March 27, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: A Wider War in Yemen

• The crisis in Yemen is primarily a Yemeni one, with legitimate internal issues and dysfunction that will not be improved by turning the crisis into a regional sectarian fight

• Once the genie of sectarian war is out of the bottle in Yemen, it will be impossible to put back, as seen in Iraq and Syria; the result will be years of conflict that could have been avoided by addressing the conflict as a local one

• As acknowledged by the U.S. State Department, Saudi Arabia does have legitimate concerns about what happens with its southern neighbor; however, treating the crisis as a primarily sectarian issue will likely be counterproductive

• The rhetoric on all sides and in their respective social media echo chambers is increasingly sectarian, escalating the conflict to the point where only Sunni extremists and Shi’a hardliners benefit and the people of Yemen suffer.


A second day of airstrikes by the quickly-cobbled together anti-Houthi coalition of Arab countries might blunt the rebels’ momentum but it also might turn what is essentially a Yemeni crisis into a regional sectarian fight that will defy efforts to contain it. Airstrikes—led by Saudi Arabia but also involving the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—are targeting not just Houthi fighting elements but also Yemeni military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Both the rebel military and the Yemeni military are being attacked—an indication of how complicated the issue has become. The Saudi-led coalition has demanded the Houthis evacuate all government buildings in order to avoid more airstrikes, and has flatly stated it will not let Iran help resupply the Houthi rebels, whom Iran supports but doesn’t control.

It’s the burgeoning sectarian nature of the fight that is most threatening not just to Yemen, which doesn’t need any more tragedy, but to the region as a whole. Talk of ground troops from the Arab Gulf countries might just be talk to force concessions from the Houthi movement that, after all, did overthrow the elected government of now-exiled President Abd Rabbuh Hadi, but it also might be the first step in a disastrous new chapter in Yemen’s troubled history. Ground fighting in Yemen should be viewed as analogous to ground fighting in Afghanistan, meaning it would be far harder and last far longer than ever imagined. Famed war theorist Clausewitz wrote that “in war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect,” which would apply to a sectarian fight in Yemen with tragic perfection.

The sticking point is that there are legitimate concerns by Gulf countries regarding Iranian expansion that shouldn’t be dismissed even if they might be inflated to a degree that empowers extremists. Saudi Arabia should be concerned with what happens on its southern border, even if it gives Iran more credit and blame for Yemen’s implosion than it deserves. Corruption and terrible governance are more powerful drivers of Yemen’s crisis than any Iranian commanders. Yet the tendency to view all local crises as regional sectarian chess moves means that possible solutions by definition must also be sectarian in nature—unleashing the sectarian genie that can’t be put back in the bottle.

It could very well be that the Saudi-led coalition wants to defeat the Houthi movement more than Iran wants to support it, but that does nothing to address the inherent rot within Yemen’s politics. It would be a regional sectarian victory at the cost of Yemen, replacing needed societal and political reforms with air raids, while eliminating moderates from the playing field and empowering extremists such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and others.

The anti-Houthi/Iran coalition clearly sees Yemen as a line in the sand as it relates to Iranian influence and has responded accordingly. Iran has protested the airstrikes but it is probably unable to help the Houthi enough to overcome a committed Gulf opposition. But military actions in the defense of Sunni or Shi’a populations is a slippery slope; when Saudi interference to protect "the legitimacy of Hadi" begins to be perceived as protecting the Sunni majority of Yemen there is nothing to stop Iran from doing the same to protect the Shi’a majority of Bahrain. Yemen’s problems can’t be addressed from the air and the crisis won’t be resolved by turning it into a sectarian regional war.


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