Few people outside analyst and scholarly circles think of Yemen and Libya conflicts as anything central to contemporary confrontation with some of the sprawling global state and non-state threats, and yet both are gateways to much greater crises, and even a fundamental shift in international alliances. In the view of the United States, Yemen is practically a forgotten conflict. While sectarianism continues to splinter the society, and radical ideologies take deep root following the withdrawal most of the UAE forces in 2019, the US is tittering closer to the edge of contemplating withdrawal.
President Trump’s administration is torn between the seemingly mutually exclusive election promises to his base (and beyond) of withdrawing US participation from “endless” Middle Eastern wars but at the same time confronting and pressuring Iran and other threats such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, as well as keeping to the recently articulated commitments of strengthening US defense relationship with Saudi Arabia, which leads the Arab Coalition effort against the Iran-backed Houthis in that theater of war. So far, most of the US pressure campaign to minimize Iran’s dangerous aggression in the region and expansionist ambitions consisted of sanctions and financial limitations, as well as from the engagement in a limited (and mostly reactionary) cyberwarfare. US engagement in Yemen consists mostly of logistical and intelligence assistance to the Arab Coalition, and a fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda, which flourish in the chaotic environment, and on tensions among the members of the +Coalition with sometimes divergent long-terms goals and visions of Yemen’s future.
If US bases in Yemen are attacked by Houthis, that would not make the news coverage or the public briefings. Part of the reason US had worked to minimize the appearance of Houthis’ potential threat to US security interest is the preservation of the delicate balance between being involved just enough to keep a modicum of stability in the war-torn country, keeping stable the relationship with US allies, and at the same time avoiding accusations of being drawn in into another long term conflict that may end with a physical escalation and confrontation with Iranian forces. There is increasing evidence that the purpose of the Houthis is global, rather than local or regional nuisance aimed at the Saudis. Houthis are modeled after Hezbullah, which itself started as a local Lebanese militia aimed at ousting Israel, but grew into a quasi-formal military structure that now controls the Lebanese Parliament, as well as has taken advantage of the country’s tribal structure to ensure local support.
Now, despite dissatisfaction with government corruption and foreign control which has affected even the Shia Lebanese residents, due to Hezbullah’s willingness to make allies with corrupt Christian parties and weak Sunni representation, it is nearly impossible to excise from power. Additionally, Hezbullah forces retain presence in strategically important areas, close to natural resources and organized crime schemes which help pay for Iran’s military expenditures and keep the economy afloat through a shadow market system. Hezbullah’s operations in Latin America, Africa, parts of Asia, and Europe are intelligence, political, military and covert operations, and also business related. Hezbullah has been involved in everything from abductions for ransom, drug trade, and control of diamond markets to ideological influence campaigns and social jihad “hearts and minds” psych ops.
The Houthis are being molded into the same type of faction, with global presence and a level of resourcefulness which far exceeds their initial purpose in toppling the Yemen government, destabilizing the country, and miring Saudi Arabia in a seemingly unwinnable asymmetrical contact. Having expressed threats in the general direction of UAE, Israel, and having spread anti-American propaganda, Houthis are becoming effective counterparts to Iraqi militias and other Iranian foreign legions, and with time, may become part of a more integrated network of well disciplined ideologically loyal forces that are alotted a portion of control over local territories in exchange for their availability to strike at Iran’s favored target anytime anyplace and give Iranian propagandists and lobbyists in the West a cover of plausible deniability to keep pushing deals with Tehran and to help the Islamic Republic avoid accountability in the form of sanctions snapbacks and arms embargoes. Like Hezbullah, they are increasing armed with sophisticated missiles, drones, and mining capabilities which so far they have used primarily against Saudi Arabia, but which, as with Hezbullah can be used against Israeli targets or to supplement Iraqi militia targeting of US sites.
The ruse is working with the European Union, which has criticized the possibility of snapback sanctions over the violations of the JCPOA, and shown reluctance to back the renewal of the arms embargo due to expire in the fall. Furthermore, several leading European countries are working to circumvent US economic sanctions on Iran through various financial instruments. All of this points to Iran’s position that there is international goodwill to exploit, but that Iran needs “safe spaces” to distract the world from its general malfeasance.
Yemen is a perfect convergence of a multitude of crises, illnesses, debilitating conditions, threats, and conflicting interest that becomes increasingly more complicated to untangle with time. Iran has in part succeeded in discrediting Saudi Arabia’s efforts in that regard through a combination of intense and largely successful one-sided media and political campaigns, which the Saudis and their allies have struggled to refute, coupled with the limited attention span for the conflict accorded by the US government. Saudis themselves appear to be demoralized as rumors of their eventual withdrawal persist, without any of the accompanying defense and security concerns being addressed or resolved. Separatists have taken control of a portion of Aden; the territories once cleared of Al Qaeda presence by UAE backed forces are now increasingly falling prey to the sprawling Muslim Brotherhood ideologies.
Despite a few key victories in terms of eliminating Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders in Yemen by joint operations with the Coalition, the groups are finding fodder for radicalization. The Houthis are increasingly legitimized by the Western media, the United Nations and other international organizations, and by human rights NGOs. While key donors have cut humanitarian aid, the Houthis are using the chaos to their advantage to amass power, impose self-serving new taxes, such as the “khums” tax to benefit “Hashemites” – tribal affiliates of prophet Mohammed, to which some Khomeinist followers also lay claim, and to mobilize support from youngsters recruited and indoctrinated through special training camps since they are children.
With the situation spiraling out of control and little international support for the Arab Coalition’s operations, Yemen is quickly becoming Iran’s backdoor to the Middle East. Once strengthened, Houthis can infiltrate the Saudi borders and through subversion, spread radical ideology and recruit supporters in the East, and mobilize the Yemeni diaspora in the South. They can exploit factionalism and alliances of conservative clergy, remnants of Islamists, pan-Arabists obsessed with the Hashemite return to power and opposed to the idea of even limited defense rapprochement between Israel and the Kingdom, as well as various opportunists who may not particularly care for Shi’a but will jump on any bandwagon that can bring them to power.
The Houthis are already using routes through Lebanon and Oman to reach Iran and to engage in effective trade, training, and the spread of Khomeinist revolutionary thinking and corona virus all over the region. Finally, Turkey is looking to make limited alliances with both Muslim Brotherhood (Al Islah) followers on the ground, the Hadi government, and even the pro-Iran Houthis to exploit the vacuum of power left by UAE withdrawal, US unwillingness to engage beyond defensive measures, and the beat down against the Saudis by the international community. They are offering to send humanitarian aid and ideological material through Somalia, using same routes that could in the future also deliver weapons.
It is time for Israel and the United States to start taking Yemen as more than just a backwater battle for Saudi self-assertion and to treated as part of Iran’s and its allies’ strategically important entry to the takeover of the Middle East and later, important, African and Middle Eastern routes – by political, military, and ideological means.