Ending Yemen’s war without perpetuating a ‘southern Hezbollah’

Ending Yemen’s war without perpetuating a ‘southern Hezbollah’
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There is every reason for Americans to be sickened by the war in Yemen. Since March 2015, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recorded at least 17,062 civilian casualties, including 6,592 killed, with coalition airstrikes assessed as “the leading cause” of documented civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch has highlighted the indiscriminate use of landmines by Houthi rebels “in at least six governorates,” creating a legacy of civilian deaths that will extend decades beyond the end of the conflict.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is investigating all sides in the war of arbitrary detention and torture, including Houthi-Saleh forces, the Yemeni government, and the United Arab Emirates and UAE-backed Yemeni forces.

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War conditions and sanctions-related shipping inspections have deepened the pre-existing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, leading the United Nations to declare it the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, assessing that 76 percent of Yemenis were in need of humanitarian assistance in April 2018.

The war has brought intense criticism upon Saudi Arabia and stressed relations with the United States. In contrast, the Houthis and their ally Iran easily can ignore the muted international criticism of their full role in making the war longer and more awful. The war is extraordinarily cheap for Iran — as little as $30 million a month backed by a few score advisors — but extremely costly for Saudi Arabia, which spends an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion per month.

No one in his right mind thinks it will benefit Saudi Arabia or the United States to extend the war longer than necessary. The United States has rightly thrown its weight behind U.N.-mediated peace negotiations, though the Houthis did not bother to turn up to the long-awaited first round of talks commenced in Geneva last week.  

However, for all the horror of the Yemen war, it is vitally important that U.S. policymakers and legislators do not lose sight of the strategic outcome the war was intended to avert — namely, the establishment of an Iranian-supplied “southern Hezbollah” on the Arabian Peninsula, flanking the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Suez Canal and posing a new missile threat to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

I visited the Yemeni battlefronts on three research visits to Yemen this year and interviewed dozens of Yemeni and Gulf coalition officers, intelligence officials, leaders and civilians about what they have learned about the Houthis as an adversary. This included Yemenis who lived under Houthi rule, or were inducted as child soldiers in their militia, and a range of Yemen experts who have direct, ongoing relations with Houthi leaders. The research, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, paints a graphic picture of a movement that is more ambitious — and more hostile to U.S. interests — than is widely understood.

The sharp increase in Houthi military power and ambition was the result of not only their capture of Yemeni state arsenals after the Arab Spring protests in 2011, but was also an increase in Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah military assistance. In less than five years, the Houthis transitioned from launching guerrilla raids in their native mountain provinces to mounting 180-mile, long-range offensives and lobbing Iranian-made, medium-range ballistic missiles at Riyadh. They didn’t do this alone: Houthi fighters are good, but they’re not that good and they’re certainly no rocket scientists.

The Houthis aren’t yet an Iranian-controlled proxy but Iran’s current level of influence with the movement easily could grow in future years — particularly if Tehran can covertly send arms via a Houthi-controlled Red Sea coastline or unmonitored air transportation. The United Nations has stated that the Houthis are using Iranian-provided ballistic missiles and drones, and investigations are under way that Iran also provided anti-shipping weapons and surface-to-air missiles. If the international arms embargo is relaxed, Iran could provide years’ worth of ballistic missiles capable of hitting Riyadh in just a few shiploads via any of the three Red Sea ports currently under their control.

The Houthis are largely known outside Yemen as the victims of Saudi airstrikes, but for over 15 years, at every major event, they have chanted the slogan: “Death to America, death to Israel, curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam!” Their anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Israeli worldview is closely aligned with the other “Axis of Resistance” actors such as Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. The Houthis were not pushed into this axis by the current war: they adopted their slogan in 2000 and started the current war in 2015, after four years of intense preparation, aided and encouraged by Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.

All this means that the war must end, but it should not end with a “southern Hezbollah” on the Red Sea to match the northern Hezbollah on the Mediterranean. Of course, the United States should do its best to end the war and to force Gulf coalition partners to fight cleanly in the meantime. Yet U.S. strategic interests require that any U.N.-brokered peace deal does not end with Houthi-controlled coastline on the Red Sea, or direct uninspected flights landing in Houthi areas.

The United States should commit to open-ended support to maritime interdiction of Iranian arms shipments to Yemen, such as the weapons interdicted by a U.S. Navy destroyer on Aug. 28. If the United States, Israel and Europe could go back in time and prevent Hezbollah from becoming a powerhouse, they would do so in a heartbeat. This is the fleeting opportunity that still remains in Yemen.

Michael Knights is a senior fellow at the nonprofit Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His research in Yemen was published Sept. 10, 2018, by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.