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.

The Biden administration has been sending mixed, but mostly weak, messages to Iran about the Yemen civil war since taking office. At a February 5 press briefing, State Department spokesperson Ned Price concluded his review of recent administration statements on Yemen by conceding that “Saudi Arabia faces genuine security threats from Yemen and from others in the region, and so as part of that interagency process, we’ll look for ways to improve support for Saudi Arabia’s stability, to defend its territory against threats.” This reference to strategy seemed like an afterthought given that the focus of Price’s remarks, like those of President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in the days before were all about “ending all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales” and ending “our intelligence sharing arrangement with Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition.” The contradictions from one paragraph to the next concerning U.S. support, or termination of, in an existential conflict that has already spilled across Saudi Arabia’s border, indicates a policy that has not found a proper foundation.   

In 2014, after years of violence and insurgency, Houthi rebels (a Shia community) seized the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a, deposing the legitimate, internationally recognized government. Shiites make up about one-third of Yemen’s otherwise Sunni population. The reason for pulling support from the nine-nation Sunni coalition fighting the Houthi was given by Secretary Blinken when he noted that since the Houthi control territory inhabited by 80 percent of the Yemeni population, the American priority is to “make sure that we are not doing anything to make life worse or even more miserable for the long-suffering people of Yemen, which by most accounts is home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.” The Houthis were then removed from the list of terrorist organizations upon which they had been put during the closing day of the Trump administration. Yet, two days later, Price issued a warning to the Houthis, “the United States is deeply troubled by continued Houthi attacks. We call on the Houthis to immediately cease attacks impacting civilian areas inside Saudi Arabia and to halt any new military offensives inside Yemen, which only bring more suffering to the Yemeni people.” 

When asked about this at the press briefing next day, Price tried to square the circle by stating “We can do two things at once. We can ensure that we do not add to the suffering of Yemeni civilians – Yemen now home to what is believed to be the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe – while continuing to stand with Saudi Arabia in the face of these attacks from the Houthis.” But can they really do these two things at once, and do they genuinely want to?

The befuddled desire to stop the Houthis from taking control of Yemen and turning it into an Iranian satrap without helping our allies fight them is personified in the writings of Robert Malley, just appointed U.S. special envoy to Iran. Malley and Stephen Pompeo wrote an article for Foreign Affairs on the evolution of Yemen policy. Both had dealt with the issue while serving in the Obama administration. They recall the strategic thinking of the time as, “in the end, the decision [to aid the Saudis] was not an especially close call. Obama’s senior national security team unanimously recommended proceeding with some measure of assistance for the Saudi campaign, and the president concurred.” Assistance took the form of weapons shipments, intelligence sharing and logical support including aerial refueling of combat missions.

But now they feel another factor must take precedence over strategy. The title of their essay “Accomplice to Carnage: How America Enables War in Yemen” reveals their new outlook, the classical anti-war thesis that nothing is worth the blood and destruction of armed conflict. The humanitarian crisis of civilian casualties, refugees, famine, and disease leads as always to the search for peace at any price. 

It is an all too familiar refrain. It is not to be disputed or debated; it is to be dismissed because it is the nature of war. Consider the same argument in a different setting. Historian Marc Wortman marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day with an essay in The Daily Beast entitled Romanticizing D-Day Ignores Thousands of Civilian Deaths.” As has become common in all wars since, the Allied advantage in airpower is the target. The destruction of transportation infrastructure in the pre-invasion bombing campaign is criticized by Wortman just as Malley and Pompeo do the strikes on infrastructure in Yemen. Wortman calls the bombing of the city of Caen a “war crime.” The city was the main strongpoint blocking the British and Canadian advance from the beaches and saw the heaviest fighting of the Normandy campaign. Among the defenders was the 12th SS “Hitler Youth’ Division, so the Allies did not feel they could hold anything back. Wortman’s theme was highlighted by the editors in large print: “French civilians suffered far worse casualties as a result of their liberation by the Allies than were inflicted by their Nazi German occupiers.” Sounds like the Malley-Pompeo case for leaving the Houthis alone. One wonders what Malley would have done in 1944 if appointed special envoy to Germany?

The notion that the “carnage” will end if one side simply quits fighting is highly unlikely, especially when the Houthi are as Malley and Pomper concede “vehemently anti-American”, are known as The Partisans of God, and “are likely to feel as buoyed by any reduction in U.S. backing for the war effort as Saudi Arabia will feel forsaken.” Their acts of terror against civilians during the war foreshadows the despotic rule they will exercise on the model of their Iranian hackers should they win the war.

Nor can it be assumed that a Houthi victory will mean peace for the larger region. Malley and Pompeo recall the September 2019 drone attack against oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia, “Although the Houthis claimed responsibility, the sophistication of the strikes and the flight paths of the drones suggested an Iranian hand…. The war in Yemen has given Iran both the motivation and the opportunity to flex its muscles, and it has obliged.” Will victory not give encouragement to Tehran for more aggression, especially if that victory is the result of American withdrawal of support for its allies? How credible will a U.S. deterrence strategy be if it has already declared the costs of war are unacceptable, a calculation with which Iranian experience does not agree? And what chance is there for the negotiated peace that Malley desires if the U.S. is bargaining from a position of self-imposed weakness? 

Yemen does not just border Saudi Arabia. It is on the outlet of the Red Sea and Suez Canal; a trade route that carries 12% of world seaborne commerce. The Houthi’s have launched attacks against shipping using Iranian and Iranian-supplied Chinese anti-ship missiles and drone suicide boats. A Yemen satrap would be a strategic complement to Iran’s control of the Strait of Hormuz, bracketing the Arabian Peninsula. The importance of this waterway is indicated by the establishment of military bases by both the U.S. and China in Djibouti, just across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait from Yemen. Malley and Pompeo never mention this, but then geography is about strategy, which is not their concern. Nor do they discuss the Sunni-Israel alignment, prompted by the Iranian threat, which serves a broad array of American interests cross the region. 

What they do mention is something almost unheard of from people working in the Executive Branch, a desire for Congress to limit their actions. They argue, “The War Powers Resolution applies only to conflicts in which U.S. troops are either giving or receiving fire, not ones in which the United States is merely providing arms and advisers. Congress should change the law so that a president must obtain approval—and periodic reapproval—if he or she wants the United States to give support at levels that would effectively make it a party to a conflict.” They cite with approval efforts in Congress to cut aid to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. A look at 2018’s Senate Joint Resolution 54 casts doubt on administration claims that the U.S. will defend Saudi Arabia from the consequences of a Houthi victory. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) offered an amendment to preserve the ability of the U.S. to defend Saudi Arabia from “ballistic missile attacks, unmanned aerial vehicle attacks, maritime attacks against United States or international vessels, or terrorist attacks against civilian targets.” This was voted down 45-54 by Democrats led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and a handful of isolationist Republicans led by Senators Rand Paul (KY) and Mike Lee (UT). 

A major supporter of legislation to end U.S. involvement in the Middle East is Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) who penned a Foreign Affairs essay that appeared only two weeks after the Malley-Pompeo piece reinforcing the call for a military withdrawal. Only a year earlier, Murphy was under fire for meeting in secret with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Munich. Murphy tweeted at the time that “I cannot conduct diplomacy on behalf of the whole of the U.S. government,” but he did inform Iran’s top diplomat “Congress is a co-equal branch of government, responsible along with the Executive for setting foreign policy.” Tehran was glad to hear this given that Murphy had only a week before the meeting co-sponsored a resolution to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran.” 

In his new essay, Murphy declares “The first step is for the United States to disengage from the GCC’s proxy wars with Iran. The Iranian government is a U.S. adversary, but the festering series of hot and cold conflicts in the region—in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen—has simply served to strengthen Iran’s influence and create cataclysmic levels of human suffering.” Oddly, Murphy claims that Iran has not been contained because “the United States’ tepid, halfway military involvement was never substantial enough to tip the balance and has served instead to extend the conflicts.” Yet, it is opposition by Murphy and others that has kept the U.S. response tepid, but still sufficient to “extend” the conflict by preventing an outright Iranian victory. Murphy’s objective is not to increase the effort against Iran and its proxies, but to end it. He goes even further than Malley and Pompeo, calling on the Biden administration to “seriously consider reducing its military basing in the region. Reconsidering the costs and benefits of basing the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain would be a good start, as the United States’ massive footprint is becoming more trouble than it is worth.” This would be a great reward for Bahrain so soon after it agreed to normalize relations with Israel. 

The U.S. under the Obama and Trump administrations supported the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen because of the obvious dire consequences of a victory in such a strategic area by a proxy of Iran. And there was also an appreciation for having allies who are willing to fight. President Biden campaigned on the need to rebuild American alliances. That effort will be severely damaged if in wartime, when alliances are most vital, the U.S. shows itself to be an unreliable partner and adopts a “cut and run” policy. 

Yet, Malley and Pompeo feel that after six years of war, America “could lessen that commitment in an effort to reduce the danger of damaging entanglements, even if that means loosening a bond long seen as key to protecting U.S. energy and security interests in the Gulf.” The war has been just as long for the Houthi-Iran axis, but its leaders and fighters are not “soul searching” for having started the civil war or the humanitarian disaster they have caused by the way they have fought it. They are still focused on strategy. As Winston Churchill noted, “war is a contest of wills.” President Biden has appointed an envoy who has lost his will to do anything other than end U.S. “complicity” in war as an unadorned evil, and not just in Yemen. Hence, he and Pompeo concluded, “however it ends, it is unlikely to end well.”

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications.