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What Everyone Thinks They Know About the Yemen War is Wrong
Oct 11, 2021 | Oved Lobel
European Eye on Radicalization – 11 October 2021
The ongoing Houthi offensive to seize Marib, the last stronghold of the Yemeni government, has seen the group make major gains in the past week. In response, the U.S. pledged a further $290 million in additional humanitarian assistance and reiterated its commitment “to an inclusive, U.N.-led peace process to achieve a durable resolution to the conflict for all Yemenis.”
While the definition of insanity is not actually doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, the cliché is unfortunately applicable to the U.S. policy towards Yemen. Despite at least six years of demonstrable failure and substantial changes in the overall situation since 2015, there has been absolutely no adjustment by the U.S. in its rhetoric or approach.
The myopic U.S. focus on alleviating the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen—by most metrics, the worst in the world—without addressing the true nature of the conflict has had the unfortunate effect of actually exacerbating both the war and the humanitarian situation, and will continue to do so unless the following misconceptions about the war are addressed and U.S. policy overhauled accordingly.
A Regional War, Not A Civil War
First, the war in Yemen is not a proxy war and did not start with the Saudi-led coalition’s defensive intervention against the Houthi coup in 2015, when the group illegally seized power in alliance with its erstwhile enemy former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Rather, as I argued in my March report for European Eye on Radicalization, the war is an extension of the Houthi jihad—what they call the “Quranic March”—unleashed under Iranian tutelage in 2004 to establish a theocratic, totalitarian Islamic State.
This ferocious jihad continued through 2010 and even through the Arab Spring protests in 2011, though this chronology is ignored by Houthi apologists in the U.S. government and the broader analytical community. Ansar Allah, as the Houthis are formally known, is quite explicit: its non-negotiable intention is to expand their Islamic State across the Arabian Peninsula in order to fight Israel and what they view as the U.S. puppet regimes of the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. Their antisemitism is such an integral part of their ideology that they recently completed their ethnic cleansing campaign, begun around 2007, against Yemeni Jews.
The report lays out in detail how Iran and the Lebanese and Iraqi branches of its Revolution have cultivated the Houthi family and its associates since 1979 as a Yemeni version of Hezbollah and has overseen and guided every step of their evolution, from the ‘Believing Youth’ of the 1990s to the ‘Ansar Allah’ of today, both not coincidentally named after eponymous components of Lebanese Hezbollah.
Often misrepresented as a Zaydi Shia backlash to economic neglect and threats to their religious practice and identity, Ansar Allah is and always has been an unambiguous Iranian instrument, promulgating Khomeini’s pan-Islamic, transnational vision. The group has managed to replicate the brutal theocracy of their progenitors in Tehran by establishing a parallel Islamic regime on top of their direct capture of Yemeni state institutions.
In 2020, Iran appointed the long-time Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) overseer of Ansar Allah, Hassan Irlu, as its military satrap and “ambassador” in Yemen to directly supervise Houthi military operations against Marib.
It is simply not true, despite ubiquitous misinformation and repeated false assertions by figures like U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, who has become a veritable Houthi advocate alongside Ro Khanna and several other Democrats in the U.S. Congress, that Saudi Arabia inadvertently spawned this long-standing Houthi-Iran alliance when it directly intervened for the first time in Yemen in 2009.
An Artificial Houthi-Generated Humanitarian Crisis
The second prevalent misconception is that a Saudi blockade of Yemen is the main cause of the humanitarian catastrophe in the country. Leaving aside Saudi Arabia’s dubious capacity to actually enforce whatever blockade exists, it does not really impact imports such as food and oil. Moreover, multiple former and current U.S. officials involved in Yemen policy have testified that it is the Houthi regime, not the blockade, that is overwhelmingly responsible for the problems relating to humanitarian aid.
The Associated Press reported in February 2020 that the Houthis were blocking half of the United Nations (U.N.) aid programs in Yemen, as well as U.N. efforts to monitor the hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian funds, while demanding a massive cut of that aid. One U.N. official remarked on the World Food Program’s potential decision to cut its food aid because of Houthi obstruction, “It’s unfortunate that people will suffer but this is on the Houthis. They can’t use people as hostages for too long.”
U.N. agencies channelled unaudited funds for these aid projects through the Houthi “aid-coordination” agency, the Supreme Council for Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation (SCMCHA), which oversaw every project, AP reported:
“U.N. agencies continued to put hundreds of millions of dollars into Houthi accounts for ‘capacity building’ … [L]ast summer, the U.N. requested all agencies report how much they were giving in direct cash transfers. In 2019, the total reached $370 million, around 10% of the entire international aid budget for Yemen, according to a U.N. spreadsheet obtained by the AP. Around $133 million was marked in the spreadsheet as ‘not audited.’
Some officials in the Houthi aid body, SCMCHA, appear to be receiving multiple salaries, the data shows. For a time, three U.N. agencies were each giving salaries to the body’s president, his deputy, and general managers. Each of the officials received a total of $10,000 a month from the agencies, the spreadsheet shows.
The U.N. refugee agency also gave SCMCHA $1 million every three months for office rental and administrative costs, while the U.N. migration agency gave the office another $200,000 for furniture and fiber optics.”
Former chief of U.N. humanitarian operations in Yemen Lise Grande told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April that Ansar Allah’s “coercive, predatory, police state” had “imposed hundreds of restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian aid” and “continues to threaten, bully, intimidate, and detain humanitarian staff.” Grande lamented that it may not be possible to prevent the coming cataclysmic famine or even mitigate the humanitarian situation as long as Ansar Allah’s theocracy exists.
U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking and Assistant to the Administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Sarah Charles explained to the Atlantic Council in March that the chief problem was not food or other aid coming in, but Houthi obstruction and diversion of the aid being delivered. In June, Lenderking urged “the Houthis to avoid stockpiling and manipulating fuel prices, which we fear has kept prices artificially high even as fuel has arrived through Hodeida and overland from Southern ports.”
In June 2020, Trump administration Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker similarly blamed the Houthis for the humanitarian catastrophe, calling “upon the Houthis to stop obstructing humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. We have made the difficult decision to halt much of our assistance to areas controlled by the Houthis because they were not observing internationally recognized humanitarian principles to allow the aid to get to people in need.”
The problem is emphatically not aid delivery to Yemen, but the ability of Yemenis to access it, something which the Houthis have rendered nearly impossible.
An additional, fatal obstruction to the delivery of humanitarian aid is the widespread, indiscriminate use of landmines by the Houthis. The Houthis have laid hundreds of thousands, and potentially over a million, mines across Yemen that, on top of obstructing aid delivery, have directly killed and maimed hundreds if not thousands of civilians and will continue to do so.
There is nothing humanitarian about the pervasive belief that aid delivery can be compartmentalized—the road to hell is paved with an “aid at all costs” attitude that is substantially empowering the cause of the humanitarian catastrophe: the Houthis. As a detailed investigation of Houthi aid weaponization revealed in March, the Houthis are diverting food and aid delivered by U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) via the SCMCHA and other Houthi organizations to their frontline fighters and loyalists.
The Houthis also use their control of food and funds to recruit fighters, including children, in exchange for aid. Refusal to submit to Houthi demands or supply manpower results in being deprived of aid. Humanitarian organizations and funds are thus directly subsidizing the Houthi war machine and entrenching their political power, in the process aggravating the very humanitarian situation they’re ostensibly trying to alleviate.
Third, there is a shocking “Bothsides-ism” among analysts and policymakers, as if Saudi Arabia on the one hand and the Houthis and Iran on the other were equally responsible for the war, the current diplomatic impasse, and the overall humanitarian crisis. In reality, as Special Envoy Lenderking has reiterated to both the House and Senate, Saudi Arabia has engaged constructively and in good faith with the U.S. and international community and has been desperately trying to extract itself from the war, an assessment shared by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General McKenzie and the Trump administration’s top regional State Department representative, David Schenker. The Saudis have even declared months-long unilateral ceasefires, despite increasing Houthi missile and drone attacks against its civilian infrastructure, and are continuously proposing peace plans that are then rejected by the Houthis, Hezbollah, and Iran.
Iran, on the other hand, continues to escalate qualitatively and quantitatively, shipping ever more sophisticated drones and missiles to their proxies and even establishing local production facilities in Yemen to allow the Houthis to launch daily attacks on Saudi Arabia and threaten the region. “I don’t see any indications that Iran supports a political solution,” Lenderking told the Senate.
As for the Houthis, “They remain focused on continuing their military assault on the city of Marib. At present, this offensive is the single biggest threat to peace efforts,” asserted Lenderking. Marib is currently hosting as many as two million internally displaced people in nearly 200 makeshift camps, and the only thing standing between massacres and a humanitarian calamity that would dwarf anything to date, even by Yemeni standards, are Saudi airstrikes.
So explicitly uninterested are the Houthis in peace that in September 2018, they simply didn’t turn up for international peace talks, forcing their cancellation. In September 2019, Schenker announced that the Trump administration was in talks with the Houthis to pursue a ceasefire:
“We are narrowly focused on trying to end the war in Yemen. We are also having talks to the extent possible with the Houthis to try and find a mutually accepted negotiated solution to the conflict.”
The Houthis stonewalled talks and continued their offensives, resulting in their listing as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in January 2021. To incentivise them to reengage diplomatically, the Biden administration not only removed their FTO designation, but also went a step further and removed their leaders from the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list.
The Stockholm Agreement of 2018, the one diplomatic “victory” for the international community in Yemen, accomplished only one thing: it protected Houthi control of Hodeida port from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), thus allowing the Houthis to maintain their stranglehold on humanitarian aid and freeing up their forces to launch their offensive to take the rest of the country.
The only Houthi response to Saudi and international peace overtures has been to dramatically escalate the number of missile and drones attacks, including one that very nearly decapitated the entire Yemeni government at the airport in Aden as they arrived.
In 2021, the Houthis refused to meet with the U.N. special envoy, prompting U.S. Special Envoy Lenderking to declare in May:
“We were disappointed, frankly, that on the last trip to Oman, the Houthis declined to meet with the U.N. special envoy. And it wasn’t just that particular meeting that was problematic. It’s a trend, where the Houthis, while showing constructive engagement on a number of occasions with different stakeholders, have then backtracked or, as we say in sports terminology, moved the goal posts to what has been agreed to.”
On July 1, the U.S. State Department spokesperson lambasted the Houthis for refusing to engage with the international community despite a deal that met all of their ostensible concerns:
“When it comes to Yemen, you asked if we are fed up with the Houthi attacks. The answer to that is yes. We are beyond fed up. We are horrified by the repeated attacks on Marib. We strongly condemn the Houthi missile attack on a residential neighborhood in Marib on June 29th. It took civilian lives, including the life of a child. We believe it is long past time to end the conflict in Yemen and to provide immediate relief to the Yemeni people.
What we know is that the Houthis’ offensive in Marib is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis faced by the people of Yemen. It is by many accounts home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. For the Houthis to continue this brutal offensive while there is a serious proposal before them, a proposal that would meet their long-held and stated demands for a plan with practical steps to facilitate the flow of goods into and within Yemen, implement a nationwide ceasefire, and initiate inclusive political talks—that is what separates the Houthis from other Yemenis who are actively working towards peace, who strike us as being serious about peace.”
There is no denying that the Saudi bombing campaign in the initial years of the war was horrendously conducted, but this is certainly not the current situation and hasn’t been for more than two years.
Where is the outrage over the systematic recruitment by the Houthis of school children, thousands of whom have reportedly been killed on the front lines as cannon fodder? The Twitter account @abduhothifi painstakingly documents the jihadi radicalization and deaths of these children—to deafening political silence.
Where is the outrage over the Houthi landmines killing and maiming civilians? Or the appalling public executions, including beheadings? Or the systematic torture? Or the industrial, Talibanesque abuse and oppression of women, including recently banning women in Sanaa from working with NGOs, using smartphones, and wearing makeup? Or the ethnic cleansing of Jews? Or the attacks on the Baha’i and the crushing of the press?
Ballistic missile and drone attacks against civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia happen so often they are rarely if ever reported. The Houthis also continue to target Marib and other Yemeni cities with ballistic missiles and drones, including the Yemeni ports used for humanitarian aid delivery.
Yet all U.S. pressure continues to be directed against Saudi Arabia, including stripping them of intelligence and logistics and support and even withdrawing U.S. air defence systems in the midst of escalating attacks. Even that doesn’t go far enough for many Democrats, who are demanding immediate unilateral Saudi surrender to the Houthis. This approach is predicated on the incorrect assumption that the Houthis would be willing to negotiate a power-sharing deal if the U.S. demonstrates that it won’t support Saudi Arabia.
Lenderking, in May 2021, claimed:
“The Houthis have an important role to play in Yemen, and we’re eager to get beyond the military conflict so that the Houthis can play that role and begin … a real conversation and a sustained conversation that brings Yemenis together to decide the future of their country. That is not for us, the United Nations, or anybody else. We want to facilitate that, and I think the international community has a responsibility which it is eager to meet to create that platform so that Yemenis can be talking together.”
But totalitarian revolutionaries do not have a role to play and will never genuinely compromise on absolute control. The Houthis are Yemen’s Taliban, and the endeavour to kickstart intra-Yemeni negotiations would end identically to the “intra-Afghan negotiations,” which simply facilitated the Taliban takeover.
Because this administration juxtaposes military force and diplomacy rather than viewing them along a complementary continuum, it cannot conceive of any approach beyond appeasement and engagement with enemies, alongside severe pressure on allies and clients. As a consequence, the Houthis may well conquer Marib before 2022.
U.S. policy towards Yemen therefore needs substantial course-correction. The most immediate concern, regardless of any broader Yemen or Iran policy, is helping the Saudis repulse the Houthi attack on Marib. Any realistic U.S. policy needs to recognize that almost all diplomatic engagement with the Houthis will be fruitless—like the Taliban in Afghanistan, they are monomaniacal fundamentalists who are pursuing uncompromising jihad to establish their Islamic State, and like the Taliban, they are controlled by a foreign power. If the U.S. wishes to avoid a second Afghanistan, it must recognize the simple fact that—contrary to the incessant mantra “there is no military solution”—there is in fact no diplomatic solution currently on the horizon.
On top of this, more than a decade of local, regional, and international engagement with the Houthis illustrates that they, like their Iranian overseers, are bad-faith actors. This is most recently demonstrated by their refusal to guarantee the safety of U.N. inspectors to investigate the Safer oil tanker—which is on the verge of breaking apart and causing an ecological disaster of unimaginable proportions—despite multiple commitments to do so.
Currently, the U.S. views the war as a needless distraction from its compartmentalized counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Yemen, which it undertakes in partnership with the U.A.E. and its local proxies in the South. But this compartmentalization is a fiction. A Houthi victory will severely disrupt these counterterrorism efforts and create space for the regeneration of these successfully degraded organizations.
In Yemen, there is an implacable aggressor, Ansar Allah, which has savagely conquered and subjugated much of Yemen since 2004. The first step in a realistic U.S. policy towards Yemen would be to stop equating the aggressors with the defenders and to stop empowering the former with fruitless engagement and appeasement while pressuring and undermining the latter.
The war in Yemen would be long over, and need never have begun, if the Houthis were capable of compromise; they are not. Instead of continuing the same failed approach of toothless, ineffective diplomacy totally unmoored from reality, U.S. policymakers need to help Saudi Arabia defend Marib, not hinder it by withdrawing all logistical support. Should Marib fall, the Houthis will turn their gaze not only to the areas controlled by the U.A.E.-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is itself virtually at war with the Yemeni government, but to Saudi Arabian territory, as well.
Whatever the complexities of the conflict, the primary culprit in the suffering of Yemenis and the continuation of the war is the fanatic, revolutionary brutality of Ansar Allah and its Iranian backers, not Saudi Arabia. If the U.S. truly cares about Yemenis, the bare minimum requires that they stop subsidizing Houthi expansionist theocracy with humanitarian aid; redouble efforts to interdict Iranian weapons shipments; and cease legitimizing the Quranic March with dead-end diplomatic engagement.