On June 13, Emirati-led forces began an assault on the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, currently held by the Iranian-aligned Houthi government. The offensive marks the largest battle to date of the war in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition of Arab states – backed by the United States – and its Houthi opponents, a conflict that has roiled Yemen since 2015. While the Saudis have led the overall campaign, their coalition partners and close allies the Emiratis are in charge of the Hodeidah offensive. Some in Washington have heralded the operation as a blow to Iranian influence in the Middle East, while others have warned by supporting the Emiratis and Saudis the United States risks involving itself in a massive humanitarian catastrophe.
The Emiratis paused the offensive in early July in order to clear landmines, drones, and snipers and address humanitarian concerns. With the battle on hold, BPC’s background brief provides a short history of what’s happening and what’s at stake.
How Did We Get Here?
The Yemeni Civil War’s roots can be traced to the Arab Spring. In 2011, a revolution began in Yemen against long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Numerous issues animated the protesters, including the regime’s corruption, unemployment, poverty, and a lack of water. After significant violence, Saleh left office in 2012 as part of a brokered agreement and was replaced by his former vice president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Following several years of instability, the Houthis – a Shiite political, military, and religious group with links to Iran that had been waging an insurgency in northern Yemen since 2004 and participated in the 2011-2012 revolution – took the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in September 2014. The Houthis then stormed the presidential palace in January 2015. Hadi and his government fled the capital. Behind the scenes, Saleh had allied with the Houthis and helped orchestrate their takeover of the country.
Concerned with its archrival, Iran, controlling a country on its border, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in March 2015 to defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi and his government. It mobilized a coalition of Arab countries to do so, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan. For over three years, the Saudi-led coalition has fought alongside pro-Hadi forces in a brutal war against the Houthis for control of the country. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took advantage of the instability to gain control of large tracts of the country.
The war, in one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of Yemenis lack adequate food or access to clean water, and a cholera outbreak began in 2016. At least 5,900 civilians have been killed in the conflict. According to Amnesty International, approximately 3 million Yemenis have been forced from their homes over the fighting, and 22.2 million out of 28.8 million Yemenis depend on humanitarian assistance to survive.
The Saudis have been repeatedly accused of committing war crimes, including intentionally bombing civilians and civilian-associated targets such as hospitals, schools, markets, and mosques. The Saudis have also used cluster munitions, banned under international law. As a way to prevent supplies from reaching the Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a partial aerial and naval blockade on the entire country, exacerbating the suffering of Yemen’s populace. Aid deliveries are restricted, as are commercial imports of food, medicine, and fuel. The Houthis have also been accused of war crimes, including not differentiating between combatants and civilians.
Over the last three years, the Saudi-led coalition has made incremental progress against the Houthis. It recaptured the key Yemeni port of Aden in 2015 and earlier this year advanced up Yemen’s west coast towards Hodeidah. Notably, Saleh was also killed by the Houthis in December 2017 when he tried to defect to Hadi’s government-in-exile. The Houthis have repeatedly launched missiles towards Riyadh and other Saudi cities. The United States, Britain, and France have all supported the Saudis and their allies to varying degrees, including with logistical support, intelligence support, arms sales, and occasional military action against the Houthis. Western leaders have been accused by human rights groups of being complicit in Saudi war crimes.
What’s At Stake?
The battle of Hodeidah and Yemeni Civil War should be viewed as part of the wider Middle East-wide proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yemen is one of several theatres of this hot and cold conflict, along with Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Both Tehran and Riyadh are invested in preventing their archenemy from achieving regional dominance.
Saudi Arabia has successfully aligned itself with numerous other Middle Eastern countries against Iran, including its Gulf Cooperation Council partners the UAE and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia and Israel, both anxious about Iranian ambitions, have come together in trying to contain Iran. Meanwhile, Qatar, an erstwhile ally of the Saudis, has since last summer been engaged in a standoff with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and others. These Arab states broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar over its alleged ties to Iran, criticism of Arab regimes through Al-Jazeera, and support of Islamists. Qatar was expelled from the anti-Houthi coalition, and has been blockaded by the Saudis and their allies for over a year.
Tehran, by not being directly involved in the fighting, is able to avoid casualties and play the human rights card against Riyadh. But Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman regards the Yemeni conflict as a personal project, and is unlikely to abandon it.
For Washington, the dilemma in Yemen is balancing security priorities with humanitarian concerns. The Trump Administration has articulated a strategic objective of combatting Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. A Houthi defeat in Hodeidah would align with this goal. Sana’a is one of four Middle Eastern capitals under Tehran’s influence, along with Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. Yemen is a key vessel for spreading Iranian influence in the region; in particular, Tehran has supplied the Houthis with anti-ship missiles, ballistic missiles, and sea mines.
At the same time, the Hodeidah offensive risks further humanitarian catastrophe in a country already crippled by over three years of warfare. The question for Washington is how to square an offensive that furthers its strategic goals that simultaneously contributes further to the suffering of the Yemeni people.