Why the Yemeni Civil War Matters
March on, join bravely, let us to’t pell-mell
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.
Richard III, Act 5, Scene 3
From the news coming out of Yemen, it looks like President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has either fled Aden or has fled the country. This comes in light of an advancing rebel army moving to take control of the capital of the southernmost state on the Arabian Peninsula. The conflict in Yemen, which has been erupting in spurts for months, has now, it seems, reached its breaking point. While the American embassy in Yemen had been evacuated several weeks ago, only last week did American intelligence ground operations have to pull out. This is a staggering setback for the Administration in Washington which was using its positions in Yemen for significant counterterrorism operations across Yemen and the Middle East. While the Administration attempted to downplay the significance of a withdraw of assets from the beleaguered Gulf State, the reality on the ground is dire. Considering the importance of the American presence in Yemen for the ongoing covert aspect of the War on Terrorism, giving up a foothold in Yemen is extremely significant. With the billions of dollars the United States has spent to secure its position in Yemen, abandoning that interest can only mean that the United States realizes that the situation on the ground has deteriorated to such an extent that the mission objectives are no longer attainable.
The US Withdraw From Yemen
While it is certain that the United States still has covert operations in place in Yemen, the removal of material support (such as drones and other operational assets), signifies that real-time intelligence that would have been definitely actionable in the past, will now have to be transmitted to sites outside of Yemen. This is a significant strategic setback in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as other terrorist organizations.
However, it is not al-Qaeda that is advancing on Aden forcing President Hadi into either retreat or exile. Rather, the conflict, like the continuing narrative across the Middle East, is between Sunnis and Shiites. The Shiite Houthi “rebels” are poised to plunge Yemen back into civil war.
While the prospect of war abroad is never something that should be taken lightly, it’s important to ask why the United States, or its citizens, really need to care about something happening half a world away.Poignantly, shouldn’t the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation apply when it comes to a Yemeni war? More to the point, isn’t the United States better served staying out of internal conflicts in order to have some degree of diplomatic power with whatever new government arises from the ashes of the war?
Those concerns are absolutely correct. The United States, if it has learned anything from the last fifty years of conflict across the Middle East and North Africa, needs to assume a role of interested-disinterest. That is, advocate for stability, but be willing to accept and legitimize swift changes in government. Protecting oppressors and the status quo only hurts the diplomatic reputation of the United States (as well as its moral authority) when a new government comes to power.
A Delicate Balancing Act
These lessons and realities aside, the problem with the deepening civil war in Yemen has the potential of setting off a violent chain of events in the Middle East at a time when governments in the region are particularly on edge. Even more crucially, the United States is in the midst of a tense diplomatic negotiation over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. This negotiation, being watched closely by the hawks in Washington, has diminished the United States in the eyes of Tel Aviv and Riyadh.
So why does the Yemeni civil war matter? Because the government in power was friendly to Saudi Arabia. Yemen, which shares a place on the Arabian Peninsula with the Saudis, has played its part as a nominally-pro-American (insofar as the Saudis are pro-American) Sunni ally. The rebels, who share an ideological affiliation with Iran, would set up a Shiite puppet state on the Saudi border.
Already being tested by declining oil prices, a new monarch, the United States’ pivot towards a conciliatory attitude on Iran, and attempting to combat Daesh (the local term for the Islamic State), the Saudi government is being stretched thin. It is a particularly conceivable scenario where Saudi troops move across the border to suppress the Yemeni revolution.
The reasons why the Saudis could not allow a Shiite government on their borders are twofold. First, it undermines Saudi authority. The Saudi government maintains a hold on its population and its position as a regional power because of its perceived wealth and authority. If the prestige of the Saudi monarchy is diminished (at the same time as major declines in oil prices), the government will begin to fail. Second, an Iranian puppet state on the Saudi border would be a constant area of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran’s ongoing grapple for influence in the Middle East.
What Type of Support Will Iran Provide the Houthis?
It remains to be seen what degree of investment Tehran has made in the Houthi revolution in Yemen. In the event that Saudi troops effectively crush the revolution without Iranian intervention, then it will appear that the revolution organically developed out of the long-simmering ethnic tension in Yemen.
However, the optics of Iran, which has been dealt significant setbacks in recent years with the ongoing civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State, would significantly curtail Iranian influence. Iran, which has been slowly asserting more and more influence over the Iraqi government (seemingly culminating in the ongoing offensive in Tikrit against IS without direct American involvement [though there are recent reports of some reconnaissance support]), has the mission to extend its influence. Failing to support the Houthi Shiite revolution would help the Iranian brand.
In the midst of all of this turbulence is the United States. America has been a consistent, if less-than-approving, partner with Saudi Arabia over the past decade in the War on Terror as well as fostering a robust, if pro-Saudi, trading relationship. However, with the United States making a strategic play to engage Iran diplomatically, even going so far as to poison the American relationship with Israel to do it, the Saudis have to realize that their time as the favored Arab partner of the United States may come crashing down faster than the price of oil.
Consequently, the Saudis may very well act in Yemen to suppress the Houthi revolt. The Saudis, who boast one of the best equipped militaries in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, could easily achieve the objective of preserving Sunni rule in Yemen. However, predicting how the United States would respond to this invasion is anyone’s guess.
A Grim Prediction of Future Wars
While commentators in the United States generally will predict a future war with Iran beginning in the context of Israel, if Iran decides that Riyadh has overstepped in moving into Yemen and moves to either covertly or overtly support the Houthis, there is a high chance that the Middle East is looking at a major conflict.
War between the Saudis and Iran, while not likely, is not outside of the realm of possibility. American and Israeli wargamers need to prepare for dealing with, first, the shock to the oil market that such a conflict would generate, and second, the best way to make use of this type of war. While it may seem, at first blush, that the United States really shouldn’t care about this type of affair, the material support Iran is providing against the Islamic State in Iraq and the material support the Saudis have provided against al-Qaeda would both be effectively reduced to zero. A war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would allow the international global jihadi movement to grow exponentially.
The biggest winner in a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be the Islamic State. It is crucial that the United States take steps now to lessen tensions on the Arabian Peninsula and mediate an immediate diplomatic resolution to the exploding Yemeni civil war. The consequences if it does not could be dire.