What is going on in Yemen? Hint: Nothing Good.

The US has not only gotten itself involved in yet another foreign conflict but we are almost single-handedly keeping the fight going with wide ranging aid to our “allies” in Saudi Arabia. We’ve been involved in the Middle East for over 60 years now and yet the region is still a mess with numerous civil wars, failed states, and a cavalcade of dictators, monarchs, and kleptocrats that would make Stalin proud.

Yemen is a mess and I wish I could accurately and neatly sum up just how bad it has gotten in this long forgotten country in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. What I can say (I’d rather yell it) is that while the US did not start this mess, we are the primary reason for its continuation. I’m ashamed of my country and all Americans should be too. I’ve put together a brief overview of what is happening, who’s involved and why, and the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding.

The history of Yemen goes back thousands of years but the modern nation began in the immediate aftermath of WWI. Two Yemens, North (an independent nation) and South (a British protectorate) emerged from the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Tensions between the two ran high for decades, especially after the exit of the British in 1967 and the emergence of a Marxist government in South Yemen in 1970. Unification came in 1990 but it did nothing to ease tensions between countless groups all vying for power. It doesn’t help that the country is one of the poorest nations on earth.

Oil accounts for upwards of 75% of revenue for the country but reserves are projected to run out in the next 10-20 years. On the plus side, the earliest known consumption of coffee took place in Yemen in the 1400’s, not much of a comfort though when you’re drinking sewage-tainted water, your children are withering away into nothingness, and the calming sounds of everyday life have been replaced by gunfire and explosions. Oh and also the rampant cholera…but aside from all this Yemen is doing great.

The current civil war began in 2011 as a result of the Arab Spring movement. Protesters called on their decades-long president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to resign. He relented in November 2011 and ceded power to his VP Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who a few months later won the office in an uncontested election. With the government even weaker than it had already been for years, open conflict broke out as numerous groups used the chaos as an opportunity to grab power and settle old scores.

While there are multiple groups fighting today, the two main belligerents are the government forces of President Hadi, based in the port city of Aden, and the Houthis, based in the capital Sana’a. Begun in the 1990’s, the Houthis are a Shia political/military organization. The official name of the group is Ansar Allah (“Supporters of Allah”). “Houthi” was adopted in 2004 after prominent member Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi was killed in a battle with government forces.  The group captured Sana’a in 2014 and now controls a sizable chunk of the western portion of the country. Just to clarify, all Shia are not Houthis and the Houthis are aligned with numerous Sunni groups. Middle Eastern alliances are never simple and cannot be boiled down to “Sunni vs Shia”.

With a Shia group running around their neighbor to the south, our old friends the Saudis shit their pants. First of all, Saudi Arabia is a corrupt and oppressive cartel that is more of a family business than an actual nation, like the Corleones just with more murder. Hell, the royal family’s name is part of the official name of the place. Saudi Arabia literally means the “Sauds of Arabia” and the flag began as a personal symbol of the family. (Fun fact: The only other country named after a person or family ruling a nation is Jordan, officially known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan)

The most important thing to know about Saudi Arabia is that for them Iran is an existential threat and everything is seen through Iran-colored glasses. Trade deal with Iceland? Extradition treaty with New Zealand? Balloon imports for birthday parties? Everything, consciously or sub-consciously, connects to Iran. Yemen is no different and in 2015 the Saudis committed over 100,000 troops and 100 warplanes to destroy the Houthis and their allies, an intervention that still goes on today and shows no sign of slowing.

In reality there is little evidence of widespread Iranian support of the Houthis. The latest evidence, revealed by the US in December 2017, is purportedly from a ballistic missile fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. Debris recovered is claimed to be from an Iranian-made missile but there has been no independent verification. Over the past few years several small transport ships carrying small arms and ammunition have been intercepted en route from Iran to Yemen but there is no smoking gun linking the ships to the Iranian government and such shipments are not widespread or prevalent.

Iran, like Saudi Arabia, is a dictatorial regime with little regard for the rights of its people and has without question provided training and supplies to insurgents in Iraq that killed numerous American soldiers. They are heavily involved in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon but there is no evidence of such widespread meddling in Yemen. The Houthis, and Yemeni Shia in general, are independently-minded and not interested in becoming proxies for Iran’s showdown with Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, one aspect of the conflict that is not reported on nearly enough is the fact that when the civil war broke out, the military split into two main groups, one aligned with President Hadi’s government forces and the other with the Houthis, giving them access to substantial stockpiles of weapons including anti-air, anti-ship, and ballistic missiles. Who knew the “shop local” movement was more than upper-middle class urban hipsters? A fruit and vegetable co-op is not far behind.

And finally we get to the US. Why in the hell did we get involved in this exercise in misery and suffering? The answer is…ugh…as an apology to the Saudis for the Iran nuclear deal. The deal, signed in October 2015, sent the House of Saud into a rage. The list of Saudi threats to the US after the deal is weightier than the Oxford Dictionary, but President Obama was committed to the deal and its preservation. But how do you make up with your best bud after such a betrayal? We offered weapons and support for military operations to the Saudis in Yemen. There are several points that should be made about this:

  • We sold the Saudis cluster bombs, a horrible weapon that often kills more civilians than enemy combatants. We haven’t used them since 2009…in Yemen.
  • The conflict in Yemen is primarily a civil war, a regional conflict at most if you include the Saudis but the Saudis aren’t targeting Al Qaeda, ISIS, or any other terrorist groups. A solid argument can be made that our support is not merely shameful but illegal. We have not declared war on Yemen, nor does the AUMF cover non-terrorist military action.
  • The US has been carrying out strikes on al Qaeda in Yemen since the early 2000’s but the weapons, intelligence, and mid-air refueling we provide the Saudis is not used to target Al Qaeda. In fact, the Saudis don’t give a damn about al Qaeda; Iran is the clear and present danger, everything else is of little to no concern.
  • Without US assistance Saudi operations in Yemen would have ended long ago. They simply could not continue such a complicated campaign for an extended period without American support.

So now that I’ve outlined the conflict I’ll leave you with a few details about the humanitarian crisis. So far about 10,000 have died, mostly civilians. 80% of the population of 28 million lack access to food, clean water, and basic health care. It is estimated that between 1/4 and 1/3 of Yemenis are starving, with famine becoming more and more likely. There are one million cases of cholera, a bacterial infection found in dirty water that causes diarrhea, vomiting, and muscle cramps. Without access to clean water and basic medical care death is slow and painful.

Is there any hope of peace in the near future? It’s not impossible but very unlikely. The Saudis, their Hadi allies, and the Houthis have made no progress in negotiations and all previous meetings have ended swiftly with nothing to build on for future negotiations. Would a US exit stop the conflict? No. We didn’t start this mess and our leaving would not end it but without our military logistical support the Saudis would certainly not be able to make war like they do currently.

The US cannot solve the problems of the Middle East. There is 70 years of evidence proving not only our inability to control or shape the region but also our tendency to create disasters that ripple throughout the region and world. (Exhibit A: Operation Ajax) Unfortunately, our meddling in Yemen started with Obama and has continued to Trump. Congress has put forth a few bills to halt our aid to the Saudis but those votes failed. There are a few members of Congress that have kept the issue fresh, one of the most notable being Republican Senator Rand Paul, but politicians have notoriously short memories. There’s always another issue, especially something as earth-shattering like the scourge that is Four Loko or vaping babies.

Yemen’s war is so out of control, allies are turning on one another, Washington Post

House declares U.S. military role in Yemen’s civil war unauthorized, Politico

Yemen: Saudi Arabia used cluster bombs, rights groups says, BBC

No, Yemen’s Houthis actually aren’t Iranian puppets, Washinton Post

Yemen: The world’s ‘worst humanitarian crisis’ in numbers, Fox News


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