A Houthi rebel stands near the damaged presidential palace in Sana’a after Saudi airstrikes in December 2017. Photo Credit: DW News
In February 2021, President Biden pledged to push for an end to the Yemeni Civil War; he also vowed to end offensive support for the Saudi Arabia-led bombing campaign in Yemen.[i] The U.S. has continued to provide support to Saudi Arabia for ostensibly defensive operations to ensure Saudi security from the aggression of the Houthi rebels across the border in northern Yemen.[ii] The Biden Administration failed, though, to delineate what constitutes offensive versus defensive operations as it continues to provide logistical and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it has neglected to outline how and if it intends on resolving the conflict outside of withholding the aforementioned offensive support.[iii] America’s inability to take a stronger position has contributed to the insurmountable death toll and prolonged the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.[iv]
The war in Yemen poses an acute threat to US interests. The stability of the UN-recognized government in Mareb is the first of such interests, as it is the seat of the internationally-recognized Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) as well as the government’s last stronghold in the north not under Houthi control. Should the ROYG capitulate in Mareb, the Houthis will be better positioned to exert pressure on Saudi Arabia, our closest regional partner, and potentially disrupt the supply of oil globally with drones provided by Iran. Moreover, resolving the conflict is important for countering the said Iranian influence, suppressing Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other terrorist activity in Yemen, and ensuring the security of Saudi Arabia, whose strategic location in the Middle East is crucial to balancing against Iranian aggression and whose petroleum exports are vital for the US economy.
The legitimacy and stability of the UN-recognized government in Mareb should be of vital interest to the U.S. Ensuring that Mareb does not fall to the Houthis prevents the rebels from conquering the entirety of northern Yemen. If Mareb falls to the Houthis, the rebels will have the capacity to exert even more pressure on Saudi Arabia across the border and recruit more Yemenis for combat. Additionally, conquering Mareb will give Houthis access to the main oil and gas pipelines in Yemen, the Mareb-Ras Isa pipeline, and the Mareb-Balhaf oil pipeline, potentially depriving the legitimate Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) and southern Yemenis of key economic resources.[v] Moreover, if the ROYG loses its foothold in Mareb, more than one million internally displaced people (IDP) might have to relocate,[vi] further exacerbating Yemen’s humanitarian disaster. Houthis might be able to exploit these IDPs into fighting against the ROYG, just as they have exploited Yemeni children to fight on the front lines.[vii]
It is also in the U.S.’s interest to prevent the influence of Iran in Yemen, as the latter continues to fight a proxy war with the Saudi-led coalition via the Houthis. Iran has provided the Houthis with training, weaponry, and personnel via shipments in the Red Sea to gain influence in Yemeni politics and exert pressure on Saudi Arabia. The Houthis and Iran have aligned over their shared identity as Shi’a Muslims, though the root cause of the war is not sectarian in nature. Iranian support also facilitated information and technology sharing with other regional terrorist actors, like Hezbollah.[viii] It would be an overstatement to claim that the Houthis are at the behest of Iranian orders, but the latter certainly exacerbated the conflict between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, especially as Iran continues sending the Houthis long- and short-range drones that have been launched into Saudi population centers and oil fields.[ix]
It would be remiss to not also acknowledge how the ongoing conflict has permitted terrorist groups, specifically Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to flourish in a security vacuum, particularly in southern Yemen. The U.S. has carried out at least 336 drone strikes against AQAP and other terrorist organizations,[x] but many intelligence and terrorism experts consider AQAP to still be one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous, Al-Qaeda affiliate.[xi] AQAP’s ability to organize in southern Yemen has severe repercussions as it pertains to its capacity to conduct attacks on US interests regionally and in the homeland; as recently as December 2019, for example, an AQAP-affiliated terrorist, Mohammed Al-Shamrani, killed three US Navy sailors and injured eight others at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.[xii] Insofar as parties involved in the conflict fail to form a power-sharing agreement that would effectively end the conflict, AQAP will continue to operate with virtual impunity and pose a severe threat to the U.S. at home and abroad.
Finally, the security of Saudi Arabia should be of concern to the U.S. Saudi Arabia is spearheading a coalitional bombing campaign against the Houthis to ensure the security of the legitimate ROYG based in the Mareb governorate and to put pressure on the Houthi rebels to force them to the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has also been the target of numerous missiles launched by the Houthis from northern Yemen, often in retaliation for alleged air raids. The Houthis’ launching of missiles into Saudi Arabia poses a threat not only to the Saudi populace but also to Saudi oil fields and subsequently the supply chain of oil regionally and around the world. The Houthis have control over most of northern Yemen, including the governorates of Sa’ada and al-Jawf, which border Saudi Arabia. This proximity to Saudi Arabia exacerbated tensions between the Houthis and the Saudi government as each continues to fight in a tit-for-tat over Yemeni territory. Without the support of Saudi Arabia, Yemen will likely fall to the Houthis and Iran would gain a proxy state in the region.
There is no silver bullet to ending the Yemeni Civil War, but that does not excuse the importance of the U.S.’s role in managing and ending the conflict. President Biden pledged to take a stronger stance towards ending the conflict, going as far as revoking the Trump administration’s terrorist designation of the Houthi rebels in addition to appointing a special envoy to Yemen.[xiii] However, President Biden has yet to outline a clear strategy as it pertains to ending the conflict aside from “ending all American support for offensive operations”[xiv] in the conflict – but what that looks like in practice is unclear. The U.S. needs to work more effectively with Saudi Arabia to incentivize the Houthis to pursue a negotiated solution rather than a military one. As it stands, the conclusion of the war with a Houthi victory is not far-fetched. Lest the U.S. faces another failed state in the Middle East, it must act quickly and strategically.
[i] Conor Finnegan, “Biden’s Effort to End Yemen War Hindered by Continued Fighting, Funding Shortfall,” ABC News (ABC News Network, March 2, 2021), https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/bidens-effort-end-yemen-war-hindered-continued-fighting/story?id=76202962.
[ii] Alex Emmons, “Months after Biden Promised to End Support for Yemen War, Congress Still Has No Details,” The Intercept, April 7, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/04/07/biden-yemen-war-congress-end/.
[iii] Alex Ward, “The US May Still Be Helping Saudi Arabia in the Yemen War after All,” Vox (Vox, April 27, 2021), https://www.vox.com/2021/4/27/22403579/biden-saudi-yemen-war-pentagon.
[iv] “Yemen Crisis Explained,” How to Help Refugees – Aid, Relief and Donations, accessed November 8, 2021, https://www.unrefugees.org/news/yemen-crisis-explained/.
[v] “Houthis Attack Oil Pipeline in Yemen’s Marib,” Arab News (Arabnews, April 6, 2020), https://www.arabnews.com/node/1653426/middle-east.
[vi] “Iom Yemen: Displacement in Marib: Flash Update: 03-09 March 2021 – Yemen,” ReliefWeb, accessed November 8, 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/iom-yemen-displacement-marib-flash-update-03-09-march-2021.
[vii] Associated Press, “AP Investigation: Children Fight On Front Lines of Yemen War,” VOA (AP Investigation: Children Fight on Front Lines of Yemen War, December 19, 2018), https://www.voanews.com/a/ap-investigation-children-fight-on-front-lines-of-yemen-war/4707098.html.
[viii] Thomas Juneau , “How Iran Helped Houthis Expand Their Reach,” War on the Rocks, August 23, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/08/how-iran-helped-houthis-expand-their-reach/.
[ix] Dan De Luce , “Iranian-Backed Houthi Rebels in Yemen Ramp up Drone, Missile Attacks on Saudi Arabia,” NBCNews.com (NBCUniversal News Group, March 12, 2021), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/iranian-backed-houthi-rebels-yemen-ramp-drone-missile-attacks-saudi-n1260488.
[x] “Drone War: Yemen,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (en-GB), accessed November 8, 2021, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/projects/drone-war/yemen.
[xi] “20 Years after 9/11, Al Qaeda Is Still a Threat. Yemen’s Largely Forgotten Civil War Has Let the Terror Group Thrive.,” CBS News (CBS Interactive, September 8, 2021), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/al-qaeda-20-years-later-thriving-yemen-war-aqap-threat-us/.
[xii] Nic Robertson and Paul Cruikshank , “Pensacola Shooting: Tweet Purportedly from Gunman … – CNN,” accessed November 8, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/07/us/pensacola-shooting-gunman-analysis/index.html.
[xiii] Annelle R. Sheline and Bruce Riedel, “Biden’s Broken Promise on Yemen,” Brookings (Brookings, September 16, 2021), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/09/16/bidens-broken-promise-on-yemen/.
[xiv] Amanda Macias, “’This War Has to End’ – Biden Halts U.S. Support for Offensive Military Operations in Yemen,” CNBC (CNBC, February 5, 2021), https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/04/biden-will-announce-end-of-us-support-for-offensive-operations-in-yemen.html.