William A. Rugh
Ambassador Rugh, a retired Foreign Service officer, served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen (1981-84) and to the United Arab Emirates (1992-95). He is a member of the board of directors of the Middle East Policy Council.
Yemen is a country that rarely captures headlines in Western media. Then, in the spring of 2015, when the Saudi air force — with the support of a coalition including the United States — turned a domestic issue into an international one, global media started paying attention. Commentators sought to explain the conflict in terms of religious differences, or a Saudi-Iranian power struggle. Few understood the internal dynamics that were involved, or Yemen's complex history. This essay looks at the course of Yemen's domestic political development and relations with its neighbors to show how they evolved over the past seven or eight decades, and identifies the persistent challenges that continue to play a part in the current crisis.
A review of Yemen's modern history reveals five recurring themes. First, Yemen is highly decentralized and has a very weak central government. It was only unified in 1990, yet is now in its third civil war since then. Its 26 million people are spread over an area the size of Texas with largely mountainous terrain. It is strewn with more than 50,000 villages, many difficult to access. Second, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. Just one of its problems is that its capital city will run out of water in only a few years. Third, its weaknesses have been exploited repeatedly by outsiders, where interventions have often exacerbated Yemen's problems. The most persistent interventionist has been Saudi Arabia. Fourth, the Yemeni crisis is not primarily a Sunni-Shia conflict as sometimes portrayed in the press, although sectarianism does play a role. Fifth, a key actor in the Yemen story is Ali Abdullah Salih, who was president of Yemen for 34 years. He left office in 2012, but is still very much involved today.
Interactions with Saudi Arabia have been crucial for Yemen since the 1930s, when its large northern neighbor first became a unified country. The Saudis promptly clashed with the Zaydi imamate that had ruled the northern part of Yemen for about 1,000 years (Zaydi Islam is discussed below). The two sides came to agreement in the Treaty of Taif in 1934 about the western portion of their common border. The rest of the border was left undemarcated until the year 2000, its uncertainty having been a regular source of irritation between the Yemeni and Saudi governments.1
In 1962, a popular revolution broke out against the Zaydi imamate. The ruler, Imam Muhammad Badr, and his Yemeni supporters fought against the rebels in a civil war that lasted until 1970. Throughout those eight years, Saudi Arabia intervened in support of the imam's monarchy. The Egyptians countered the Saudis by intervening on the side of the republicans. This was the period of the so-called Arab cold war, when Arab republics like Egypt confronted Arab monarchies like Saudi Arabia, directly or through proxies. Nasser sent 70,000 troops to support the republicans, but the Egyptians were not accustomed to fighting guerilla warfare in Yemen's rugged mountains, and eventually had to withdraw. In today's crisis, everyone remembers that Egypt's sending in ground troops was a bad idea. In 1970, the Saudis abandoned the imam, and as a result the republicans prevailed. So for eight years in the 1960s, Saudi Arabia had helped keep the Yemeni civil war going by supporting the monarchy; when the Saudis suddenly stopped supporting the monarch, the civil war ended. The northern part of Yemen that the imam had controlled became an independent republic in 1970.
Meanwhile, South Yemen also experienced a popular revolt in the 1960s. The area at the time was controlled by the British from a base they had maintained in Aden since 1839. The revolt persuaded the British to pull out of Yemen in 1967, as a part of their policy of reducing their empire "East of Suez." The British departure led to a takeover of the south by leftist pro-Communist parties closely allied with the Soviet Union.
For the next 20 years, 1970-90, there were two separate Yemens, north and south, that were hostile to one another. In 1978, a young army officer named Ali Abdullah Salih became president of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). He was not expected to last long in the position; his two immediate predecessors had been assassinated by agents of the south. But his critics underestimated him, and he became the ultimate survivor.
Salih was born in 1943 into a small tribe in the village of Sanhan near Sanaa. His family was Zaydi, a form of Shiite Islam, but he was not at all religious. He left school at 16 and joined the army. He attracted the attention of his superiors and at 35 was appointed military governor of the important town of Taiz by President Ahmad bin Hussain al Ghashmi. When Ghashmi was killed the following year, Salih was named president by a parliament that followed the wishes of the army.
When Salih became president in 1978, the Cold War was at its height, and a number of countries looked at Yemen as a battleground. The Communist regime in South Yemen was closely allied with the Soviet Union and East Europe, the only Soviet outpost on the Arabian Peninsula. The United States had no embassy in the south. North Yemen, on the other hand, established good relations with the United States and the West and also with Saudi Arabia and the other strongly anti-Communist Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
President Salih looked at this Cold War competition as an opportunity to bring benefits to Yemen. He knew he needed outside help to deal with Yemen's poverty and inherent weaknesses. His strategy internally was to build coalitions of different groups and tribes. He had no particular political ideology but coopted allies of different stripes wherever he could, not hesitating to form new alliances wherever it was expedient. He applied the same approach to Yemen's foreign relations, establishing ties with a variety of very different patrons and donors. That meant working with both sides in the Cold War and disregarding ideology. Salih bought modern military hardware from Moscow and sent Yemenis to the Soviet Union for military training. At the same time, he persuaded the United States and several other Western countries as well as Arab Gulf states to provide generous economic aid. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states welcomed Yemeni workers by the thousands, and they sent money home to their families in Yemen. Westerners, along with Saudis and other Gulf Arabs, regarded North Yemen as a bulwark against the South Yemeni Soviet proxy on the Arabian Peninsula. But under the surface, Salih's relations with Saudi Arabia were strained. The Saudis gave him financial assistance while also subsidizing tribes in the north of Yemen to keep them friendly. Salih bitterly resented Saudi interference but was careful not to alienate them.
Salih was also dealing with threats from the regime in South Yemen, but he finally got lucky. At the end of the Cold War in 1990, South Yemen's support from the Soviet Bloc collapsed, and Salih took advantage of the opportunity to unite north and south. This was his great achievement. Unification, however, did not put an end to internal divisions and rivalries. Since 1990, Yemen has been troubled by repeated crises, chronic internal divisions and three civil wars, all exacerbated by outsiders.
When Salih unified the two Yemens, he also allowed the emergence of a multiparty political system. Before this time, North Yemen had had only one party, the General People's Congress that Salih headed. He allowed multiple parties, not because he believed in democracy, but for purely pragmatic reasons. After he announced it, an American diplomat asked him why he had made this decision. He answered that he knew he had many enemies underground, out of sight; to participate in political parties, they would have to come out into the open, where he could watch them more closely. He supported multiparty democracy only to the extent that it was useful to him. He once told a reporter that his job was "like dancing on the heads of snakes."
The first problem Salih faced after unification was largely the result of a tactical error he made with his foreign patrons. He supported Saddam Hussain's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when all of his foreign patrons and donors, including the United States and the West, as well as Yemen's Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, opposed it. Salih simply backed the wrong side. His patrons, including the United States, cut off all economic assistance to Yemen. Worse, the Saudis and the Arab Gulf states expelled nearly a million Yemeni workers, who had been sending remittances home. Losing these foreign patrons created huge economic problems for the country. After the 1991 war, it took several years for Salih to repair his tattered foreign relations. Gradually during the 1990s, he persuaded Arab donors and the West to resume their financial support. In the past decade, outside aid has quadrupled, and the Arab Gulf states allowed Yemeni workers to return, so remittances again flowed back home.
TROUBLE IN THE PROVINCES
During this time, President Salih was also concerned about internal opponents, especially his critics in both the south and the north. Many south Yemenis believed they had not benefitted from the union, and by 1994, southern discontent had led to an outright secessionist rebellion and civil war. The Saudis this time surprised the Yemenis by supporting the south against Salih. Why? They saw their chance to weaken Yemen and divide it again. Salih, however, prevailed. He rallied his supporters, and his armed forces put down the revolt. The Saudi intervention increased Salih's resentment, but he continued to deal appropriately with his wealthy patron. The southern secessionists, however, were still unhappy.
In the 1990s, there was also trouble in the north, where a grassroots tribal movement was organizing around the town of Saada. A local tribal leader, Hussain Badraddin al Houthi, the son of a Zaydi cleric in Saada, rallied his people to speak up for local interests. Like the southerners, they believed they deserved more support from the central government in Sanaa, which they regarded as corrupt and controlling. Another grievance was the heavy-handedness of the Saudis across the border. For decades, Yemeni tribes benefitted from cross-border trade and smuggling, as well as Saudi financial payments. But in the 1990s, Saudi clerics infiltrated Yemen and set up a school to preach Wahhabi ideas, a very conservative Saudi version of Sunni Islam. Hussain al Houthi's tribesmen responded by setting up their own religious school to preach Islam according to Zaydi Shiite principles.
The religious aspect of the Houthi movement needs explanation, as it has been greatly misunderstood. Members of the movement are normally called Houthis after the name of their leader, but their formal name is "Ansar Allah," followers of God. The term seems to imply a devout religious party, but that is misleading. Their Zaydi sect, an offshoot of Shiism, makes up about one-third of the Yemeni population. The other two-thirds belong to a Sunni school called Shafiis. In fact, however, most Yemenis are tolerant and do not identify themselves in sectarian terms. It is common for both these Yemeni Muslim sects to pray together in the same mosque. Zaydi Shia have no ayatollahs and are also in other ways very different from Iranian Shia. Yemenis base their political alliances on tribe, family and clan much more than religious sect, and even some Sunnis supported the Houthis. But to the government in Riyadh, the Houthi tribesmen across the border appeared to be a religious threat. To Saudis, any form of Shiism is a red flag, and that is a key element in the current situation. Wahhabism is a sect of Sunni Islam that is actively hostile to all Shiites, regarding them as infidels. When Saudi Wahhabi clerics crossed the border to convert the Yemeni tribesmen, this helped unify those tribesmen against the Saudis.
Hussain al Houthi's efforts to mobilize Yemeni tribal activism in the north caught the attention of President Salih. At first, Salih saw it as a counterweight to his rivals elsewhere in the country. He particularly wanted Houthi support in his confrontation with Abdullah bin Hussain al Ahmar, head of the Hashid tribal federation, who had Saudi backing. Hussain al Houthi joined Salih's political party, the General People's Congress, and was a member of parliament as a Salih ally from 1993 to 1997.
But by the 2000s, Salih had changed his mind about the Houthis. He decided Hussain al Houthi had become too powerful, so he turned against him. Salih first cut off Hussain's subsidy, then in 2004, when their dispute became heated, sent the army to suppress Houthi tribesmen. Hussain was killed, and his brother Abdalkhalik took over, leading the Houthis in periodic skirmishes with the army for the next six years. Salih's decision to switch sides and oppose the Houthis was taken for strictly pragmatic reasons, but it gained him support and financial assistance from the Saudis. They also had sectarian reasons to fear the Houthis. The Saudis provided occasional support to Salih as Yemeni government forces clashed with the northern tribesmen.
THE AQAP THREAT
Meanwhile, President Salih faced new challenges early in the twenty-first century, when al-Qaeda became a global threat and a major problem for Yemen. Saudi Arabia with its strong central government was able to crush al-Qaeda by 2005, but some of its adherents moved across the border into Yemen, where the government was too weak to stop them. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) consequently established itself in Yemen. This attracted the attention of Washington, which came to regard it as the greatest threat to America among terrorist organizations. The United States began to work closely with Salih and the Yemeni government to fight AQAP, which in turn helped to persuade its leadership to make the United States a target.
In 2008, a Yemeni al-Qaeda suicide bomber attacked the U.S. embassy in Sanaa. Then, in December 2009, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, traveling on a U.S. commercial flight heading for Detroit, tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear. AQAP took credit for the attempt, and it was discovered that he had been trained in Yemen. In October 2010, two parcel bombs shipped on separate cargo planes and intended to blow up in the United States, were discovered enroute in the UK and Dubai and stopped. The United States said they were sent by AQAP and that Anwar al-Awlaki was behind the plot. In January 2015, two gunmen, Said and Cherif Kouachi, attacked the Paris office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and killed 11 people, wounding an equal number. They identified themselves as belonging to AQAP, which acknowledged responsibility. Reaching far beyond Yemen, AQAP was clearly aiming at Western targets that it believed were hostile to Islam.
President Salih allowed American counterterrorism specialists to work in Yemen and to carry out drone strikes in his country. Washington needed Yemeni help with targeting, but suspected that Salih was trying to exploit its cooperation by labelling his political opponents in both the north and south as terrorists. This manipulation annoyed the Americans, but Salih generally cooperated against al-Qaeda, and that was important to Washington. In any case, the U.S. drone strikes have become controversial because they have killed innocent people. The controversy increased when U.S. drones killed the American Anwar al-Awlaki and his son Abdalrahman in 2011. But in June 2015, despite the ongoing civil war and the lack of an American presence in Yemen, Washington was pleased that U.S. drones also killed AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhaishi.
THE ARAB SPRING
The so-called Arab Spring that began in 2011 became President Salih's next crisis. When insurrections broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, the Yemeni public was inspired to revolt against the Salih government for its poor governance, corruption and lack of jobs. Thousands of Yemenis took to the streets. Salih tried to hold his coalition of allies together, and his army took some forceful measures. But this time his patronage network of tribes and parties failed him; the rebellion spread and started a new civil war.
The problem for Salih in dealing with the protesters was that it was exacerbated by the defection of some of his key allies as the country became polarized. The al-Ahmar tribe, headed by Hamid al-Ahmar, a billionaire businessman and head of the Islah party, was part of Salih's governing coalition with the tribal forces that control part of Yemen. Brigadier General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, commander of the first armored division, had been an ally of Salih and was seen as his successor. But then Salih made clear he wanted his own son Ahmad, head of the National Guard, to succeed him when the time came. Ali Muhsin joined the opposition in March 2011, tilting the political balance against Salih.
Saudi Arabia watched the crisis with growing concern. Supported by other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — the Saudis sought to intervene (once again) directly in Yemen, but on this occasion, they decided to support Yemeni stability and unity. During the 1964 civil war, they had worked to divide Yemen, but now they worried that the disintegration was going too far. They saw al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula growing stronger in Yemen as the central government collapsed, leaving more space for terrorist groups to expand.
Protests against President Salih continued through the spring of 2011, but he remained defiant and refused to step down. Then on June 3, a rocket attack on the presidential compound left him badly wounded, and he had to leave the country for Saudi Arabia and New York for medical treatment. After he returned home, he negotiated more seriously with the Saudis and the other GCC representatives. The result was a deal that was intended to bring the disputing factions together and stabilize the country. It required Salih to step down from the presidency and his vice president, Abdal Rab Mansour al-Hadi, to become president in an uncontested election. All Yemeni factions would then meet in a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to draft a new constitution. But Salih insisted on conditions before he would step down. The agreement he negotiated gave him and his family immunity from prosecution and allowed him to stay in country and retain chairmanship of Yemen's largest political party. Vice President al-Hadi was elected president in March 2012.
At the time, it seemed a good solution to Yemen's political problems. The United States supported the deal, hoping it would stabilize the situation so that anti-terrorism cooperation with the Yemeni government could continue. But the deal contained two major flaws that ultimately caused it to fail. These flaws help explain the chaos in Yemen today.
First, the new president, al-Hadi, turned out to be inept. Salih had chosen him as vice president because he was weak. He promptly alienated both the northerners and the southerners, who wanted more autonomy. When the National Dialogue Conference convened, delegates from the Houthis and from the south (including the Hirak party) pressed for reforms that would give their regions greater autonomy and more equitable control over national resources. One idea they liked in theory was for Yemen's unitary state with 21 governorates to be transformed into a federation with several semi-autonomous regions. However, when a working group came up with a specific plan for six regions (Azal, Saba, al Janad, Tihama, Aden and Hadramawt), both southerners and Houthis rejected the plan. The Houthis rejected it because, although it gave them their home base of Saada in Azal province, it gave them no oil or access to the sea, despite the fact that they had traditionally claimed part of oil-rich al-Jawf and the Red Sea province of Hajja. The failure of these NDC negotiations to satisfy local grievances persuaded the Houthis to take matters into their own hands.2 The southerners were also not satisfied with the plan; they felt they were not given their fair share of Yemen's petroleum wealth, and they wanted more autonomy. Their longstanding grievances over fair treatment from the central government, which they regarded as corrupt and unaccountable, were not satisfied by the draft constitution produced by the national dialogue.3 The factions were too contentious and had failed to reach agreement on basic governing principles.
The second flaw was that the plan underestimated former President Salih. Even under siege, he had bargained successfully with the Saudis until they finally agreed to give him and his family immunity from prosecution. Salih remained active behind the scenes as head of the largest political party. He used his extensive personal contacts among tribes and political leaders, and the ample wealth he had amassed as president, to dole out patronage and maintain a following. At the same time, he quietly worked to undermine the new president, al-Hadi.
THE THIRD CIVIL WAR
Yemen's current crisis grew out of frustration with the national reconciliation process, which had gone nowhere. The Houthis lost patience with President Hadi; he failed to grant them the autonomy they demanded, so they took matters into their own hands. Abdalmalik al Houthi sent his tribal militias south, and by September 2014, they reached Sanaa and took over parts of the capital.
The Houthi success on the ground was due in large part to the efforts of Salih and his son Ahmad. They persuaded army, air force and republican-guard units still loyal to them to support the Houthi advance. Once again, Salih had changed sides when he saw a chance to back what he thought would be the winning horse. The Houthis had no detailed political agenda, but they were on the move, and this time Salih saw them as an ally.
When the Houthis reached Sanaa, they were greeted by public demonstrations, some supportive and some hostile. But they gradually expanded their presence until they controlled most of the city, including the grounds of the presidential palace, where President Hadi was besieged. Hadi negotiated an agreement with them, but on January 21 declared the Houthi terms unacceptable and announced that he had resigned the presidency. On February 6, the Houthis announced that they had dissolved parliament and set up a governing council of 151 individuals. They put Hadi under house arrest.
They were in de facto control but failed to win international approval. A UN Security Council meeting on February 15 passed a unanimous resolution demanding that the Houthis surrender control of the government. Ten days later, a UN-appointed commission investigating former President Salih announced that during his time in office he had amassed a personal fortune of between $32 and $60 billion through corrupt dealings. That announcement led to another UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Salih.4
Meanwhile, the Houthis released Hadi, and on February 21 he fled to Aden, at the time still beyond reach of the Houthis. There he declared he was still president. On March 23, he called on the GCC to intervene to support his regime. Three days later, Saudi Arabia began launching air strikes against Houthi forces in Yemen. The Saudi government also mobilized support from several other countries in a coalition determined to defeat the Houthi takeover. Ten members of the coalition declared that they would provide some kind of military backing.5 The United States announced its support for the Saudi coalition, promising intelligence and aerial-refueling facilities. Four other nations — France, the UK, Turkey and Belgium — endorsed the Saudi undertaking. The fifth GCC member, Oman, declined to join the coalition, as did Pakistan, despite Saudi pressure. Only Iran, Russia and China explicitly opposed it. Under heavy air assaults, the Houthis' advance southward continued, and by April 1 they were in control of Aden, forcing President Hadi to flee to Riyadh.
From their perspective, the Saudis had several reasons to intervene. First, they were shocked that the Houthis were able to take over so much Yemeni territory and even reach Aden. This challenged the longstanding Saudi policy of keeping Yemen weak and, if possible, divided. Second, they saw the Houthis as a Shiite movement hostile to the Saudi version of Islam. Third, the Saudis believed the Houthis were proxies for Iran, their most dangerous adversary, and that this was further evidence that Iran was trying to encircle them. They saw Iranian proxies everywhere, in Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and now Yemen. The Saudis also have their own restive Shiite minority that they are worried about.
A fourth important element in the current crisis was the coincidence of leadership transition in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah, who died in January, had followed decades of the Saudi tradition of being cautious, restrained and risk-averse in foreign policy. His successor, Salman, changed all that. The new king, who is 79 and ailing, appointed his 29-year-old son Muhammad as defense minister and gave him considerable authority. Muhammad had no military education or experience but was reportedly ambitious and eager to make his mark in leadership. Within weeks of the transition, the Saudis launched air strikes against Yemen. This was only the second time in modern history that one Arab state had attacked another. Saudi aggressiveness in Yemen seems to some observers to be in part due to the eagerness of young Muhammad bin Salman to assert Saudi power and make a name for himself.6
The Saudis were able to put together international political support for their military intervention. Many governments felt sympathy for a sitting president seen to be defending himself against an insurrection. On April 14, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2216, supported by the United States, which declared Hadi the legitimate president of Yemen and demanded that Houthi forces unilaterally withdraw from territory they had taken by force. The resolution also called for the freezing of the assets of Houthi leader Abdalmalik al-Houthi and of former president Salih and his son Ahmad for supporting the Houthi rebellion.
The Saudis called their military campaign "Decisive Storm," but it turned out to be a misnomer, although aircraft from the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco joined Saudi planes in bombing Yemen. The Saudis and their coalition allies at first refrained from sending in ground troops because of Yemen's difficult mountainous terrain; they undoubtedly remembered the disastrous results when Egypt invaded in the 1960s. However, by mid-July 2015, they realized their bombing campaign had not led to the restoration of the Hadi government. With most of the country still controlled by the Houthis, they decided it was necessary to use ground forces to reverse the Houthi successes. A small contingent of Saudi and Emirati troops landed in Aden and began clearing the city, with the help of Southern Resistance Forces loyal to President Hadi. On July 17, the Yemeni interior minister and security chief arrived in Aden in a Saudi C-130.
By August 1, Aden was secure enough for Yemeni Vice President and Prime Minister Khalid Bahah to visit the city. Then, when the front line seemed to stall in September, several members of the Saudi coalition began a ground assault on the Houthis from the east, in Marib province, primarily a desert environment. The Saudis meanwhile continued the air attacks that have killed many civilians and destroyed Yemeni infrastructure. This has reinforced the resentment of most Yemenis against Saudi interference in their affairs.
By early August, there were Saudi, UAE and Bahraini ground troops and armor in Aden as well as in the eastern province of Marib. One Houthi strike that killed 60 coalition soldiers took out 45 Emiratis, an unprecedented Emirati battlefield loss. It elicited a strong statement from the UAE affirming that country's determination to deal with the Houthis forcefully. Strikes by the UAE air force against targets in Marib, Sanaa and Saada followed. Coalition and loyalist forces prepared to move north from Aden, and fighting was concentrated around Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city. But then the advance stalled; Sanaa remained under tight Houthi control.
As of October 2015, the fighting in Yemen's third civil war was continuing. Forces loyal to the government of President Hadi had pushed the Houthis out of Aden on September 22, allowing him to return briefly to the country from exile, landing in Aden in a Saudi military plane. He met with Prime Minister Bahah and other government officials who had arrived earlier, calling on them to restore the public services that had been cut off due to the hostilities. However, the Houthis and their allies, including forces loyal to former President Salih, continued to hold large swaths in the middle of Yemen, where the capital Sanaa is located, and in the north. Saudi planes continued to bomb Sanaa, but it was clear that taking it with ground forces would be more difficult because of terrain and local conditions, as the Egyptians discovered 50 years ago.
THE IRANIAN ROLE
Many analysts believe that the Saudis overreacted because of their fear of Iranian encirclement. The Saudis accuse Iran of supplying weapons and trainers to the Houthis; some of that happened after 2011, but on a very minor scale. Despite Saudi claims, Iran is not controlling the Houthis, who have strictly Yemeni domestic motives. However, Iran is indeed giving humanitarian aid and rhetorical support to the Houthis, as it is a low-cost way of keeping the Saudis off balance in their regional competition.
Washington has been relatively restrained in its public statements about the Iranian role. On April 8, Secretary of State John Kerry said, "The U.S. is well aware of the support that Iran is giving to Yemen," noting that there have been "several flights a week" by Iranian planes into Sanaa. He did not say what they contained. The spokesperson of the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, however, said, "It remains our conclusion that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen." President Obama has confirmed that view.7
The Iranians did send ships to the area, but they have carefully avoided provoking the Saudis and their allies into war. On May 13, Iran announced that one of its cargo ships, escorted by two warships, was headed for Yemen, carrying humanitarian aid. The United States warned Iran that this was a provocation. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Iran was "fanning the flames" by sending warships to Yemen, and that in response the United States had diverted a carrier from the Persian Gulf to that area. Secretary of State Kerry, in the midst of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, phoned Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif and warned him that Iranian military intervention in Yemen could lead to an unwelcome U.S.-Iranian confrontation.8 White House spokesman Josh Earnest commented that the cargo ship should go to Djibouti, where the United States was coordinating aid for the Yemenis. On May 15, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Hussain Abdollahian announced that Iran would allow the cargo ship to be inspected in Djibouti before going on to Hodaida.
THE U.S. ROLE
The United States closed its embassy in Sanaa in March because of the fighting. Washington backs the Saudi position on Yemen for several reasons. The Hadi government enjoys international support, but the principal American aim is to counter Islamic extremists, and that requires a strong central government in Yemen to act as a partner. Equally important to Washington is the regional context. The Saudi government has been critical of the United States for our handling of Iraq and Syria and for negotiating with Iran. We are supporting the Saudis on Yemen to reassure them on these non-Yemeni issues by providing limited military logistical help, some intelligence and aerial refueling. However, we have also deployed U.S. warships to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea as a warning to Iran to stay out of the conflict.
Yemen does present the United States with policy dilemmas. Washington supports Riyadh although the two governments see the Yemeni situation quite differently. It is clear that the Saudi air campaign has not resolved the Yemeni problem, and U.S. officials have reportedly urged the Saudi government to work toward a political solution. The civil war has already allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand in the southern part of the country. In April 2015, it took over the key town of Mukullah, opening its jail and freeing about 300 prisoners. The irony is that, although the Houthis strongly oppose al-Qaeda, cooperation with the United States is complicated by their crudely anti-American public rhetoric, such as the Houthi slogan "Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam." Their real focus is the domestic agenda, and American experts who know them well believe this slogan is simply intended to attract support in the region. In fact, in June, Anne Patterson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East, held discussions in Oman with Houthi representatives to look for ways to help bring an end to hostilities.9 American officials know that the Omanis could help facilitate a resolution to the crisis.
Washington's interest in Yemen has in recent years focused primarily on the country as a haven for terrorists who seek to harm American interests. During the current crisis, the United States has continued to conduct drone strikes on AQAP targets. Because most American personnel were withdrawn when the Saudi bombing started in March, however, the targeting, which must be done carefully by spotters on the ground, has become more difficult, and AQAP control of Yemeni territory has grown. Reports of activities by the Islamic State in Yemen have also caused worries in Washington, although it is not clear that the ISIS leadership in Syria has any control over individuals in Yemen. In February, a group of AQAP supporters declared their allegiance to ISIS, and in March there were two separate suicide bombings of mosques in Sanaa controlled by Houthis. ISIS claimed credit for them, but U.S. officials expressed doubt that there was such a link. Yet it is clear that the chaotic conditions and lack of a strong central government have opened the door to more possible terrorist acts.
The United States joined the Saudi-led coalition to help restore the Yemeni government, but the Obama administration is not a silent partner. When King Salman visited Washington in September, President Obama pressed him to do more to help relieve the dire situation of the Yemeni people by easing the blockade to allow better access for humanitarian organizations. The Saudis promised to reopen Red Sea ports for aid deliveries under UN supervision. President Obama also told the king that Washington supports a government that is inclusive, a hint at a meaningful role for the Houthis in any settlement.10
As long as Yemen remains a safe haven for AQAP and other terrorist organizations, the United States is likely to remain engaged there in some way. Washington's preferred instrument is the drone, but their use will remain controversial. Critics say drones kill innocent civilians, and this generates increased numbers of terrorists. In Yemen, one U.S. official found that there was actually less criticism of drones in the south, where most strikes were taking place, than in Sanaa, further from the incidents.11 The Obama administration argues that they offer the best means of combatting terrorist groups. U.S. officials claim the use of drones "is a far more targeted way of taking out terrorist leaders."12 Although this is probably true, the targeting depends on reliable spotters on the ground. Such assistants are not always available, and sometimes they have their own agendas.
The five recurrent themes in Yemen's modern history are likely to remain important. The country will continue to be very poor and to need outside assistance. Its weak central government will not be able to prevent domestic divisions, which invite outside involvement from both terrorist groups and neighboring countries. Yemen is once again badly fragmented, and Saudi Arabia is once again heavily involved. The Saudi leadership has always taken a special interest in Yemen and has not hesitated to intervene directly or indirectly, sometimes to help the central government and sometimes to oppose it. They have worked with Ali Abdullah Salih as well as against him, but they have consistently maintained a proprietary view, regarding Yemen as a potential source of problems that must be dealt with.
In the most recent crisis, the Saudi leadership has looked at Yemen through the optic of its rivalry with Iran and its concern for what it regards as a growing Shiite threat. This perception has strengthened because of developments outside of Yemen, including the shifting power balance in Iraq and the ongoing Syrian civil war. Today they support a central government in Yemen, but President Hadi is too weak to put down an insurrection. Saudi bombing has not succeeded in restoring him to power, and Yemeni civilians are paying the price.
The UN high commissioner for refugees estimated at the end of September that, since the start of the war in March, there had been 7,217 civilian casualties — 2,355 dead and 4,862 wounded — but the UN believed the actual numbers to be much higher.13 Another report claimed more than 400 children had been killed and 600 had been injured, and that 1.5 million of Yemen's 26 million people were displaced.14 The blockade imposed by the coalition has caused serious shortages of food, fuel and medicines. More than 80 percent of Yemen is suffering; the United Nations has declared Yemen a humanitarian crisis equal to that of Syria. Human Rights Watch says there may have been war crimes on both sides. Moreover, al-Qaeda has grown stronger during the chaos, and ISIS may have gained a foothold.
Diplomacy has not worked so far. Mediation attempts by UN representative Ismail Ould Shaikh Ahmad have failed. Ceasefires have been declared and then broken. Peace talks have been announced and then aborted. An end to violence will require a domestic political settlement that will satisfy all the factions and interests as well as outside parties. The Saudis need a way to declare victory in order to justify their intervention. Tribal societies like Yemen, however, tend to solve their disputes by consultation and consensus. Decentralization and a fair federal system might help calm provincial discontent, but that idea has not yet been implemented successfully. Abdalmalik al Houthi will probably have to play a role in the solution if it is to succeed. And Salih, at the age of 73, might also be part of the solution. Because of his track record, he cannot be counted out, but the Saudis may finally be fed up with his maneuvering. Meanwhile, the United States has little leverage. Washington will at least try to work with other outsiders to revive Yemeni equilibrium and restore a central government that will help in fighting al-Qaeda. That is Washington's main goal.
1 Since 1934, the Saudi GDP has grown enormously and is now five times the size of Yemen's, although the two countries have approximately the same populations.
2 Tobias Thiel, "Yemen's Imposed Federal Boundaries," Middle East Research and Information Project, July 20, 2015.
3 Stacey Philbrick Yadav, "Yemen's Houthis and Islamist Republicanism under Strain," in Islamism in the IS Age, ed. Marc Lynch (Project on Middle East Political Science, George Washington University, March 17, 2015), 60-61.
4 Reuters, February 25, 2015.
5 The four GCC members were Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE. The other coalition members indicating willingness to provide some kind of military support were Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Senegal and Malaysia.
6 Bruce Riedel, "The Battle for Sanaa Looms," Al Monitor, September 2, 2015.
7 Obama interview with Tom Friedman, New York Times, video, April 5, 2015.
8 New York Times, September 14, 2015.
9 New York Times, June 2, 2015.
10 BBC, September 5, 2015.
11 Personal information from an official at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, 2013.
12 Ben Rhodes, adviser to President Obama, quoted September 5, 2015 by al Jazeera.
13 VOA News, September 29, 2015.
14 Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy, September 23, 2015.