External Actors Complicate Resolving the Yemeni Conflict

With the Yemeni war dragging on, there appears to be no resolution in sight. Part of the problem is that there is no willingness to compromise legitimate rule on the part of the Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, tenuously ensconced in Aden, and the Houthi insurgents who rebelled against Hadi’s government and still control the capital city of Sanaa as well as much of the northern part of the country. The impasse, however, largely has to do with the conflicting agendas of external powers which, for various reasons, want competing outcomes to the conflict.

Until the key players in the conflict—Yemeni and non-Yemeni alike—are brought to the negotiating table and compelled to compromise and iron out their differences, a cessation of hostilities is unlikely. This means that in the short term at least, the long-suffering Yemeni people will continue to bear the brunt of this conflict, which has become a monumental humanitarian disaster.

A Much-Reduced Grand Coalition

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia assembled a large coalition of Sunni Muslim states to support the embattled Hadi government that had fled to the southern Yemeni port city of Aden. Their goal was to fight the Houthi rebels who had taken control of Sanaa and formed an alliance with the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and troops loyal to him. The Saudis painted this complicated struggle as essentially a conflict between the Sunni Muslim world against Shia Iran, alleging that the Houthis were Iranian clients and that Tehran was attempting to destabilize not only Yemen and Saudi Arabia but the larger Arab world (notwithstanding that the Houthis follow the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam, a form different from what is practiced in Iran).

The UAE appears to want influence over the southern Yemeni ports to control the sea lanes in the Arabian Sea.

In all, about 22 nations joined this coalition to launch Operation Decisive Storm but the military campaign has thus far proven to be anything but decisive. Some of the countries in this coalition, like Egypt, initially contributed air and naval assets deployed off the Yemeni coast to protect the vital shipping lanes through the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait (connecting the Arabian and Red Seas). However, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, none of the coalition members committed ground troops to the conflict, wishing not to get bogged down in a quagmire (the unhappy experience of Egypt’s involvement in the Yemeni civil war of the 1960s probably weighed heavily on their minds). After a time, even those countries that flew some air sorties, like Jordan, ceased their activities. It seemed that many countries that initially joined the coalition did so to show solidarity with Riyadh in order to receive largesse. At present, the grand coalition has been effectively reduced to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both have continued to commit air and ground troops to the conflict, though the Saudis have generally concentrated on air strikes.

Diverging Saudi and Emirati Agendas

Although the Saudis and Emiratis share a strong antipathy toward Iran and see the Houthis as Iranian clients who should be defeated, the two countries are now on different trajectories in Yemen. The Saudis not only support President Hadi but also have relations with the Islah Party, Yemen’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood which is allied to Hadi’s government. Saudi relations with the party go back years because it provided the kingdom with a political base in Yemen. By contrast, the Emiratis have soured on the Hadi government in large part because of the links to Islah—this fits the UAE’s regional position of opposing the Brotherhood in a number of Arab countries. At the same time, the UAE has cultivated links with southern Yemeni secessionists who yearn for a separate country once again. Abu Dhabi has not only supported the Southern Transitional Council, made up of pro-secession elements, but it has reportedly pursued relations with various southern tribes through generous monetary payments. The UAE appears to want influence over the southern Yemeni ports to control the sea lanes in the Arabian Sea; in fact, the Yemeni island of Socotra, in that same body of water, is now believed to house a UAE military base.

In the meantime, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have used their air and naval assets to blockade seaports and airports controlled by the Houthis. For a time, the UAE was reportedly even training a force at a base in Eritrea that would possibly stage a sea-to-land capture of Houthi-controlled Hodeida Port on Yemen’s western coast. Such a military operation has been put off, probably because of the possible adverse international reaction to it, as Hodeida is a major conduit for humanitarian supplies (when they are allowed to enter). Indeed, the Saudi-Emirati squeeze of the Houthis, plus the thousands of Saudi bombing raids on Houthi-controlled territories, have led to a humanitarian disaster that the United Nations and international human rights groups have characterized as unprecedented in recent decades.

Iran’s motive is to keep the Saudis busy in their backyard and to demonstrate to Arab Shia groups in the region that it can come to their assistance when needed.

Nonetheless, it appears that Abu Dhabi’s strategy in Yemen is not only to “defeat Iran” and bolster support for the UAE and its influence among southern Yemenis (which also includes targeting of al-Qaeda elements in that region), but to maintain a long-term presence in the Horn of Africa. The UAE has concluded agreements with Eritrea and Somalia for the enhancement of seaports and airports in those countries that would allow Emirati forces long-term access. Only time will tell how the UAE’s recent canceling of its mission to rehabilitate Somalia’s military will affect Abu Dhabi’s plans in the horn region.

Iran’s Effective but Low-cost Involvement

Iran has been aiding the Houthis with arms and munitions for the past several years, though the extent of this assistance remains controversial. Some reports have suggested that such support is not very substantial, while the Saudis and the Trump Administration claim the opposite. In fact, in late 2017, Trump officials publicly displayed what they said were fragments of an Iranian missile that the Houthis fired toward Riyadh as “proof” of this military aid. But because Yemen was awash in weapons to begin with, and the chaos of the 2011-2012 period allowed various armed factions to obtain them by raiding military arsenals or purchasing weapons on the black market, it is probably safe to assume that the bulk of the Houthi arms were from Yemeni stocks. Iran has probably not deployed many of its own advisors to Yemen, but there have been reports that some Lebanese Hezbollah operatives have gone there at Iran’s behest to assist the Houthis—though the extent of Hezbollah’s help is not known.

Iran’s motive is to keep the Saudis busy in their backyard and to demonstrate to Arab Shia groups (of whatever religious persuasion) in the region that it can come to their assistance when needed. This is part of Iran’s regional strategy of maintaining a foothold in a number of Arab countries and serves to keep the Saudis off-balance. Although Iran has denied that it is providing military assistance to the Houthis, it is probably not too upset that the Saudis are hyping up the Iranian role in Yemen because it shows Saudi Arabia as nervous, which means Iran’s strategy is working.

Iran is also fortunate in that the Houthis have proven to be very tough fighters. Despite three years of intense bombardment from the Saudi and Emirati air forces, and the breakup of the Houthi-Saleh alliance in late 2017 during which some Saleh loyalists crossed over to the Saudis, the Houthis have not lost much ground overall. They still control substantial parts of northern Yemen, including Sanaa, and are still holding onto parts of Taiz despite several offensive operations by the pro-Hadi forces to take the entire city. As long as the Houthis control substantial territory in Yemen, the Saudis will see them as a threat, and that all works to Iran’s advantage because the Saudis are then precluded from shifting attention and forces in the direction of the Arabian Gulf.

Iran may also want to keep the Saudis tied up in Yemen as a way to embarrass Crown Prince (and Defense Minister) Mohammed bin Salman. Although he seems to want to institute needed reforms in the kingdom, bin Salman has been the architect of the Yemen war and has taken a very strident anti-Iran line, even to the point of denigrating some of the core beliefs of the Shia. The longer the war drags on—costing the Saudis an estimated $5 to $6 billion a month—the more the crown prince looks like he is engaged in an expensive military misadventure.

Washington’s Complex Interests

US support for the Saudi-led effort in Yemen started under President Barack Obama’s administration, which wanted to show the Saudis that it still had their back despite tensions over the Iran nuclear deal. The Obama Administration provided the Saudis with air refueling, logistics, and intelligence for their operations. However, by August 2016, the high number of civilian casualties in Yemen and the concern that the Yemeni people were associating these casualties with the United States caused Washington to scale back its assistance to the Saudis, withdrawing a planning team in Saudi Arabia that had been helping to coordinate the coalition’s air campaign. In December 2016, President Obama also held up the sale of precision-guided munitions to the kingdom. There was likely US concern that the coalition’s fight against the Houthis was allowing Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain ground in parts of southern Yemen.

Unless the Houthis are defeated militarily, the humanitarian crisis is only going to worsen.

Despite these concerns, the Obama Administration remained critical of the Houthi-Iran alliance. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry even took time out of the nuclear negotiations in 2015 to

admonish Iran for sending weapons to the Houthis, and after the Houthis fired missiles at a US naval ship in the Red Sea (though missing their target), the US military destroyed three Houthi coastal radar sites in October 2016.

Whatever strategic misgivings the Obama Administration had in aiding the Saudis in the Yemeni conflict were swept aside by the Trump Administration. A large part of Trump’s strategy in the Middle East has been to embrace the Saudis, and that includes their involvement in Yemen and the narrative about substantial Iranian assistance going to the Houthis. The Trump Administration resumed full-fledged support for the Saudi air campaign and lifted the hold on precision-guided munitions, though one unnamed official recently stated that the US effort did not include target selection. The only major concern was the issue of the Saudi blockade of ports, which has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the country. President Trump is said to be moved by pictures, especially those of suffering children. In December 2017, he reportedly told the Saudis to lift their blockade of Houthi-controlled sea and air ports to allow food and medicine to enter the country and reiterated this message to Mohammed bin Salman during the Saudi crown prince’s visit to the White House in March 2018. Nevertheless, these humanitarian concerns have not decreased the Trump Administration’s support for the Saudi air bombardment of the Houthis.

One interesting development that could possibly be a check on Trump’s support for the Saudi-led campaign is the growing concern among many members of Congress that the United States, by its military support for the Saudis, is complicit in the fighting that has produced a high number of civilian casualties in Yemen. In March 2018, a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the Senate calling for an end to US support for the Saudi campaign by invoking the War Powers Resolution. Defense Secretary James Mattis, on behalf of the Trump Administration, argued against the resolution, stating that while he was also concerned about the humanitarian crisis, he believed that ending US military support for Saudi Arabia would actually increase civilian casualties, jeopardize support for counterterrorism operations, and reduce influence with the Saudis. The resolution lost by a vote of 55 to 44, but the large number of votes in its favor suggests that Congress is increasingly skeptical of giving carte blanche to the Saudis in this conflict. If the Democrats win control of Congress in the November 2018 mid-term elections, such a resolution would likely resurface and could potentially result in a positive tally.

Recommendations for US Policy

It is evident that the role of external players in the Yemeni conflict is exacerbating the dire humanitarian crisis in the country—over 10,000 deaths, 8 million people facing famine, and a cholera epidemic that has affected at least one million people. The Trump Administration needs to realize that unless the Saudi coalition’s military objective of defeating the Houthis is achieved, the humanitarian crisis is only going to worsen. Hence, it should use its influence to propel the Saudis and Emiratis to come to the negotiating table with the Houthis and the Hadi government to iron out a power-sharing arrangement. At the same time, Washington should implore Abu Dhabi not to press for secession in the south of the country. Yemen has enough problems without adding secession to the mix; moreover, a unified Yemen would be in a better position to deal with terrorism threats emanating from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Such negotiations could be held in Oman, which has hosted Yemeni peace talks before and is not a party to the conflict. Ideally, Iran would be invited too, as it is part of the problem. Given the poor ties between Iran and the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, however, that is probably not realistic. And if the Trump administration pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran might not attend such talks in any case—though negotiations could still proceed without Iran’s presence, and the Houthis might even prefer Iran’s non-attendance to show that they are an independent Yemeni group and serve as no one’s client. To be sure, such negotiations will not be easy, especially as the Saudis would have to admit that after three years of intervention, their efforts to defeat the Houthis have not succeeded. But a negotiated settlement could represent a win-win situation that preserves human life and rights in Yemen and spare Saudi Arabia additional international criticism. US policy-makers would indeed be well advised to emphasize that point to their Saudi counterparts.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC