TSC IntelBrief: A Thousand Days and Nights of War in Yemen
Bottom Line Up Front
• It is now just over 1,000 days since a coalition led by Saudi Arabia—with U.S. support—began a military campaign to topple Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
• Coalition attacks, including more than 15,000 airstrikes, have failed to defeat the Houthis but succeeded in creating more misery in a country suffering from poverty and war.
• With the coalition air campaign killing many more civilians then rebel fighters, added diplomatic pressure should be applied to end the conflict.
• It is unclear how the war may end, given all sides entrenched positions, while Yemeni civilians lack either the power, or the outside support, necessary to resolve the crisis.
On December 19, Yemen’s Houthi rebels marked 1,000 days of war with a Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition by launching another ballistic missile at a Saudi target; reportedly the Al-Yamama royal palace. Saudi officials say they successfully intercepted the missile, using the U.S. Patriot missile defense system. Saudi officials made a similar claim in November, after a Houthi missile was launched at Riyadh’s airport. Both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. say the Houthi missiles were supplied by Iran, a claim Tehran has denied.
Coalition aircraft reportedly launched a series of airstrikes, following the Houthi missile intercept. Residents in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, said a new parliament chamber had been struck, while at least nine members of the same family were said to have been killed by an air strike in the south. According to statistics compiled by the Yemen Data Project, there were more than 15,000 airstrikes launched by the coalition on targets in Yemen between March 26, 2015, and December 15, 2017. The airstrikes have clearly failed in achieving their goal: countering Iranian influence on Saudi Arabia’s southern border by toppling the Houthis from power. However, the air strikes have played a major role in creating perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Yemen is suffering from persistent starvation and more than 900,000 cases of cholera, exacerbated by the systematic destruction of electrical and water pumping systems in a country that was already facing persistent water shortages. With the crisis apparently worsening, the Saudi coalition announced on December 20 that it would keep the Houthi-controlled, Red Sea port of Hodeida open to humanitarian shipments for another 30 days, despite a blockade.
Framing the Yemen war as part of a larger struggle between the Saudi-led Sunni coalition and Shi’a Iran has helped turn the war into a quagmire. The Saudi’s have legitimate concerns over the stability of their southern border, yet the war has only heightened those concerns. As for the U.S., countering Iranian influence in the Gulf region is one of the reasons the U.S. has supported the air campaign to the extent it has. American officials have also stated that support for the coalition was aimed at Yemen’s terrorist groups; the very formidable al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the presence of the so-called Islamic State that, according to a December 20th release by Central Command, has ‘doubled in size over the past year.’ However, the war is serving to feed extremist groups, rather than destroy them. Groups working with the Yemeni government supported by Riyadh tend to be Salafi jihadis, working closely with al-Qaeda—which in turn, has seen its numbers expand.
There is a belated, but growing awareness in the West, that by aiding the Saudi coalition, the U.S. and the U.K. are in part culpable for the suffering of Yemen’s civilians. While the Houthis have an abysmal human rights record, that in and of itself does not justify supporting a strategy that worsens Yemen’s crisis, week by week. Yet it is unclear how the war may end, given all sides entrenched positions, and what was an internal conflict’s transition to a larger regional war. Lost in the positioning and rhetoric of regional hegemony and arcs of influence are the very local issues driving internal political and social dysfunction in Yemen. All the while, it is the Yemeni civilians who are caught between terrible options not of their making, while lacking either the power or the outside support necessary to resolve this crisis.
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