Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen: A view from the ground

Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen: A view from the ground
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Earlier today, U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles intercepted a ballistic missile fired at the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh by Yemen's Houthi rebels. The attack came days after U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis backed “urgent efforts to seek a peaceful resolution to the civil war in Yemen," and followed last week's close Senate vote (55-44) to continue U.S. military support to the Saudi-led campaign to return the United Nations-backed government to its capital in Sana’a.

Similar votes will be held in less than a month as new pieces of draft legislation seek to oppose U.S. involvement in the war against the Houthi rebels, which now includes U.S. aerial refueling, provision of weapons and intelligence, plus planning support.   

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This past week I returned from Yemen, where I visited every key battlefront, from the depopulated missile-scarred towns of the Saudi-Yemen border to the mountains overlooking Sana’a from the east, to the Red Sea coastal plains where Yemeni, Saudi, Emirati and Sudanese forces are closing on the Houthis’ last port, Hodeida. The visit reinforced my sense that the war is poorly understood in Washington and other capitals. In fact, U.S. military support is helping to set the military and humanitarian conditions for an end to hostilities and a reduction of famine and cholera.

 

The more I have learned in recent years about the gritty realities of the coalition war effort in Yemen, the more I have been convinced that this is a fight worth supporting. In March 2015, the coalition of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and eight other regional states answered a call from the internationally-recognized government of Yemen for military support when Houthi rebels overran the government’s base in the southern city of Aden.

In just a few days, the Saudi-led coalition had to fight a major war from a standing start, saving the internationally-recognized government from military defeat. In the past three years, the coalition has internalized many of the same lessons that the United States took three decades to learn regarding collateral damage, coalition warfare, counter-insurgency and civil military operations. Mistakes were made, but they were corrected much faster than was the case in many U.S.-led interventions over the years.

The coalition’s air campaign is a case in point. The Houthis are a remarkably difficult enemy to target from the air: they wear civilian clothes, do not carry weapons as they move from one arms cache to another, and they deliberately mingle with civilians and establish their bases at hospitals and schools. Many cases of apparent civilian deaths have been misrepresented by the Houthis, who historically have been very adept at propaganda operations.

These caveats aside, the coalition recognizes that it did make numerous mistakes in its early prosecution of the air war, and its new Joint Incident Assessment Team is the beginning of a long journey of taking responsibility for those errors. More important, the air campaign in Yemen is now being fought at least as cleanly as contemporary U.S. air campaigns, with stringent target vetting and, to my trained eye, extremely restrictive rules of engagement. If Congress wants to help further reduce civilian casualties, then give the Arab coalition more — not less — access to U.S. intelligence and reduced-impact munitions such as small diameter bombs.

The Houthis are making no similar efforts to reduce suffering. They continue to lob unguided missiles at Saudi Arabia’s airports and cities and release unguided sea mines into oil tanker sea-lanes in the Red Sea. I spoke to classrooms full of the child soldiers, 12-year-olds the Houthis forcefully conscripted into service and herded onto the front line.

It is the Houthis, not the Yemeni government or the coalition that is seeding Yemen’s farmlands with tens of thousands of landmines, who are creating a whole generation of civilian amputees. It is the Houthis who are taxing and impounding humanitarian food and fuel imports, making these commodities unaffordable to Yemenis, while the coalition is opening up new lines of supply and engaging in widespread humanitarian programs delivered through the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre and Emirates Red Crescent.

As long as the Houthi rebels control the Yemeni capital and the country’s largest port, they have no incentive to negotiate: they must fear losing these prizes to return to the peace table.

No war can be understood from the outside. I would recommend that Congress gets an up-close look at the conflict in Yemen before it takes actions that may prolong the war and thus humanitarian suffering. Houthi propaganda is not the whole story, and it is notable that the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen has gradually shifted towards stronger criticism of the Houthis than the coalition in its most recent annual report.

At very little cost, selective U.S. military support for the war is reducing missile attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, reducing collateral damage in coalition airstrikes, protecting global sea-lanes such as Bab el-Mandeb, and bringing pressure on the Houthis to re-enter the peace process. These are achievements to be celebrated, not reversed.

Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.