In the last three years, Yemen has become the centerpiece of a cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and is the source of one of the largest humanitarian crises in the last decade. Since 2015, the Saudi-led Arab coalition, formed in support of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s internationally recognized government, led counterinsurgent operations against the Houthi insurgency in northern Yemen. The conflict has so far resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 Yemeni citizens, the displacement of over two million more, and created a power vacuum that allowed al-Qaeda to move into the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other Islamic extremists to gain a foothold in the eastern portion of Yemen. Despite the United State’s sale of over 670 million dollars in munitions to the Saudis, the Saudi-led coalition has failed to make any leeway in Yemen as the Houthi rebels continue to obtain advanced weaponry from Iran. Iran’s continuous military support of the Shi’ite Houthi insurgency must be stopped with an intense screening of the humanitarian aid that enters the northern ports of the country and higher local autonomy must be given to citizens in Saudi-coalition held areas in order to reverse the Shi’ite belief that the Hadi government is corrupt. Without any political compromise or the increased screening of the Houthi-held northern ports, the conflict will persist.
A History of Religious Strife and Lack of Unity
Since the unification of Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) in 1990, the country of Yemen has undergone severe political turmoil. After the defeat of South Yemen secessionists in the Yemen Civil War of 1994, President Ṣāliḥ and his party General People’s Congress (GPC) began a series of economic and political reforms designed to revitalize the economy in accordance with the IMF’s regulations. However, corruption within the Yemen government led to the gross exploitation of vast Yemen oil deposits that only enriched President Ṣāliḥ and other political elites. Consequently, northern Yemeni tribesmen (Houthi) who belonged to the Shi’ite sect of Islam, declared an open insurgency against President Ṣāliḥ and the Yemeni government in 2004.
Following the series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa that became known as the “Arab Spring”, protesters in Yemen gathered in the capital of Sanaa during January of 2011 to demand the resignation of President Ṣāliḥ for charges of excessive corruption and being a puppet of the United States and Saudi Arabian governments. In 2012, President Ṣāliḥ was forced to step down and relinquish power to Vice President Hadi by the international community. However, Yemen remained extremely divided under the Hadi administration and the lack of economic initiatives exacerbated social tensions as stagnation persisted.
By September of 2014, Vice President Hadi’s security forces opened fire against Houthi protesters who gathered in the capital of Sanaa which led to the Houthi invasion and occupation of the capital. In 2015, Vice President Hadi was able to escape house arrest in Sanaa and fled to the Yemeni port city of Aden in southern Yemen. Following his escape, Houthi insurgent forces began to advance towards Aden until Saudi Arabian-led coalition forces stopped their advancement. From 2015 to 2018, pro-Hadi forces and Saudi Arabian-led coalition troops have unsuccessfully led counterinsurgency operations against Houthi strongholds in northern Yemen and Yemen’s capital of Sanaa.
Halting the Circulation of Iranian Military Support
According to a recent report, Saudi Arabia has intercepted over 100 ballistic missiles fired by Houthi insurgents at Saudi Arabia. After the Houthi insurgent group gained control of the northern provinces of Yemen and its capital in 2015, it was speculated that the insurgents obtained access to North Korean and Soviet weaponry that the Yemen Arab Republic had purchased before the reunification of Yemen in 1990. Included in this weaponry were approximately “one hundred Scuds, sixty Tochkas and nearly a thousand eligible SA-2 missiles available to them” which had the capability to strike targets within Yemen or at the Saudi-Yemeni border. However, since 2016, the accuracy and range of Houthi missile strikes have increased tremendously, leading many experts to believe that the Houthi insurgents are either gaining access to Iranian Qiam type missiles through port smuggling or modifying their pre-existing missile supply with Iranian technology.
The Saudi-led coalition believes that Houthi insurgents are receiving hidden shipments of Iranian missile parts within humanitarian aid through the port of Hodeidah. After they receive these shipments, the Saudi Arabian government believes that the missile parts are reassembled in Houthi-held cities by Iranian missile experts. The presence of these long-range weapons is extremely threatening to coalition forces who are advancing from south Yemen into Houthi territory and the Saudi air force which conducts the bulk of operations against the Houthi insurgents.
In order to reduce the threat that the Houthi insurgents pose to Royal Saudi Air Force operations, the United States and Saudi Arabian-led coalition must blockade northern Yemeni ports and heavily screen all humanitarian aid that is entering the port of Hodeidah. Currently, over eighty percent of Yemen’s medicine and food enters through the port of Hodeidah and the port is a critical life line for the twenty two million people who are dependent on humanitarian aid for survival. Consequently, this large amount of aid offers many possibilities for Iran to smuggle in dismantled missile components. The U.N. Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNIVIM) for Yemen has failed to successfully screen commercial or humanitarian aid shipments that unload their cargo at the port of Hodeidah as missile launches against Saudi Arabia continue to persist.
All shipments that are destined for unloading their cargo in northern Yemen should be required to undergo thorough inspections. Currently, the UNVIM processes requests from ships that are destined to enter the ports of northern Yemen and provides clearance to all ships that are stationed in the UNVIM ports that are located in Djibouti, Dubai, Jeddah, and Salalah. Inspections are only issued if UNVIM has ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that the cargo from a ship contains equipment that is in violation of the weapons embargo against northern Yemen. The United Nations’ recent pledge of over three billion dollars in humanitarian aid for increasing the capability of UNVIM ports and the flow of aid to Yemen ensures that an increased inspection of ships that are destined for northern Yemen will not greatly reduce the benefits of the humanitarian aid that is sent to the struggling region. Inspecting every shipment that is sent to the northern ports of Yemen will ensure the reduction of the Houthi insurgents’ military capabilities and the effectiveness of their counterattacks.
Devolving Political Power
Given that the Saudi-led coalition has a considerable military advantage over the Houthi insurgency in northern Yemen, it is essential that Hadi’s government forces give more local autonomy to the citizens in regions that coalition forces have occupied. At the center of the origins of the Houthi insurgency lies accusations against the government for corruption and religious discrimination against the Shi’ite minority (45% of the population in Yemen is of the Shi’ite religious sect). According to a U.S. gov State report, the Shi’ite minority saw the religious schism between Sunni and Shi’ite muslims to be exacerbated in Yemen and “continued to feel targeted by government entities for their religious affiliation.” During the protests that occurred against the Saleh and Hadi governments in Sanaa, the Yemeni government actively discriminated against the Houthi population by purposely restricting hours that they could pray in mosques and “removed from stores printed materials that espoused Zaydi-Shia doctrine”. Consequently, the Houthi population felt alienated and rose up against the Yemeni government in the hopes that it would replace the leaders of Saleh and Hadi with someone who was willing to grant them equality. The Yemeni government can re-establish trust with the Houthi population if it gives northern Yemen equal rights and non-corrupt governorate leaders. As seen during the Saleh and Hadi administrations, local governorate leaders who were directly elected by Saleh and Hadi exploited the northern Yemeni population and created their own tax systems to enrich themselves. In order to produce a stable form of governance in the North that will be appealing to civilians supporting the Houthi insurgency, Hadi must offer the northern population the ability to directly elect their own governorate leader. By doing so, Hadi and his administration can regain the trust of the northern Yemeni and suppress popular support for the Houthi insurgency in conquered northern territory.
Political Concessions for Chances of a Lasting Peace
The Saudi-led coalition and Hadi’s government forces must increase efforts to cease the import of Iranian-made missiles and devolve political power to conquered Houthi-operated villages if it wants to win the war in Yemen. Given Iran’s serious commitment to backing the Houthi rebels and the previous religious schism in Yemen between the Shi’ite and Sunni populations, the Yemeni government must reduce Houthi missile launches that are aimed at halting coalition force advancements and damaging the property of coalition nations. Persuading the Houthi population that political equality can be achieved without war is essential for reducing their will to fight and can lead to a serious repair of the trust between the Shi’ite and Sunni populations in Yemen.
With increased efforts to screen every ship that attempts to gain access to northern Yemen ports, the Saudi-led coalition can reduce the operational capacity of the Houthi rebels and can continue their operations without wasting any resources on protecting Saudi oil deposits or air fields. The United Nations’ efforts to increase the amount of humanitarian aid into northern Yemen in tandem with more local autonomy for Houthi villages that are conquered by Yemeni government forces will increase popular support for the coalition and can lead to an end to the conflict.
Featured Image Source: Al Jazeera