Yemen: Carnage or Strategy? What is the War Really About?

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 9, No. 3, March 2021

By William R. Hawkins

Map of Yemen’s insurgency, according to published reports. Pink: Controlled by Hadi-led government. Green: Controlled by Revolutionary Committee. Tan: Controlled by Southern Transitional Council. White: Controlled by Ansar al-Sharia/AQAP forces. Grey: Controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Blue: Controlled by local, non-aligned forces like the Hadhramaut Tribal Alliance. Salmon: Controlled by forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh. Source: Ali Zifan.

Every new President is challenged by foreign adversaries early in their term to test how U.S. policy may change with a new administration. Iran did not wait long to send its proxies into combat against American forces and allies. In Iraq, Shiite militia groups launched rockets attacks which wounded several Americans. On February 26, President Joe Biden sent air strikes against several related militia targets in Syria in retaliation. This seemed a continuation of President Donald Trump’s policy of muscular deterrence inaugurated by the drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, while he was meeting with Iraqi militia leaders on January 3, 2020. President Biden sent a further message of deterrence to Tehran with a show of force by two B-52 strategic bombers escorted by Israeli fighters. The connection was important because an Israeli ship docked in Dubai was bombed by terrorists suspected of working for Iran on February 25.  

In Yemen, Iran’s proxy Houthi rebels have stepped up attacks by drones and ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia, targeting both population centers and oil industry targets. Every few days, another barrage is launched. On March 7, Houthi Brigadier Yahya Sareea claimed the group had fired 14 drones and eight missiles at Ras Tanura, one of the world’s biggest oil ports, and other targets near their border. In retaliation, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi renewed their air campaign in Yemen with strikes at the rebel-held capital of Sana’a and other key targets. The coalition had pulled back on their air strikes due to pressure from the U.S., but restraint by Riyad and Washington has only encouraged the rebels. Continue reading