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

The American amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry prepares to transit the Suez Canal, January 10, 2015
The American amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry prepares to transit the Suez Canal, 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. Read more

Yemen Ceasefire Holds as Parties Gather for Peace Talks

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, answers questions from reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, December 7
Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, answers questions from reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, December 7 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

A weeklong ceasefire appeared to be holding in Yemen on Tuesday as leaders of the country’s warring factions met in Geneva, Switzerland for peace talks. Read more

Saleh Supporters Back Yemen Truce as Saudis Claim Progress

Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, arrives at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland for talks about the war in Yemen, June 14
Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, arrives at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland for talks about the war in Yemen, June 14 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

Supporters of former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh and the country’s Houthi rebels have accepted the terms of a United Nations-brokered peace plan, Gulf media report.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition supporting Saleh’s successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, said they had driven the Houthis out of Ma’rib, a province in the center of Yemen. Read more

Saudi Arabia’s No Good, Very Bad War in Yemen

Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then defense minister, is seen in his office in Riyadh, December 9, 2013
Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then defense minister, is seen in his office in Riyadh, December 9, 2013 (DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Caveats! “Bad” on this website is rarely used for moral condemnation. So there’s that.

“Bad” here refers to the fact that Saudi Arabia cannot win its war in Yemen. Best-case scenario is they escape with their tails between their legs. Worst case? The cracking of the Saudi state and chaos beyond imagining.

But let’s do some wayback and remember how we got here in the first place. Read more

Emirates Deepen Involvement in Yemen, Saudis Back Islamists

A United Arab Emirates tank takes part in military exercises in California, December 14, 2003
A United Arab Emirates tank takes part in military exercises in California, December 14, 2003 (USN/Ted Banks)

The United Arab Emirates have stepped up their involvement in the war in Yemen as Saudi Arabia backed Islamists the smaller Gulf state still regards as a threat.

Earlier this month, the Emirates sent some 3,000 troops to Yemen. The Financial Times reports that their involvement was critical in pushing the Houthis out of Aden, formerly the capital of South Yemen, where resistance against the Shia rebel group from the north is concentrated.

The Emirates also deployed armored vehicles and tanks while some one hundred special forces have been on the ground since May.

Five Emirati soldiers were recently killed in fighting, according to state media.

Although the rich Gulf states seldom get involved militarily in regional conflicts, preferring dollar diplomacy and support for proxies over risking their own soldiers, the Emirates have invested heavily in the past decade to bolster their armed forces.

According to the Financial Times, the Yemen operation demonstrates “the Gulf state’s increasing willingness to flex its military muscle to pursue regional political objectives that include curbing the rise of Islamist extremism in Libya and Syria and checking perceived Iranian encroachment in its backyard.”

The federation, which is governed from Abu Dhabi, sent fighter jets to Egypt last year to strike Islamists in Libya. Like its neighbors, it has also supported the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally.

Although Saudi Arabia and the Emirates both consider the Yemeni Houthis proxies for their regional nemesis Iran and claim to seek the restoration of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi — whom the Houthis forced to flee the capital, Sana’a, in February — the former is less discriminate about which anti-Houthi groups to back.

With Hadi lacking a support base of his own and southern separatists — who make up the bulk of the anti-Houthi alliance — unlikely to venture north to retake the capital, the Saudis have had to make common cause with Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, Islah, to defeat the rebels.

In 2012, fearful that Islah would hijack another “Arab Spring” uprising in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia intervened and replaced Yemen’s longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, with Hadi.

Saleh, a northerner who presided over Yemen’s unification in 1990, teamed up with the Houthis to bring down his successor.

Peter Salisbury argues at World Politics Review that the Emirates are more apprehensive about the possibility of an Islah takeover in Yemen. They have cracked down on Islamists organizations at home, including a group also known as Islah that the government said had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

With boots on the ground, could the UAE push for a government in Sana’a more to its own liking or would it defer to Riyadh, which under King Salman has changed tack and come to embrace the political Islamists it once declared terrorists, much to the chagrin of Abu Dhabi and Cairo?

If Saudi Arabia, which leads the multinational Arab military intervention in Yemen, pushes Islah and other allies north, perhaps coordinated with an offensive of its from own across the border, it “would likely mean an even more destructive phase to a war that has already cost thousands of lives and precipitated a humanitarian disaster,” according to Salisbury.

It would also mean that the Emirati forces backstopping anti-Houthi fighters in southern Yemen might be called on to take part in the war in the north, costing more lives and dragging the UAE deeper into Yemen’s conflict. And if the war were won, the Emirati troops might not be able to withdraw overnight; they could well be forced into a lengthy stay in Yemen to maintain any fragile peace.

Hadi Irrelevant as Saudis Bogged Down in Yemen

Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi observes a military parade in Sana'a, May 22, 2012
Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi observes a military parade in Sana’a, May 22, 2012 (Xinhua/Mohammed Mohammed)

Saudi Arabia’s nominal goal of restoring President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi in Yemen looks increasingly unattainable as the kingdom is being dragged deeper into a sectarian war.

Despite a victory against the Houthis in Aden this week — where Hadi had held out after being forced out of the capital, Sana’a, by Houthi rebels in February and before he fled to Saudi Arabia — four months of bombing have done little to set back a group the Saudis see as a proxy for their regional nemesis, Iran.

United Nations mediation has gone nowhere. A truce announced last week was immediately broken.

Garrett Khoury argues at The Eastern Project that the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen is similarly pointless. He wonders what the Saudis were thinking when they first conceived of the operation in March.

The answer seems to be that their own shock and awe campaign would send the Houthis scurrying for cover and ready to agree to President Hadi’s return to power. They have gotten themselves into Yemen and now are finding it tremendously difficult to get out. Meanwhile, their air war only turns more Yemenis, regardless of where they fall on the sectarian divide, against the Saudis, who they blame for exacerbating the political and humanitarian situation.

According to the United Nations, some 3,000 Yemenis have been killed in fighting in the last three months, half of them civilians. Over a million have had to flee their homes and 21 million are in need of immediate help.

Saudi fears of Iranian influence notwithstanding, there is little evidence that the Houthis coordinate much with the Middle East’s largest Shia state. Iran did come to their aid after they evicted Hadi from Sana’a. But the Houthi rebellion had been festering for years without Iranian involvement.

The conflict came to a head earlier this year when the Houthis allied with troops loyal to Hadi’s predecessor and longtime Yemeni ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh to block constitutional reforms that would have split Yemen up into six autonomous regions. The Houthis say Hadi’s plan would have eroded national unity.

The war is no longer about constitutional reforms nor about Hadi’s restoration, however. Peter Salisbury reports for World Politics Review that few of the groups fighting the Houthis care much about the still internationally-recognized president.

In fact, one of the biggest problems the Saudi-led coalition faces is the extent to which Hadi and his advisors have struggled to build lines of communication with resistance forces, leading Riyadh to lean increasingly on Yemen’s Sunni Islamists, who just a year ago it named members of a terrorist organization.

In 2012, the kingdom facilitated Saleh’s ouster, hoping to stop Islamists from hijacking another “Arab Spring” uprising. Saleh’s forces now fight with the Houthis while the Saudis have come to see the Islah party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, as the lesser evil.

In most cases, resistance to the Houthis is driven by perceived threats to local autonomy, according to Salisbury — especially in the former South Yemen where separatists worry that an Islah victory over the Houthis could see one northern regime replaced by another.

It was Saleh, a northerner, who presided over Yemen’s unification in 1990.

The Saudis have little choice but to allow Islah a role in the fighting. It is better organized and more heavily armed than the southern independence movement. It also has a wider support network.

Yet doing so risks putting the lie to the claim that Riyadh’s intervention is an attempt to restore the country’s legitimate president to his rightful place and complete Yemen’s political transition to democracy, rather than a sectarian war for political primacy in Yemen.

More worryingly for Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen also present itself as an anti-Houthi front, raising the prospect of an alliance of convenience between a Saudi-backed Islamist coalition and Islamists terrorists.

Despite Announced Truce, Fighting in Yemen Continues

A Saudi Arabian rocket launcher, May 14, 1992
A Saudi Arabian rocket launcher, May 14, 1992 (DoD/H.H. Deffner)

Warring parties in Yemen endorsed a United Nations-brokered truce on Friday but fighting in the small country continued while jets from Saudi Arabia carried out attacks as usual.

The pause in fighting is meant to coincide with the end of the Muslim holy of Ramadan and would allow humanitarian aid to reach millions of Yemenis who have been battered by four months of war.

“We hope this truce will be the beginning of the end of the Saudi aggression and the end of the violation of United Nations conventions that the war of aggression on Yemen has seen,” the top Houthi leader, Mohammed al-Houthi, said in a statement.

But in a televised statement, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, another prominent figure in the movement, expressed doubt.

“As for the truce, we don’t have big hope in its success,” he said, “because its success is linked to the commitment of the Saudi regime and its allies.”

Saudi Arabia began bombing in March after Yemen’s internationally-recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, was deposed by Houthi rebels.

Other Arab countries, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have supported the effort.

The Saudis, who normally shy away from deploying their armed forces, see Yemen a battleground in their struggle for regional hegemony with Iran and consider the Houthis proxies of the Shia state.

Iran has thrown its support behind the Houthis, who are also Shia and now control much of the west of Yemen. But there is no evidence it created the group nor directly inspired their rebellion which had been festering for years.

The conflict came to a head earlier this year when the Houthis allied with troops loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to stave off constitutional reforms that would have split Yemen up into six autonomous regions. The Houthis criticized Hadi’s plan, saying it would erode national unity.

Yemen was unified in 1990 under Saleh.

Separatists in the former South Yemen also rejected the partition plan — because they felt it gave them too little autonomy. They now comprise the main fighting force opposing the Houthis. Support for Hadi, whose restoration is the formal objective of the Saudi military intervention, is limited.

The president, who is also still recognized as Yemen’s leader by the United States, lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Four months of bombing have not driven the Houthis out of the capital, Sana’a. Nor has their alliance of convenience with Saleh been severed.

Despite reports in April that some pro-Saleh brigades had defected and were engaging the Houthis, Saudi Arabia seems to have been unable to win back the support of the Yemeni strongman whose ouster it facilitated in 2012 when the kingdom feared an Islamist-inspired “Arab Spring” uprising in the country.

According to the United Nations, some 3,000 Yemenis have been killed in fighting in the last three months alone, half of them civilians. Over a million have had to flee their homes and 21 million are in need of immediate help.