Secretary Mattis claimed that ending U.S. combat support would allow the Houthis to use ballistic missiles to threaten “vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea.” Alleged proof of this was an earlier Houthi missile attack on an American warship. That attack led other administration officials to express concern about navigational freedom, especially in the Bab-el-Mandeb waterway.
But Yemenis attacked the U.S. vessel because Washington is helping their killers, Saudi Arabia. Before this war, Houthis did not target Americans and they had no reason to. In peace the Yemenis rely on Gulf trade and they would never want to impede it. Yet now the Saudi-led coalition has blockaded Yemen and its access to the Gulf. By internationalizing the war Riyadh has also internationalized the weapons. As U.S. Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan complained and noted, previously “there was no explosive boat that existed in the Yemeni inventory.”
MbS similarly tried to paint Yemenis as aggressors. He told 60 Minutes that the Houthis were “conducting military maneuvers right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders.” Suggesting that Yemeni rebels, deeply involved in a bitter civil war, planned to invade Saudi Arabia was an obvious fantasy and wouldn’t make sense. Saudi and U.S. officials also cited missile attacks on Riyadh as justification for the war—yet the Yemenis were responding to repeated the bombing of their capital of Sanaa and killing of thousands of civilians. When striking back, Houthi leader Abdul-malik al-Houthi announced: “As long as you continue to target Sanaa we will strike Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.” It should be clear that someone cannot retroactively justify an invasion just because the victims fought back.
Yet, Iran has become an all-purpose boogeyman with which to justify Saudi and American military involvement. For instance, MbS told 60 minutes that “The Iranian ideology penetrated some parts of Yemen” and “Iran is playing a harmful role.” This from a regime which pushed radical Wahhabism onto Yemen for years. Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., contended: “Iran must not be allowed to create a Hezbollah-like proxy in Yemen through the Houthis.” Yet it was his nation’s aggression that pushed Abu Dhabi’s enemies together.
In any case, there is also the fact that Iran is militarily weak, economically decrepit, and politically divided. MbS admitted that: “Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia.” If this is the case, then why does he worry so much about Iran?
Washington officials also appear to constantly exaggerate the Iranian threat, often making it seem as though they are vast and powerful, they know otherwise. Robert Karem claimed: “We see the war in Yemen as pushing back against Iran’s attempt to destabilize the entire region and beyond.” However, Tehran’s supposed attempt at regional “domination” involves wretched Syria and Yemen, perpetually divided Lebanon, and Iraq, whose Shia majority was unleashed by America’s intervention in 2003.
Moreover, history suggests that no Yemeni faction, except perhaps that headed by Hadi, would sacrifice the country’s autonomy in order to become a puppet of Tehran. As Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute has said, “The al-Houthi leadership retains its independence from Iran and has pushed back on Tehran’s statements and offers repeatedly.” Additionally, Gabriele vom Bruck at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies observed that, “The Houthis want Yemen to be independent, that’s the key idea, they don’t want to be controlled by Saudi or the Americans, and they certainly don’t want to replace the Saudis with the Iranians.”
For these reasons, we ought to be skeptical anytime Iran is made out as the excuse for involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. Indeed, Iran’s role in Yemen always has been limited anyway. Tehran has been a minor player compared to the Riyadh. According to Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa, the present fight “is at its root a civil war, driven by local competition for power, and not a regional, sectarian or proxy war.” It should be clearly spelled out that the Houthis are not Tehran’s proxy. Adam Baron of the European Council on Foreign Relations noted that, “It’s not as if the Houthis were created by Iran, and further, it’s not as if the Houthis are being controlled by Iran. This is a group that is rooted in local Yemeni issues.” Furthermore, after three years of watching the war, vom Bruck concluded that “I don’t think the Iranians have influence in their decision-making. It’s not a relationship like that between Iran and Hezbollah.”
The relationship between Iran and the Houthis was largely one of the Saudi-led coalition’s making. The coalition’s invasion made such a Iranian-Houthi partnership inevitable because choice did the Houthis have after being attacked by their rich neighbors equipped and backed by the global superpower? As Kevin L. Schwartz of the Library of Congress concluded, “Only after the onset of the Saudi-led campaign did the arming of the Houthi rebels by Iran increase.”
Nor did Iran have to invest much to hinder Saudi Arabia’s well-equipped but ineffective legions. Iranian assistance mainly involved training and ground weapons, which pale in comparison to Washington’s aid to Saudi Arabia. Chatham House’s Peter Salisbury argued that Tehran “has reaped fantastic returns on a modest investment, drawing Saudi Arabia into a destructive war it cannot win without a substantial investment of personnel or resources.”
Yet American is drawn into yet another foreign conflict with no end in sight. Secretary Mattis has argued that the allies “stood by the United Nations-recognized government.” Additionally, the Emirati Gulf News recently proclaimed that the aim of the military campaign was “To uphold the legitimacy of [Hadi’s] internationally recognized government.” However, neither the U.S. or UAE cares about these arguments and legal niceties when it comes to their desire to intervene in Syria. This argument also frayed badly when Abu Dhabi began supporting southern separatists against that same UN-recognized government. Observed Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute, “The reality seems to be that the UAE has become exasperated with Hadi and is orchestrating its own plans for the south.”
Hadi may be the “legitimate” president, but he does not offer stability. Chatham House reported that Hadi was “widely seen as a bit player whose importance is derived from legal technicalities, external support, and access to resources rather than from hard-earned ‘grounded’ legitimacy.” He is dependent on foreign support and fears being killed if he returns to his country. Indeed, two of his ministers recently resigned, claiming that the Saudi government barred them, and Hadi, from returning to Yemen.
America’s only serious security issue involving Yemen is the revival of al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s most active affiliate. AQAP has accelerated recruiting and expanded its presence. The Jamestown Foundation’s Michael Horton observed that “AQAP has become more pragmatic and continues to de-prioritize ideology—at least in terms of its day-to-day operations—in favor of building alliances, recruiting and training capable fighters and enhancing access to revenue streams.” The group now controls an estimated third of the country.
Carafano argued that if Washington stopped underwriting Riyadh’s aggression, “Tehran, Islamic State group and al-Qaeda would feel emboldened and likely double-down on expanding the war.” This is incorrect because for Islamists and terrorists the war has been a godsend. The Houthis, though anti-American, also are anti-AQAP. However, their attention has been diverted, by Saudi and UAE aggression, giving AQAP room to breathe. In addition, even the State Department admitted that AQAP and the Islamic State have “exploited the political and security vacuum left by the conflict between the Yemeni government and Houthi-led opposition.”
Moreover, journalist Laura Kasinof observed that Hadi, lacking internal support, “cozied up to the Islamists” before his ouster, even quietly cooperating with AQAP in some areas. Also, noted Reisener, “al-Qaeda was significantly bolstered by the transfer of weapons from Saudi Arabia to a number of al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni militia groups in Yemen.” Zimmerman said that “The Saudi-led coalition tolerates AQAP’s presence on the battlefield, so long as the group fights against the al-Houthi-Saleh forces.” Thus, the Trump administration arms the Saudis- who arm or turn a blind eye of AQAP- while also increasing airstrikes and ground deployments against al-Qaeda. The U.S. is therefore undermining its own objectives by supporting a bad ally in a bad war.
Yet, American war advocates incongruously claim that the way to reduce casualties and end the war is to support escalating Saudi attacks. Secretary Mattis warned that restricting U.S. aid “could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis—all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.” Arguing that Americans must continue to help the coalition kill civilians to stop it from killing more civilians is bizarre. How can the U.S. know it is stopping the killing of civilians if officials admit that they do not even pretend to monitor Saudi attacks.
Carafano declared, “Instead of turning our back on Yemen, the U.S. should focus on ending the war.” By continuing to subsidize Saudi aggression? Doing so reduces the cost of war for Riyadh. Furthermore, as an active belligerent the U.S. has no credibility to try to mediate and so cannot bring everyone to the table. Instead, the best hope to end the bloodshed is forcing the Saudi royals to pay for their murderous misadventure. The truth is that the U.S. has no leverage when it underwrites and ignores Saudi failure.