continue to impact the nation’s civilians.
Recent reports have claimed that Saudi and UAE missile defense systems—Patriot missiles purchased from the United States—have already intercepted more than 100 missiles launched from Yemen since 2015, suggesting that the missile problem may be even larger than previously believed. The Iranian missiles have been the subject of much discussion by the Trump administration in recent months, which some have speculated is intended to shift the domestic and international narrative from the humanitarian aspects of the conflict—and the Saudi blockade of ports—to Iranian arms deliveries.
The ongoing conflict in Yemen has hit civilians especially hard. Already, 8,670 Yemenis (60% civilian) have been killed during the conflict, with nearly 50,000 more injured. According to an October 2017 United Nations report, 13,920 civilian casualties have occurred in the last six months, with more than 5,000 dead. Additionally, the United Nations’ World Food Program estimates that seventeen million Yemenis are at risk of starvation, with only 4.5 million civilians being provided with full rations by humanitarian relief agencies. A cholera epidemic has also emerged, infecting an estimated 900,000 people since April 2017 and killing over 2,000.
Intervention by Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf states has worsened this humanitarian disaster rather than mitigating it. Saudi Arabia has led the military intervention and, following an early November missile attack by the Houthis, closed all of Yemen’s air and sea ports for a week. This effectively eliminated Yemen’s access to foreign aid and severely hampered the capacity of groups like the World Health Organization to bring medicine and other humanitarian relief supplies into the country. Following international intervention on behalf of the millions of Yemenis affected by the blockade, Saudi Arabia reopened those ports controlled by Hadi’s internationally recognized government. Most recently, again after desperate international urging, Saudi Arabia has agreed to allow aid to the rebel-held port of Hudaydah and the Sana’a airport. Further, while the Saudis promised Yemen $227 million in famine relief in 2017, their contribution to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)’s Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP) as of November 12, 2017 totals only $58.3 million, leaving Yemen’s food security and agriculture aid at less than half of OCHA’s minimum requirements.
The situation in Yemen is a perfect storm of man-made disasters: a bloody civil war fought by multiple, mutually-antagonistic factions fueled by outside military interventions and geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the rise of powerful non-state groups, including the Islamic State and an Al-Qaeda franchise; mass displacement of civilians; and starvation and epidemics resulting from the continued conflict. No end to the crisis is in sight, and humanitarian interventions to date have been both minimal and ineffective at alleviating human suffering.
Factions in Yemen
The Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh
The Houthi movement was founded in 1992 as a religious-political movement in Northern Yemen to protect Zaidism, a sect of Shi’ism, against Western and Sunni influence. The goals of the group were predominately political, focusing on the advancement of Zaidi rights under the government of President Saleh. While the group has become radicalized since its founding, as recently as 2013, a Houthi spokesperson argued that the group was still part of a political, rather than religious conflict. In the same interview, the spokesperson indicated that the Houthis were not primarily motivated by religion and hoped instead to achieve a civil state with a modern democracy in Yemen.
In 2004, the Houthis participated in the rebellion against then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, on the grounds of self-defense. President Saleh, originally the president of North Yemen, was the first president of a combined North and South Yemen. A moderate politician, Saleh focused on strengthening ties with Western states in order to combat terrorism. Houthi participation in the 2004 rebellion against Saleh was in part due to the perceived increased Western influence over Yemen’s Zaidi and Shi’a populations under Saleh’s leadership. The conflict continued for six years before a ceasefire was called in 2010. However, the Houthis participated in the Yemeni Revolution the following year, reflecting Arab Spring influences. When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered a peace deal that divided Yemen into six regions, the Houthis rejected the political compromise that followed, arguing that a dialogue imposed by external forces could not be in the best interest of the Yemeni people. Despite a lack of support from the Houthi movement, the peace deal did oversee the transition of the Yemeni presidency from Saleh to Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Due to its rejection of the peace deal, the Houthi movement remained politically active and began to acquire territory in Northern Yemen in 2014. At this point, the Houthis had joined forces with the ousted Saleh and his supporters, forming an alliance of convenience aimed at removing President Hadi from power. Following capture of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, in late 2014, the Houthis pressured President Hadi into a power-sharing deal, eventually forcing his resignation in early 2015 and dissolving Yemen’s Parliament. Although the group initially negotiated with the former president and other political factions, these negotiations quickly soured and unrest and political divisions were reignited.
By August 2017, fissures emerged in the long-standing alliance between former president Saleh and the Houthis, with speeches made by both groups accusing the other of jeopardizing the movement’s success against Hadi’s government. Since then, disagreements worsened, with fighting breaking out between the Houthis and supporters of Saleh, culminating in the death of Saleh on December 4.
Today the Houthis remain a major faction in Yemen’s civil war. The group continues to press against Sunni and Western influence, arguing that its actions are for the promotion of Zaidi welfare and rights within the state, and receive significant support from Iran.
Iran, as it has elsewhere, seeks to exploit existing political and religious fissures in the greater Middle East for its own gain in Yemen. Such divisions exist even within the GCC, such as the growing tensions between Qatar and Oman on one side and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Iran has previously capitalized on these divides, steadily expanding its influence abroad while simultaneously destabilizing the region. This has had the effect of creating a geographic corridor of Iranian involvement that bisects the Persian Gulf and Levant, stretching across Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Much of Iran’s influence throughout the region has had a concrete military focus, with direct support to various Shi’ite militant groups via Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Al Quds force, which have trained insurgent and paramilitary forces throughout the region and have sometimes operated alongside them. Iran has also deployed Iranian “volunteers” to various conflict zones, and has acted by proxy through Hezbollah. Additionally, it has provided considerable financing and direct military aid to various non-state actors in the region, as demonstrated by its provision of land attack and anti-ship missiles to the Houthis. These anti-ship missiles could become a major threat to shipping that passes through the Suez Canal, while the land attack missiles have been used to target Saudi Arabia, further exacerbating conflict between intervening foreign powers.
Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and Allies: Saudi Arabia, the Smaller Gulf States, and the United States
Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was Vice President under Saleh from 1994 until 2012. In 2012, Hadi was elected to a two-year transitional presidency following Saleh’s resignation in the wake of the mass protests as part of the Arab Spring of the previous year. As the transitional leader, Hadi was faced with the immense task of addressing factional grievances, while simultaneously combatting the security challenges that were rising within the state. Years of protests and civil war had resulted in a massive rise in violence and lawlessness, and terrorism had grown in its wake. Arguing that he “did not take over a nation,” but rather “a capital where gunshots [were] continuous,” Hadi was also tasked with shifting Yemen’s government to a federal system and drafting a new constitution. These monumental tasks were not accomplished within his initial two-year presidency, and a mandate extended Hadi’s leadership for another year. Following the expiration of the mandate, Hadi remained in power, ostensibly to continue enacting the political reforms that his government had begun. However, in 2014, the Houthi group captured the capital city of Sana’a, forcing Hadi to negotiate with the rebel faction. The following January, President Hadi was pressured into submitting his resignation.
Hadi then turned to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for support. Fearing Iranian influence through the Houthi movement, Saudi Arabia quickly formed a coalition aimed at returning Hadi to power. The members of the coalition include the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, and Sudan, with the United States and Great Britain providing intelligence and logistical support. The Saudi-led coalition has bombarded Houthi strongholds in Northern Yemen, making little progress against the rebel faction but placing 70% of Yemen’s civilian population in need of humanitarian aid. The goal of the Saudi coalition is to mitigate Iranian influence by unifying Yemen under Hadi’s rule. However, peace talks in the past two years have failed, with Hadi arguing that the Houthis must surrender completely in order for the talks to succeed and the Houthis refusing to concede without a peace deal in place.
The Islamic State
As the Islamic State has lost territory in Syria and Iraq, it has heightened its focus on Yemen. The group has taken advantage of Yemen’s relative lawlessness to establish a stronghold in central Yemen. The group initially operated throughout both the southern and central regions, but the Saudi coalition has effectively eliminated its presence in the south. However, because the Saudi coalition does not reach into the al Bayda governorate in central Yemen, ISIS has retained its presence and operating capabilities there.
ISIS primarily acts alongside Sunni tribesmen and AQAP against the Shi’ite Houthis and has conducted attacks against Shi’ite mosques in the Houthi-held capital of Sana’a. The organization has also used Yemen’s chaos and lack of governance to recruit and train jihadis without interference. Further, ISIS has used central Yemen as a safe haven in which to plot and carry out anti-Western attacks, much as al-Qaeda did in the failed state of Afghanistan in the 1990s. As the world knows, al-Qaeda’s unhindered growth in Afghanistan ultimately led to the devastating World Trade Center attacks on 9/11/2001, and Yemen is currently providing a similar environment for ISIS and AQAP.
The United States began targeting ISIS’s growing presence in Yemen with its first drone strikes against the branch in mid-October 2017. This followed an ISIS propaganda video showing recruits graduating from a training camp located in central Yemen. The seriousness of ISIS’s growth in Yemen has also been highlighted by unprecedented economic sanctions placed on ISIS and al-Qaeda leaders in the region. The sanctions target AQAP financier Adil Abduh Fari Uthman al-Dhubhani as well as two top ISIS officials, Radwan Muhammad Husayn Ali Qanan and Khalid al-Marfadi. Implemented by a coalition of Arab states and the United States, these sanctions demonstrate a new level of commitment to eliminate terrorist financing in Yemen through the newly established Terrorist Financing Targeting Center. Despite both its losses in other Middle Eastern states and continued counterterrorism efforts by the United States, ISIS remains a prominent threat in Yemen. Many of its supporters have been observed seeking new opportunities for jihad in places like Libya and Yemen in recent months.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
AQAP remains prominent in Yemen, while also remaining committed to the overarching Al-Qaeda goal of attacking the West. AQAP has been one of Al-Qaeda’s most active franchises, responsible for both the underwear bomber (December 2009) and the failed printer cartridge bomb plot (October 2010), among other operations against Western targets. Moreover, at least one of the terrorists who participated in the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015 received training from AQAP, and the group claimed responsibility for the entire attack. Just as Osama bin Laden emphasized the importance of alliances with local political regimes during his time in Sudan and Afghanistan, AQAP has successfully ingratiated itself with the local population of Yemen. This approach differs greatly from that of ISIS, which has sought to supplant local governments with its own caliphate. AQAP has worked hard to ally with a number of Yemeni tribes, which has allowed the group to build, maintain, and even expand its territory and sanctuary in Yemen. Due to its success, this approach is likely to be adopted by other Al-Qaeda affiliates throughout the greater Middle East.
AQAP has also maintained its influence in Yemen by joining Yemen’s Popular Resistance (a pro-Hadi group) in a Sunni coalition against the Houthi Shi’ites. While this has allowed AQAP to continue its efforts against Yemen’s Shi’ites, their existence within the ranks of the Yemeni government forces has complicated foreign engagement in the region. The Saudi-led coalition and the United States have supported the pro-Hadi forces, thereby supporting AQAP by proxy. Further, while pro-government leaders are willing to protect the unity of the Popular Resistance forces, they simultaneously work to hide connections with AQAP in order to avoid the international sanctions in place against Al-Qaeda. The alliance between AQAP and pro-Hadi forces exemplifies the fluid lines between friend and enemy that exist in regions where tribalism and religious factionalism reign, and inhibit Western efforts to assert modern political systems.
In addition to a civil war and foreign intervention, Yemen is also plagued by a history of tribalism that has consistently inhibited the establishment of a strong central government with popular sovereignty and a sense of national identity. Indeed, some analysts have argued that the locus of Yemen’s troubles is to be found primarily in its tribal structure rather than the presence of groups like ISIS or AQAP, or even the Saudi-Iranian competition. Yemeni tribalism is often suggested as the major reason why Yemen has never had a strong central government that enjoys popular legitimacy. The Ottomans struggled for decades to retain control over Yemen, and despite their efforts to appease local tribesmen, inter-tribal competition ultimately doomed Ottoman rule. Britain likewise attempted to control Yemen, a feat only partially managed through continual negotiations with Yemeni tribes.
Today, there are three main tribal confederations in Yemen that each consist of tribes, clans, and extended families. The Bakhil and the Hashid occupy northern Yemen, while the third largest confederation, the Madhaj, occupies central Yemen. In contrast, southern Yemen is more secularized due to its history with socialism prior to unification with the north. While the Bakhil and the Hashid represent two wings of Zaidism, the Hashid have clashed with the Houthis (also claiming to support Zaidism) after a fallout between its leading clan and then President Saleh. The conflict illustrates that while the tribal confederations are sometimes aligned with the efforts of other political groups in Yemen, they diverge in their goals and aspirations for the future of their homeland.
These tribes represent both a constraint on the creation of a strong central government—Yemen has never really had such a thing—and an impediment to the crafting of a unified civil society. The groups’ divergent interests and goals also serve as a reminder that a simple Western model of governance and society cannot simply be implemented in Yemen. As has been demonstrated in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan, some new model will have to be applied in Yemen—one that addresses the complexity of tribalism within the modern political environment.
Yemen is, and will likely remain for the foreseeable future, a humanitarian disaster. There are no easy answers to transform war-torn Yemen into a functioning civil society with a unified government capable of building and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to provide basic human services and security on a national scale. This is a conflict that cannot be “won” by either internal factions or intervening powers—including the United States, even if it wished to—without a massive degree of “nation-building” for which the United States has little capacity or interest. Only the Yemenis themselves can resolve their internal differences and attempt to build a cohesive nation-state, though their conflicts are long-running and likely intractable. Further, nation-building’s failures in much of the Middle East has made it an increasingly unappealing option for the international community; this is a prospect well beyond the capacity of the United States, the Saudi coalition, or the United Nations. Regardless of how the current conflict ends—and to be clear, no end is in sight or easily conceivable—mere conflict termination without a concerted and long-lasting stabilization effort would only extend the current humanitarian crisis. As a result, the United States does not have many good policy options.
The United States could increase its military support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, perhaps leveraging a greater degree of U.S. airpower, special operations, and intelligence capabilities to force the Houthis to agree to a ceasefire or make concessions that could lead to an end to the current round of fighting. However, this outcome would likely produce only a temporary cessation of hostilities or give AQAP and ISIS time to build their strength unchallenged while continuing their attacks and destabilization efforts.
While ending the current military conflict would be a considerable victory—and an absolutely critical step to beginning to address the humanitarian aspects of the crisis—a military victory alone is inadequate. Some sort of power-sharing arrangement that brings Hadi, the Houthis, Saleh’s former supporters, and the major tribal leaders into a coalition government would be required to produce a stable, long-lasting central government for Yemen, but is unlikely. Additionally, a ceasefire that temporarily ends the bulk of the fighting in Yemen but leaves the country divided would only delay Yemen’s recovery, and the unresolved issues could even make future conflicts more likely.
The fissures that emerged in the Houthi-Saleh alliance this year reveal the transitory nature of alliances within the region. This division is also likely to further complicate a potential peace deal in Yemen, as each faction has divergent goals and aims, and escalated violence will only prolong or exacerbate Yemen’s already devastating humanitarian crisis. Additionally, as fractures among allied groups further diminish even the weak governance provided by rebel authorities, AQAP and ISIS will be able to continue their expansion in these newly ungoverned areas. The United States has already launched more than 100 missiles against AQAP this year and launched its first missile strikes against ISIS in Yemen in mid-October. The increasing number of strikes against the two organizations indicates both that the groups wield an unacceptably large amount of influence in the region, and that the United States is looking to intervene against their unchallenged growth.
In recent weeks, with the winding down of anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria, the Trump administration has increasingly focused its attention—and rhetoric—on Yemen, with a particular focus on Iranian arms shipments. It is important that the United States not take on any new military commitments in the region, given that America’s longest war—Afghanistan—remains unresolved, and by some measures is deteriorating; Iraq’s future remains uncertain, as do Kurdish ambitions for an autonomous state; and Syria remains embroiled in a civil war that does not appear to be ending any time soon, not to mention the ongoing geopolitical crisis with North Korea. Aside from these important concerns, the Trump administration must recall the historical baggage of past failures in nation-building in the Middle East. As a result of failed nation-building efforts in the past, no American administration should embrace a long-term, open-ended, nation-building enterprise in the Middle East.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia and its local allies should learn from past American experiences and failures in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and proceed with the understanding that a new, post-conflict Yemeni government must be capable of planning and executing its own national recovery and development efforts, and any government that does not meet this standard should be considered a failure. International aid must be contingent on Yemen successfully making the kinds of changes necessary for the creation of a lasting, unified, fully-functioning civil society and government. In the area of international aid, relationships with Yemen’s neighbors, and Saudi Arabia in particular, should be leveraged to help alleviate the current humanitarian crisis. Restrictions and contingency on aid are necessary, as recent scholarship has demonstrated that foreign aid with no political, military, or economic reform conditions has a poor track record in influencing client governments to make the internal changes necessary to carry out a successful counterinsurgency.
The conflict in Yemen began as a civil war perpetuated by a variety of internal groups attempting to address political, economic, and social grievances. However, foreign intervention has exacerbated the local conflict and transformed it into one with significant regional and global implications. External involvement has only complicated the multidimensional conflict, and the intertwining of modern politics and the region’s historical tribalism makes a cooperative resolution improbable.
With Afghanistan and Iraq as recent examples of the difficulties of fusing tribalism with modernity, the United States cannot hope to achieve significant success in Yemen without committing to a large-scale intervention and nation-building mission. However, such an influx of foreign intervention is likely to aggravate the conflict, rather than resolve it. The United States should not commit itself to such an endeavor.
If Yemen continues on this trajectory, it is likely to be a mirror of Afghanistan and Somalia in the 1990s. Lawlessness and lack of governance will provide both a safe haven for terrorism and a disenfranchised public from which to draw new recruits. Therefore, it is in the best interest of both the United States and the global community to remain involved and invested in the efforts to combat Yemen’s disastrous humanitarian crisis. However, given the lack of politically prudent or advantageous policy options for the United States, it should strenuously avoid military intervention in Yemen. There is little that can be done to bring about an end to Yemen’s civil war or to prevent Saudi and Iranian competition for influence there; direct intervention would prove both disastrous and ineffective. However, the United States can still do some good in Yemen by encouraging the international community to ease the suffering of Yemeni civilians. This would help the most vulnerable members of Yemen’s population and curb opportunities for radicalization and jihadist recruitment among Yemeni displaced persons. Sadly, this is perhaps the only good that the United States can currently do in Yemen.
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