Since March 2015 U.S. allies, led by Saudi Arabia, have been increasingly involved in a military campaign in Yemen against the Zaydi Shia fundamentalist rebel movement known as the Houthis, and their ally, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemenis forced to flee their homes because of it.
Yemen’s collapsing state holds negative implications for international maritime trade, as the conflict is occurring near a major trading artery for the global economy, the Suez Canal-Red Sea shipping lane, and for regional security for countries on both sides of the Red Sea, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aden.
The lack of a deep Yemeni national identity means that the incomplete fall of Saleh has seen multiple competing power centre re-emerge. Owing to the lack of national cohesion, events could yet see the country break up entirely, pushing nation building into to the far future. Militarily, NATO should therefore stay out of this bitter factional civil war between multiple sides. However, the Alliance should seek to mitigate the effects of the conflict at sea where international shipping could be affected by the belligerents or a fresh wave of piracy.
A multisided struggle
The real roots of the present civil war stem from Yemen’s complex regional and tribal politics, long predating the Arab Spring which led to the toppling of Saleh, Yemen’s long-time dictator. Following months of protests against his rule, a Saudi-backed deal saw Saleh step down in 2012 in favour of his Vice President, Field Marshal Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Hadi took office after running in an election as the only candidate for a transitional presidency, but in 2015 he was overthrown in turn by the Houthis who allied with the deposed Saleh. Their long-running insurgency had first developed in the early 2000s under the former dictator’s rule, but the Houthis saw the chaos of the Arab Spring as a chance to expand at the expense of the weakened central government of Saleh’s successor.
Hadi bitterly denounced the Houthi move against him as a coup, eventually fleeing to Saudi Arabia. A massive Saudi-led intervention against the Houthis and Saleh followed in March 2015, by nine Arab states and assorted mercenary forces. Djibouti and Somalia open their airspace, waters and military bases to the coalition whilst the U.S. accelerated its sale of weapons to coalition states and provided intelligence and logistical support. The U.S. and UK have also deployed their military personnel in the command and control centre responsible for Saudi airstrikes.
Saudi influence has galvanized regional states to defend the internationally recognized Yemeni government. However the kingdom’s military campaign has also provided an opening for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS) to seize territory in Yemen from which they operate in relative safety, and threatens to internationalize the Yemeni civil war.
A regional battle for influence
An example of this internationalization came on October 12 when the U.S. alleged that Houthi forces had fired missiles on American naval assets and struck back by targeting the rebel’s radar systems. Previously American attacks in Yemen had been limited to targeting members of Sunni militant groups in the fragmented state such as AQAP, al-Qaeda’s local franchise, which found refuge in Yemen after largely being driven out of neighboring Saudi Arabia in 2009.
Houthi hostility to America predates the U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia during its intervention on behalf of President Hadi’s feeble regime in March 2015. As a minority Shi’a community in a Sunni majority nation, they are fierce enemies of Sunni fundamentalist movements such as IS or AQAP, which view them as apostates to be exterminated. But they also oppose U.S. military involvement in the fight against the Sunni radicals as an unacceptable infringement of Yemeni sovereignty.
Now that the U.S. has supported direct military intervention against the group, this position has hardened and allegedly led to the recent missile attacks against U.S. navy ships. Though the Houthis deny their forces carried out the attacks, analysts speculate the rebels might have acquired Iranian anti-ship missiles or seized these from captured Yemeni army stocks. The result is direct hostilities have occurred between the Houthis and the U.S. for the first time.
Meanwhile the Saudis see the Shi’a Houthis as coming under the influence of Iran, though proof of Iranian backing to the rebels remains limited. As such Riyadh perceived the overthrow of the Hadi government through the lens of its struggle for influence in the Middle East with Tehran, rather than an internal development in Yemen’s turbulent politics. Thanks to forceful Saudi and U.S. support, President Hadi’s forces have been able to retake Aden and hold onto large parts of central Yemen. But the Houthis still hold the capital Sana’a and the Saudi led coalition has been unable to dislodge the rebels from the parts of Yemen unsympathetic to the internationally recognized government.
The exact extent of any Iranian backing for the Houthis is unknown but likely to remain small. The Houthis do not follow the same branch of Shi’a Islam as the Iranian regime and the Yemeni militia is not influenced by Tehran to anywhere near the same extent that Lebanon’s Hezbollah is, for example. Nonetheless there are credible reports that weapons transfers sent through neighboring Oman, said to include missiles, ammunition and small arms, have been stepped up by Iran to the Houthis in recent months. Yemeni and senior regional officials accuse the Omanis of turning a blind eye to the flow of arms through their territory and of failing to aggressively crack down on the transfers.
Western officials have been more skeptical about the scale of Iranian backing, pointing out that the Houthis secured an arsenal of weaponry when entire divisions of Yemen’s army, allied to former Yemeni President Saleh, defected to them at the start of the civil war last year. These included the crews of three Chinese-made Type 021 missile boats armed with C.801 anti-ship missiles. Some analysts claim that an unknown number of these C.801 missiles and their launchers were installed on trucks by Houthi forces and coupled with various surface-search radars to create an improvised missile system.
The Houthis had been using these weapons without success to strike at the Saudi coalition’s naval blockade against Yemen for about a year until they managed a direct hit against the catamaran Swift, a former U.S. Navy catamaran now in Emirati service. This system was destroyed in retaliatory strikes by American forces after the Houthis targeted U.S. ships but Tehran can easily supply its proxies with Iranian made replacements and the training to use them.
Since Iran offers a quasi-recognition of the Houthis as Yemen’s legitimate government and certainly sees the civil war in Yemen through the matrix of its regional conflict with Saudi Arabia, this would not be impossible to envisage. Tehran believes backing the Houthis in Yemen against Saudi Arabia is a counter move offsetting Saudi Arabia’s support for Syrian rebels fighting Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad.
It carries the risk of potentially antagonizing the United States at a time the two countries have warily cooperated over Iran’s nuclear program, but Tehran may think of Washington’s approval of Saudi action in Yemen as a sop from the Obama administration to Riyadh. When the nuclear deal was signed in 2015 skeptical Gulf countries warned Washington it would only embolden Iran in conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. The Iranians may be gambling that at least in Yemen the U.S. will not care enough to do anything except continue reassure the Saudis that they remain committed to defending Saudi Arabia’s interests.
The U.S. and other Western nations are right to hesitate before committing themselves, either individually or collectively though NATO, to a military campaign aimed at resolving Yemen’s intractable differences. Yemen was only formally united as a country in 1990 and has remained deeply divided even during the height of Saleh’s dictatorship. . The new Houthi Revolutionary Committee has been unable to defeat tribesmen opposed to it in central Yemen despite holding its ground against the Saudis and their allies on its home ground in Yemen’s north-western areas.
Meanwhile, although Saudi money did much to keep Yemen afloat before the war, this has now gone. As a result, the Yemeni economy is in freefall while civilians are on the brink of starvation. Yemen’s feuding factions include hostile southern secessionists and IS and AQAP militants who would react violently to any Western intervention on behalf of the Hadi regime. Heavy casualties would be inevitable and any post-conflict clean up would take years and cost billions, particularly one aiming at a Kosovo or Bosnian style nation building program to bring a permanent end to civil war. No Western government would be willing to meet this commitment at present and any failure would damage the prestige and perceived value of NATO.
The presence of major regional powers backing different sides in the present civil war also means that Yemen makes an especially poor choice for a major NATO intervention. Admittedly Yemen is lower on the Iranian priority list than it is for Saudi Arabia; Iran is ultimately much more willing to relinquish Yemen than cede influence in Iraq or Lebanon. But it is a useful card to have, and Tehran will keep playing it for as long as it can, because the Iranian regime knows how weak its proxies are, making Iran’s major rival look through their defiance. Riyadh has always considered Yemen to be in its backyard, and insisted that foreign countries, including the United States, follow the Saudi lead when making deals with its troublesome neighbor.
Inserting NATO forces into this conflict would be unlikely to end the fighting in Yemen entirely as long as Riyadh remains determined to end the war on its terms. Iran could step up its support to compensate for any NATO troop surge, setting the stage for a wider escalation beyond Yemen if Western armies are being constantly attacked by Iranian weapons. At a time when Europe is already strained by refugees from the war in Syria, any escalation of war in the Middle East would be a disaster which would expose divergent U.S. and European interests.
A job for NATO: Maritime security
The Houthi attacks on shipping passing through the Gulf of Aden have highlighted one valuable role for NATO forces— maritime security. Indeed, the Houthis gained access to missile systems which present a real danger to international shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the nearby strait, Bab al-Mandeb. The strait is a major shipping lane between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden leading into the Indian Ocean, and any Houthi attempt to disrupt the passage of international shipping would have massive financial implications for logistics and insurance companies involved in the maritime sector.
It would also be an economic disaster for Egypt, which controls the Suez Canal connecting the Gulf region and Asia to Europe and North America. Egypt has committed warships to support coalition operations against the Houthis and the rebels may calculate that targeting the economies of Saudi Arabia’s allies would be a good way to weaken the coalition supporting its domestic enemies.
Missile launchers and their radar systems have proven vulnerable to U.S. countermeasures but there are also reports that the Houthis have used small speed boats to support their missile attacks on coalition and U.S. vessels. These only present a danger to unarmed support ships like the Swift or to civilian vessels but these are precisely the vessels which would be vulnerable if the Houthis decided to switch tactics and start performing suicide attacks or hijackings in the Gulf of Aden or the straits.
There are precedents for this—in 2000 the USS Cole was hit by a speed boat packed with explosives while it was being refuelled in Yemen’s Aden harbour. Meanwhile hijackings by Somali pirates using small boats to approach and board undefended civilian vessels mean ships passing through the Gulf of Aden have required a permanent international naval taskforce to protect them. Even before Yemen’s civil war reached its present heights there were fears that a devastated Yemen could serve as a new hub for piracy.
NATO should consider the possibility that the Houthis could adopt this tactic or encourage and tolerate the emergence of pirate groups on their territory as a form of economic warfare against the Saudi coalition and its Western supporters. This would function similarly to the way Iran presently sponsors the Houthi ‘government’ as a means of pressuring Saudi Arabia without fighting an open war against them.
This could be modeled on the effort to suppress Somalian piracy, which NATO has been helping to deter and disrupt since 2008, protecting vessels and helping to increase the general level of security in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa and in the Indian Ocean. As part of this, NATO is currently leading Operation Ocean Shield in the region and working in close collaboration with the European Union’s Operation Atalanta, the U.S.-led Combined Task Force 151 and individual country contributors. Ocean Shield is scheduled to terminate in December 2016 but with the rise of the Houthi threat the alliance should shift its attention to the other side of the Bab al-Mandeb strait.
Yemen would be a highly unsuitable place for NATO intervention by air or on land. The interests of the Alliance at stake in Yemen are simply not high enough yet to justify intervening in what is essentially a civil war between Yemeni factions, aggravated by the sectarian struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The cost of maintaining peace and security in Yemen would be staggering at a time when the Alliance needs to focus on more urgent matters, such as deterring Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe.
This could change if there is an emergence of a jihadist emirate along the style of the IS caliphate declared in Iraq and Syria or the takeover of northern Mali in 2012. But for now, AQAP and IS in Yemen have not reached such threatening heights, while the arrival of NATO units to Yemen would merely provide targets of opportunity and ideological justification to the Sunni terrorist networks currently operating there.
What would be of great value in light of the demonstrated Houthi interest and ability to hit vessels passing through the Bab al-Mandeb strait is the creation of a new NATO naval task force modeled on its Somali predecessor to help deter future attacks and enforce freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb and elsewhere around the world.
A version of this article appeared earlier in the Atlantic Voices journal of the Atlantic Treaty Association and reappears here with kind permission.