The Middle East’s Forgotten Civil War
ABDEL RAHMAN ABDALLAH/AFP/Getty Images
It is “probably one of the biggest crises in the world,” according to Jamie McGoldrick, a United Nations humanitarian coordinator. “[I]t’s like a silent crisis, a silent situation and a forgotten war,” he added. “People are dying … the infrastructure is falling apart … and the economy is on the brink of the abyss,” warned another UN official, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
Up to 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, more than 500 of whom were children. Nearly 37,000 Yemenis have been injured. About 182,000 Yemenis have fled to neighboring countries, and 2.5 million people have been internally displaced.
Yemen has become the new Syria.
Close to 80 percent of the nation’s population desperately needs health services—that’s about 21 million people. Almost 7.4 million of these are children. Yet, nearly half of Yemen’s health facilities have been damaged in the war. Authorities fear that disease epidemics could further ravage the battered nation.
How did things get so bad in Yemen?
More Than an Arab Spring
Of the six Middle Eastern nations that were scourged by the Arab Spring of 2011, Yemen and Syria are the only two that have since descended into full-scale civil war. These nations have become battlefields of an all-too-common proxy war between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The primary agitator of the conflict in both of these nations is Iran.
A Shiite theocracy ruled Yemen until it was toppled in a revolution in 1962. The country then became the only democratic nation on the Arabian Peninsula.
In 2004, the Houthis, the main rebel group in Yemen, revolted against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saleh government had begun counterterrorism cooperation with the United States, and the Houthis were allegedly incensed with that collaboration. They frequently disseminated anti-American and anti-Israeli vitriol.
At that time, the Saleh government accused the Houthis of attempting to reinstate Shiite theocracy.
According to a 2009 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Saleh’s government assessed that the Houthi “secessionist movement … represent[ed] threats to the very survival of the state”—far more than al Qaeda did.
The report noted that “throughout the conflict, the Yemeni government has sought to link the rebellion to the larger ‘war on terrorism’ and has accused the Iranian government of supporting the [Shiite] guerrillas. To date, there is no public evidence to support the allegations of Iranian meddling.”
Time would reveal blatant and alarming public evidence of Iranian meddling.
The Yemeni “Arab Spring” of 2011 began as an uprising against the economic mismanagement and corruption of President Saleh’s three-decade reign. To the Houthis, the revolt was a stepped-up version of its antigovernment movement. Thousands protested on Yemen streets to demand Saleh’s resignation. Those streets eventually became bloody battlefields, and Saleh himself sustained minor injuries during the conflict.
In the chaos that ensued, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council compelled Saleh to transfer power to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in February 2012. However, the transition of power was a chaotic process that further plunged Yemen into a severe political crisis that went on for two years.
The Houthis’ moment had finally arrived.
In what is now called the September 21 Revolution of 2014, Houthi rebels seized the capital, Sanaa. “The Houthi forces’ entry into the capital was accompanied by calls of ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to the Jews,’ imprecations heard frequently from the Iranian regime,” Lt. Col. Michael Segall (Ret.) wrote for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Nov. 3, 2014).
In the same month of the Houthi revolution, an Iranian member of parliament with close ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted by the state’s Rasa News Agency as saying, “Three Arab capitals [Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad] have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution.” He reportedly boasted that the fourth was Sanaa.
Four months later, in January 2015, Houthi rebels forced the resignation of the Hadi government and took over the presidential palace.
Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Houthi/Iran Coalition
The Houthi rebels placed President Hadi under house arrest, but in February 2015, he fled to Yemen’s coastal city of Aden, rescinded his resignation, and requested foreign intervention.
Wary of the hostile takeover of its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia partnered with President Hadi’s supporters, assembled a coalition of Arab nations on March 25, 2015, and attempted to rout the Houthis from Sanaa.
By that point, Yemen had become far more complicated: Iranian meddling and military support of the Houthis had increased; the Houthis had partnered with supporters of former President Saleh, their former enemy, to continue their power grab in Yemen; and competing rebel groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had taken advantage of the chaos and carved out safe havens for themselves in southern Yemen.
Ynet News Arab affairs commentator, Dr. Yaron Friedman, lauded the Saudis for demonstrating “an impressive ability to unite the Sunni states: Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.”
That ability to coalesce into a force that, if nothing else, slowed down the Houthi onslaught, may very well be the only impressive accomplishment by Saudi Arabia and its allies. That’s primarily because the Saudi coalition committed transgressions that many considered unpardonable in modern warfare.
‘Significantly Reduced Support’ for Saudi Arabia
According to the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, “The war in Yemen is proving to be costly for the Saudi economy, which is facing serious financial strain due to low oil prices. The intervention is all the more problematic because it has failed to resolve the Yemeni standoff while aggravating the humanitarian crisis.”
According to Amnesty International, both sides have violated international humanitarian laws and human rights.
Between April and November, the Houthis reportedly intercepted 34 humanitarian aid boats at Yemen’s Port of Hodeida. They have also been accused of arresting and killing aid workers and other civilians.
But the Houthis are rebels supported by the world’s foremost state-sponsor of terrorism, and the Saudi coalition consists of bona fide governments supported by the United States.
In some regards, the Saudi coalition has committed even worse atrocities. It has reportedly fired cluster bombs which are banned under international law. The Yemen Data Project claims that a third of its air strikes have targeted civilians, including hospitals, schools, mosques, markets, farms and funeral ceremonies.
On October 8, the Saudi coalition bombed a funeral ceremony for the father of a politician in the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Initially, Saudi Arabia denied responsibility for the air strike, but it later apologized for the attack, saying it resulted from wrong intelligence and from a violation of protocol.
The air strike killed 140 people and injured more than 500 others. It was the single worst attack on civilians in Yemen. The United Nations called it “horrendous and heinous,” and Human Rights Watch called it an apparent war crime. It drew strong condemnation from Saudi allies, enemies and those in between.
Some Yemeni tribes that were neutral in the war before the attack became inimical toward the Saudi coalition ground troops and denied them passage through their lands. Al-Monitor noted on October 25 that this likely denied the coalition an opportunity to capture the Sirwah District, approximately 55 miles east of Sanaa. “Taking control of Sirwah would have been a military achievement for the Saudi-led coalition with the aim of besieging Sanaa from the east,” it wrote. “[T]he coalition forces’ march toward Sanaa from that direction is no longer possible after the funeral attack.”
The United States was “deeply disturbed by reports of [the] air strike on a funeral hall in Yemen,” White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said on the day of the attack. The airstrikes, “if confirmed, would continue the troubling series of attacks striking Yemeni civilians. U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check.”
Price added: “Even as we assist Saudi Arabia regarding the defense of their territorial integrity, we have and will continue to express our serious concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged. In light of this and other recent incidents, we have initiated an immediate review of our already significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led coalition and are prepared to adjust our support so as to better align with U.S. principles, values and interests ….”
According to Reuters, some senior U.S. officials said the attack killed some politicians who were important to the Yemen reconciliation process.
Following this funeral attack, the U.S. not only hardened its stance toward the Saudi Arabian alliance, but it also softened its position toward the Houthis. On October 15, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. had made an arrangement with the Houthis and neighboring sultanate of Oman: The U.S. airlifted some wounded Yemenis to Oman, and the Houthis, in exchange, released two captive Americans. A State Department spokesman referred to the release of the Americans as a “humanitarian gesture by the Houthis.”
Houthis: Stronger and Bolder
On November 6, Secretary Kerry recognized another “positive gesture by the Houthis.” The rebels released a former American marine who had been captive for more than a year and a half.
The Houthis have seemingly outperformed the Saudi coalition in the art of “positive” and “humanitarian” gestures. Their most significant attacks have not created a stir on a humanitarian level, but they certainly have on a geopolitical level.
One week before the funeral attack, the Houthis fired a Chinese-designed C-802 missile at a United Arab Emirates-operated hsv-2 Swift advanced transport vessel near the Yemeni port of Mokha. Security experts believe Iran purchased the antiship missile from China and then reverse-engineered it into its own variant called the Noor.
Stratfor reported on October 5 that the C-802 missiles have a 75-mile range that sets “a sizable stretch of the area near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden in the line of fire.”
Approximately 7 percent of global seafaring traffic passes through this Red Sea passageway. That includes about 4.7 million barrels of oil every day.
According to Stratfor, the attack “indicate[s] that the group has acquired new capabilities, raising questions about the security of shipping in the waters off the Yemeni coast and the effectiveness of an arms embargo against the Houthis. If not the sign of a new weapon, the attack could suggest a shift in the group’s tactics that may equally threaten ships in the Red Sea.”
One day after the funeral air strike, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile toward Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd Air Base, about 40 miles from Mecca, which is where U.S. military advisers in this conflict are stationed. The same day, they fired two missiles at the uss Mason, an American destroyer operating just north of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Three days later, on October 12, the 16th anniversary of the attack on the uss Cole while docked in Yemen’s Aden harbor, Houthi rebels fired again on the Mason, though the warship was undamaged. The U.S. retaliated by firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at some Houthi military installations.
The Iranian Connection
“[T]here is a well-documented history of [Iranian] support for the Houthi [rebels], including in various State Department reports—money, weapons—support for a very long time,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in April 2015.
What is rarely well documented is the exact nature of Iran’s relationships with its proxies. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy explained: “Houthi relations with the Islamic Republic resemble the Iran-Hamas relationship more than the Iran-Hezbollah relationship—that is, the Houthis are autonomous partners who usually act in accordance with their own interests, though often with smuggled Iranian arms and other indirect help” (October 12).
Houthi autonomy and Iranian influence are not mutually exclusive!
Over the past year and a half, U.S. warships intercepted five shipments of Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen. On October 20, Reuters reported that Iran was using Yemen’s eastern neighbor, Oman, as a transit point for shipping sophisticated weaponry to the Houthis.
On November 12, Saudi-led coalition air strikes hit two boats carrying weapons for Houthi rebels in Yemen from Iran. The boats had just arrived at Yemen’s northern port city of Salif. Then, on November 14, the Saudi-led coalition intercepted two boats loaded with weapons and communications equipment.
Al-Arabiya wrote that “surveillance and investigative operations revealed that militias are using a number of islands, such as Zagar and Hanish, to smuggle arms and equipment with the help of Iran.”
The Washington Institute noted on October 6 that Iranian belligerence via the Houthis was happening “at a time when Iranian naval provocations in the Strait of Hormuz are becoming far more regular—approximately twice as frequent as last year .” It assessed that Iran “may … be hoping to widen the war to international shipping lanes and foreign territories such as Eritrea.
“The Houthis’ takeover of Yemen was not just a grassroots revolution,” warned Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry in his April 2015 article titled “Iran Gets a Stranglehold on the Middle East.” “It was a part of a deliberate and calculated Iranian strategy to conquer the Red Sea. This strategy is revealed in a powerful prophecy in the biblical book of Daniel.”
The Bible identifies a Middle Eastern power, a king of the south, that gains significant influence over the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Iranian-led radical Islam is that power, and it will use its clout to terrorize other nations in the region and beyond. The Bible also identifies another Middle Eastern power, a group of nations that “confederate” for a common cause. Saudi Arabia and some of its fellow Sunni states will be part of that power. Everything is shaping up precisely as the Bible indicates. Mr. Flurry explains these developments in his booklet The King of the South. It’s free upon request.
“The Houthi takeover in Yemen proves that Iran is implementing a bold strategy to control the vital sea lane from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea,” Mr. Flurry wrote in his 2015 article. “We need to understand the gravity of this new situation in Yemen!”