Why the Hell Is Yemen Shooting at the United States Navy?

The war in Yemen has three dimensions, only one of which directly affects the United States.

American amphibious dock landing ship Fort McHenry Suez Canal
The American amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry prepares to transit the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean Sea, January 10, 2015 (USN/Jonathan B. Trejo)

Of course, it isn’t Yemen shooting the navy at all, but the question would be fair to a layman.

Three times, Yemeni rebels (Rebels? Perhaps; but we’ll get to that later) have fired upon US Navy ships guarding the Straights of Aden. Now the United States has fired back, bombing from afar radar sites.

For Westerners, and especially Americans, creaky old stereotypes roar to life: Ali Baba, the Mad Dog of the Desert, lingers in the Western mind, reinforced by the shadows of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and now, most recently, Bashar al-Assad. Mad dogs, perhaps, but none were Yemeni.

There are layers upon layers of conflict here, all of which can be seen as reasonable in and of themselves but which complicate the matter of Yemen beyond the layman. It was not a mad dog nihilistically hoping for cruise-missile-delivered paradise who fired those missiles at the US Navy, nor do such folks give form and function to the overlaying conflicts within Yemen.

But first, we must understand Yemen.

Yemen: a land of milk and honey, but not gold and silver

This is the geographic trap of Yemen: It was a rich place for Arabia, but hardly beyond that. Crisscrossing the roads of Yemen are Roman legions, Jewish warlords, Ethiopian emperors, British imperialists, Egyptian pan-Arabists, Arab communists and now Sunni supremacists and Saudi coalitions. Each sought the same thing: to dominate the critical turn by which the Indian trade routes went from west to north, bringing Eastern riches to Western appetites.

Invaders have all faced the same difficulties: Yemen is a relatively easy place to conquer but a difficult place to hold. Dominating its trade route does bring wealth, but occupation often outweighs the benefits. The Romans died of disease rather than battle; Ethiopia’s Aksumites decided they couldn’t afford a proper occupation; Britain shed South Yemen as its empire decolonized; Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist armies foundered and bled out in the highlands; the Arab communists got a state, briefly, in South Yemen, that lasted until Soviet aid dried up; now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has decided to reorder Yemen to its liking.

Yemen has long lacked the critical resources and biomes to make it a great power. Huddled onto the corner of the absolutely desolate Arabian peninsula (the eastern edge of which was my home for five years), its highlands can support farming and civilization, but it may as well be an island. Surrounding it are the great Arabian dunes, pinning Yemeni civilization to the wall, forcing them to build up rather than out. There are many millions of Yemeni: 24 million, just shy of Saudi Arabia’s 28 million (many of whom are immigrants). Had oil never been discovered in the Persian Gulf, it would still today be the most powerful place in Arabia.

This is a key reason why Yemeni warriors were the backbone of the early Islamic caliphate: Their tribes, loyal to Islam, spread Yemeni dialect and culture throughout the Islamic world, mixing and melding with Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Persian civilizations to influence later Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. It’s also the reason why virtually all Persian Gulf royal families, sans the Saudis and Omani royal house, trace their heritage to Yemen: having reached the edge of their population limit, they struck out hundreds of years ago across the dunes.

For centuries, Yemen was key to dominating both the Arabian peninsula and the trade routes along the Red Sea. Anyone interested in either invariably turned their attention to Yemen.

So let’s break down the levels of conflict and let’s start local. #1: Houthis (north) versus the Aden government (south)

This is the struggle between two regions and more specifically two cities: Sana’a and Aden.

Sana’a, the country’s capital city, has long dominated the Yemeni mountains and highlands. While most Yemeni live outside the capital, all roads lead to Sana’a , so to speak. He who holds Sana’a holds the mountains.

Ensconced behind these mountain ranges, Zaidi Islam, a Shia variant, managed to withstand pressure from Sunni power in the Ottoman Empire and later Saudi Arabia. Isolated, it has also led to a more conservative worldview, one which distrusts outsiders, especially Sunni powers and their allies. When a Sunni-led regime ruled Sana’a , they tried to break the power of the most powerful of Zaidi tribes, the Houthis, supported rather heavily by Saudi Arabia, who would shell Houthi positions from across the border.

Aden, on the other hand, is a port city long connected to the world: Rome burned it down as it tried to secure the Red Sea trade routes. The British colonized it for the same reason. The Soviets used it as their entry point into Arabia, building up the communist state of South Yemen. It leads Sunni Yemen and is today the base of operations for the Saudi coalition.

Yet there are tensions between the Aden-led Sunnis and hinterland Sunnis as well. To the east is the great Arabian desert, the Empty Quarter. For centuries Bedu tribes traveled back and forth between the Persian Gulf and Yemen. They have long bristled at anyone trying to tell them what to do; with tribes influenced by Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, some have embraced Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The conflict is thus three way: between the Houthis, Aden and the hinterland Sunnis. It’s a struggle between Yemen’s geography: mountains, coast and open desert, and the attitudes and mindsets that grew up in those distinct places.

And yet it grows more complicated still. Overlay that with recent Yemeni politics. From 1990 until 2012, Yemen was ruled by a relatively secular Sunni, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was both a kleptocrat and a dictator. Wishing to modernize Yemen, he tried to overcome Yemen’s geographic divides. First, he defeated Aden in a brief civil war in 1994; then, he turned on the Houthis, the strongest holdouts in the mountains. To break the hinterlands, he turned to the Americans after 9/11, allowing the United States unfettered access to making war upon any tribe who joined Al Qaeda.

But then the Arab Spring came and Saleh was pushed out of power. His modernization project was undercut by deep corruption and incompetence; the Arab Spring was just the gust of wind needed to push over his house of cards. A new government, headed up by his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, was shepherded in through a clean, though uncontested, election. But the Houthi saw no value to an election. Elections meant modernization, which eventually meant the annihilation of tribalism. They instead decided to go on the offensive.

And little would have come of that had they stood alone. But instead, Saleh and military units still loyal to him decided to switch sides. Taking sizeable chunks of the Yemeni military with him, Saleh’s forces supported the Houthi assault on Sana’a, delivering them the capital in 2013.

Thus the only semi-modern force in the country, the Yemeni military, was divided between factions supporting Saleh and those supporting the elected Hadi government.

Meanwhile, the age-old geographic struggles between mountain, coast and desert raged on underneath.

Layer #2: Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies versus their own people/Iran

Yemen’s geographic struggles open up doors for any ambitious elites to try to wedge a bit of power out of Arabia. It’s not so mad that Iran’s elites decided to join the fray; their ideological allies, the Houthis, made sense, given their Shia ties and the fact that the Houthis despise Riyadh. Even now, the Houthis bombard southern Saudi Arabia, complicating the management of an already fragile kingdom. For Iran, to gain a foothold in Yemen is to gain yet another valuable flank against Riyadh.

For Saudi Arabia, the situation is more complicated. Yes, Saudi Arabia’s princes fear and hate Iran; they see it as a rival for Mecca, since Iran claims, as Saudi Arabia does, to speak for all Muslims. They believe they’ve already lost Iraq to Iran; to lose Yemen might embolden the Shia of Bahrain, who, if successful, might then seek to liberate the Shia of Saudi Arabia’s critical oil-soaked Eastern Province.

But that belies a greater threat. That is, Saudi Arabia is afraid its own people will stop fearing the monarchy and turn against it. There are many Saudis who despise the regime: the hardline Wahhabist forces that give clandestine support to the Islamic State see them as apostates; the would-be modernizes who see them as corrupt kleptocrats holding back progress; and the quite reasonable grumblers, who don’t particularly have a plan for life after the Al Saud but would hardly miss them if they fell away.

Saudi Arabia’s tribal monarchy is held together through a web of wasta, or influence, that lasts only as long as the king can deliver goodies to key tribes while terrifying dissidents into silence. That goodie delivery system is under threat: shale oil has driven down the price of oil well beyond what Saudi Arabia needs to balance its budget and in a far more modern kingdom it takes a lot more to balance that budget than it did even twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, Saudi security forces have to appear capable in the face of multiplying threats. There are the powerful Iranians, of course, but also the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and pseudo-revolutionaries still hoping to bring something like a Arab Spring to Saudi Arabia. All must be afraid that Saudi Arabia can lash out against them.

The rightly-held fear that America is slowly retrenching away from Saudi Arabia reinforces this. The United States is becoming more hostile to Saudi Arabia, both culturally and politically. Some of this is a realization that America does not need Saudi oil as much as it used to; others are gropingly realizing that Saudi Arabia is a big part of the terrorism inspired by Sunni supremacism, since its both a practicer and preacher.

Thus to keep both Iran and the subjects of the monarchy in check, Saudi Arabia must become more active. Its security forces must round up terrorists; its army must win battles. There’s a good reason why there’s been an uptick in executions, right up to finally executing a prince of the Al Saud family itself.

Moreover, in the fires of war there can emerge a kernel of Saudi nationalism, something sorely lacking. The longer the king keeps his army in Yemen, fighting slowly but as painlessly as possible, the more he might gain this effect and thus bolster his position. Of course, the reverse could be true: the lack of success could readily morph into defeat and dissolution.

Layer #3: America, trade and the War on Terror

Why was an American warship even near Yemen to begin with? As the Romans and British once did, America’s navy is keeping the Red Sea trade route, now all important with the Suez Canal, open. Not so long ago, Somali pirates threatened this route. Now the navies of virtually every great power patrol the waves of the Gulf of Aden, with the United States being the most powerful. To abandon that route is impossible; the Americans are there to stay.

But within Yemen itself America also has interests. It isn’t super keen on the Hadi versus Houthis civil war, nor on the outcome of the conflict for Saudi Arabia. It would prefer Hadi and it would prefer a Saudi victory, but neither are essential. Instead, the America needs a government on the ground that will allow it to continue to hunt down Al Qaeda and now the Islamic State. Within the fog of war terrors groups have long hidden in Yemen’s deserts and mountains. America has been bombing Yemen since 2002, always at the invitation of the Yemeni government. Remember that Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed credit for the Charlie Hedbo attack in Paris.

This layer ensures the Saudis continue to get access to high tech weapons from the United States. The Saudis, on the face of it at least, will do more to wipe out Sunni supremacist terrorists than the Houthis, who may well practice terrorism themselves should they gain control of the whole country. It means the Hadi rump government will continue to be supported and armed by the superpower, as much as the United States can trust Hadi’s forces not to simply steal their military goods and join the other side. But because the United States can tolerate, at least for now, a divided Yemen, it means that they won’t get the overwhelming support they need to win the war quickly. America is stretched thin and Yemen is low on the list of priorities.

So what now? Will America go in?

Unlikely. This was not a Gulf of Tonkin, a false flag to start a war American elites itched for. America’s new president, which looks more and more likely to be Hillary Clinton, will have little incentive to add Yemen to the long list of battle orders. Bombing back made a measure of sense; taking precautions to avoid being shot at will too. But America has bigger fish to fry and Yemen can wait.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are in a less favorable position. They have advanced ever so slowly towards Sana’a, taking causalities as they go, and their Gulf allies, who are less lied to Saudi Arabia’s social contract, have wobbled in the fight. The Saudis have never fought a war of this scale before; they have no experience taking a major city and so their princes obviously worry about sending too many body bags home when the monarchy can least afford it. They may hope to broke a deal rather than win an outright battle. That, especially in Arabian culture, would be just as good.

Iran’s support has always been limited, but freed of sanctions it may well press harder against the Saudis through its Houthi allies. This could send a message about Saudi support to rebels in Syria; it could also weaken the Saudis in a way that Iran likes. They too could benefit from a deal, should it appear that the deal was brokered because they forced it.

As for the local combatants, someone must rule. The Hadi government may have its power base in Aden but doesn’t want to split South Yemen off again. The Houthis don’t want that either. So partition might be de facto or the Houthis might withdraw from Sana’a while retaining the ability to shell or recapture it at will. That would be good enough in Yemeni terms: outright annihilation has never suited Yemeni political culture.

Regardless, the conflict will carry on as Syria sucks down world attention. When it ends, it will be because one sponsor or another loses interest or is unable to carry on. In the short term, that could be Iran. Should Iranian moderates gain the upper hand in Tehran, they might see Yemen as a distraction rather than a strategic goal. In the long term, it will certainly be Saudi Arabia. Its society is just not built to survive much war weariness. But regardless, America’s warships will remain tempting targets for anyone seeking the prestige of shooting at the superpower.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, October 19, 2016.