War in Yemen, Two Years On

  • Middle East Policy

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Views from the Region

Two years have passed since the start of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Although the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and military forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh  continue to maintain control of important and strategic cities, including the country’s capital Sanaa, the Yemeni government and its coalition allies have been able to regain control of most of the country’s territory. Despite a great deal of civilian suffering and rounds of negotiations, both sides have shown little willingness to come to a mutual accommodation. Arab media has been consistent in portraying the Houthis as an extremist force backed by an Iranian regime bent on destabilizing the Arab world. Iranian media, when not downplaying Tehran’s involvement, has been urging some of the Arab coalition members to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia and negotiate directly with Iran. Meanwhile, a new, more combative U.S. administration has signaled its intentions to become more involved in the conflict.

Wondering whether the conflict will ever come to an end, Asharq Alawsat’s Salman Al-Dossary laments the inability of both parties to come to an agreement. But he reserves his harshest criticism for the rebel forces, blaming them for the continuing violence: “Any political operation needs both parties, something which is not available in the Yemeni crises…. Houthis deploy their military posts and civil bases in populated areas in Sanaa and other major cities under their control, so it is only natural that military resolution is not achieved as quickly as expected. This exposes the difference between how states and militias deal with the issue.…Two years after the war in Yemen, coalition forces and Yemeni legitimacy are in control of over 80 percent of Yemeni territories. The coalition succeeded in establishing a Yemeni state from scratch with its own government and army, after years without any of that. We are faced with a legitimate government and an eternal coalition in accordance with the references to reach a peaceful settlement, as opposed to a militia which prefers war to peace and resorts to power instead of negotiations. As long as the insurgency is persistent and won’t resort to a peaceful solution, there is no way other than continuing the war until its reasons are eliminated.”

For Hamdan Al-Shehri, however, there is no question about who should be held responsible for the impasse. In an op-ed for Arab News, Al-Shehri points out that the Houthis are only acting as “an Iranian arm in the region… Tehran has used militias to interfere in the affairs of such Arab countries as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Sectarianism and weapons-smuggling have been used to empower militias in order to overthrow governments and organize coups. Where are the Arabs? Are they so weak as to be overthrown so easily in four countries? To answer this question, we must remember what happened in Iraq after it was invaded by the US. That gave Iran the power to be in Iraq building huge militias. Without that invasion, Iran would not be in Iraq… Saudi Arabia realized the danger that would take Yemen away with no hope of return, and that would then happen to other Arab countries. The Kingdom thus formed the Arab Coalition to stop the loss of its fellow Arab countries.… The solution lies in UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which asks the Houthis to hand over stolen arms, withdraw from Yemeni cities and accept political control by the legitimate government. Again, Saudi Arabia is offering to cooperate with the international community in order to bring peace and security to the region. That will require cooperation from all sides, which will put an end to Iranian intervention in the region.”

The Iranian theme is echoed by others across the region, including this recent editorial by The National, which is quick to draw a contrast between the goals of the Iranian involvement in Yemen and that of the Arab forces: “If further proof were needed of Iran’s unconscionable meddling on the Arabian Peninsula, it has come with the release of a report from a United Kingdom-based arms-tracking NGO. The European Union-funded Conflict Armament Research (CAR) report confirmed that Houthi rebels are using “kamikaze” drones sourced from Iran to attack radar systems on anti-missile batteries operated by the Saudi-led coalition…This indisputable evidence of further Iranian interference is disturbing, but it comes as no surprise. Tehran has a long track record of meddling in this region – usually through proxies such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hizbollah in Lebanon – with the sole intent of extending its realm of influence well beyond its own borders. The Iranians seem determined to be enablers of further bloodshed in Yemen. The UAE and its coalition partners from the Gulf Cooperation Council and beyond want something different for our brothers and sisters in Yemen: a peaceful resolution to the crisis that ensures a stable, legitimate government and the chance for people to live in peace.”

That contrast is also highlighted in this piece by Al Arabiya’s Turki Aldakhil, according to whom Arab involvement in the conflict not only is justified, but also has served as a source of Arab unity: “This operation has revived cooperation among Arabs and has awakened their sense of dignity. They kept silent for years in the wake of Iran’s designs and ever since it entered Iraq after the US war in 2003. Within the framework of United Nations’ resolutions, Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi appealed for help of a neighboring country to save the state and its institutions from Houthi terrorists. The latter came close to aiming their missiles toward Saudi borders as they want to blackmail Saudi Arabia. They predicted several reactions but the last thing they expected was that Saudi Arabia will launch a comprehensive war against them. This came as a sudden surprise. …The UAE … launched a fierce battle that took the militias centuries back and entirely altered Yemen’s composition.… Operation Decisive Storm and Operation Restoring Hope have been roadmaps which altered the scene in the region and divided political stages in the Middle East into two: Pre-Decisive Storm and Post-Decisive Storm…. In brief, Operation Decisive Storm has united what stood divided. It has strengthened Saudi-Emirati ties and has paved the way for social sentiment, which no longer distinguishes between a Saudi and an Emirati…. The upcoming generations will see the results of this Operation Decisive Storm. Victory is but an hour of patience.”

Iranian observers, for their part, have tried to downplay the extent of Tehran’s involvement in the conflict. Even when they come close to acknowledging it, as Seyed Hossein Mousavian does in this Tehran Times op-ed, they try to localize the conflict, in an effort to divide some of the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council states from Saudi Arabia: “Alleged Iranian actions in the region are often presented as the reason why the GCC cannot trust Tehran and diplomatically engage it. The reality, however, is that the trust deficit between Iran and some of the GCC member states predates Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution… After the revolution, and the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980, some GCC member states moved to support the aggressor. Back then, there was no Iranian presence in Syria, Iraq or Yemen, no Hezbollah or nuclear issue. As such, to refer to supposed “malignant” Iranian actions in the region as a reason to abandon diplomacy today is a poor excuse and does nothing to foster trust…. During the last several years, Saudi Arabia and its allies have severed or reduced diplomatic relations with Iran… Saudi Arabia has embarked on a ruinous war in Yemen to push back against perceived Iranian influence there…. only real feasible option is for the GCC states to be creative and carefully leverage their mutual interests with Iran…. Rather than relying on external powers, borrowing their security or choosing to directly confront Tehran, the GCC states can diplomatically engage Iran and pursue avenues for confidence building and cooperation.”

However, Mousavian’s advice might fall on deaf ears, especially as Arab countries become emboldened by a new U.S. administration which appears to be itching for a confrontation with Iran, thus risking turning the conflict in Yemen into a truly international one: “So serious has Iran’s interference in the Middle East become, and particularly in the flashpoint of Yemen, that the United States is considering backing an Arab military plan to retake the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, currently in the hands of the Iranian-backed Houthis. American involvement is necessary and it is in the interests of the US itself, because Iran’s influence in the Yemen war is creating a significant threat not only to Yemen and the Gulf states, but to the wider world beyond it…..As the Yemen war has escalated, Al Qaeda have continued to seek to expand their reach. Without a solution, they will continue to grow, seeking to attack targets not only in Yemen, but in the wider world…. It also appears that the Houthis and their Iranian backers are looking to internationalize the conflict on the western side of Yemen, along the Red Sea coasts.… All of which shows why the conflict is Yemen is already an international conflict. The Iranians appear determined to affect the livelihoods of Yemenis, draw in Gulf countries and disrupt global shipping. Only a concerted effort by the Arab countries and their allies internationally, especially the US, can push them out. What happens in Yemen concerns the whole world; it is not a problem for Yemen alone.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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