What’s at stake in Yemen affects us all

The U.S. Senate is poised to debate a resolution that would force the end to United States support for the Yemen war, and numerous senators have asserted that such a measure could help bring an end to the conflict. With the White House strongly opposed to this effort, it is far from clear that Congress will end up enacting any Yemen-related legislation. However, no matter what transpires in the final legislative end game, it is worth examining both the premise of congressional actions and the likely strategic consequences.

Unfortunately, calls to “stop the Yemen war,” though morally satisfying, are fundamentally misguided. They ignore what is at stake in the Yemen conflict and the true identity of the warring parties. A precipitous disengagement by the Saudi-led coalition from militarily backing the UN-backed government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the Yemeni civil war would have calamitous consequences for Yemen, the Middle East and the world at large.

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The urgency to end the war reduces that conflict, and its drivers, to a morality play, with the coalition of Arab states cast as the bloodthirsty villain killing and starving Yemeni civilians. The assumption seems to be that if the coalition’s military operations are brought to a halt, all will be well in Yemen.  

Everybody seems to have forgotten that the conflict was triggered in late 2014 when the Houthis, backed by Iran, toppled the Yemeni government and took over large areas of the country, including strategic positions on the Red Sea. In seizing power, the Houthis inflicted massive civilian casualties and crippling damage to Yemen’s rudimentary infrastructure. Presented with a strategic threat at its doorstep, posed by an Iranian proxy and a humanitarian crisis, Saudi Arabia, responding to a request by Yemen’s legitimate government and backed by U.N. Resolution 2216, militarily intervened in the Yemen conflict seeking to restore Yemen’s legitimate government.  

As has been the case with the Afghan and Iraq wars, prosecuted by U.S.-led coalitions, the counterinsurgency campaign in Yemen has been a difficult enterprise. Because the Houthis have been fighting in a way that deliberately places civilians at risk, Yemen has experienced dire security and humanitarian circumstances.  

To curtail the influx of Iranian arms, the Saudi-led coalition periodically has restricted access to the port of Hodeidah, one of six main ports in Yemen, and a vital transit area for both humanitarian supplies and Iranian weapons transfers. The Houthis have exploited both of these for their war efforts and to consolidate their tactical gains on the ground, and so, abandoning the coalition efforts would leave Yemen in the rebels’ hands.

We have seen this in Syria. Over the past several years, U.S. policymakers have called for “de-escalating” the Syrian war. On paper, the policy sounded prudent and moral. In practice, however, as the United States froze its assistance to the Syrian opposition, Russia, Iran and the regime of Bashar al-Assad took advantage of the de-escalation process. Towns and villages were besieged and forced to surrender to Assad. In many of those towns, the government exacted revenge by arresting or killing people. It also forcibly conscripted civilians into the army or loyalist militias. Even as the U.S. administration lauded “de-escalation” in its rhetoric, Syria and its Russian and Iranian patrons simply consolidated their position and continued their military campaign. 

A similar scenario will unfold in Yemen if the Saudi-led coalition were to cease operations.  Iran’s long arm, the Houthis, would march on coalition-liberated areas and exact a bloody toll on the populations of cities such as Aden and Marib with the same ruthlessness to which they subjected Sanaa and Taiz during the past three years. The rebels have ruled Sanaa, kidnapping, executing, disappearing, systematically torturing, and assassinating detractors. In Taiz, they fire mortars indiscriminately at the civilian population and snipers shoot at children to force residents into submission.  

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Having an Iranian satellite armed with Iranian ballistic missiles on the Saudi doorstep would pose an intolerable threat to the kingdom, comparable to having the Soviet Union seize control of Mexico during the Cold War. But the stakes in Yemen involve more than just Saudi Arabia’s national security or the peace and prosperity of the Yemeni people. An abrupt termination of the war would leave Iran in control of Yemen would deal a serious blow to the global economy. Iran would have the ability to obstruct trade and oil flows from both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, the latter of which has been tormented by Somali piracy for the decades.

Iran would wield far greater influence than Somali pirates if it were allowed to threaten Bab-el-Mandeb. About 24 percent of the world’s petroleum and petroleum products supply passes through these two waterways, and Iran already has the capability to disrupt oil flows from Hormuz and has threatened to do so this year. Should Iran acquire that capability in Bab-el-Mandeb, by establishing a foothold in the Gulf of Aden, even if it chose not to utilize this capability, oil prices and insurance costs would surge.

Allowing the IRGC to control two of the most strategic choke points for the global energy market is simply not an option for the international community. There is every reason to believe that Iran would launch attacks on maritime traffic. The Houthis have mounted multiple attacks on commercial and military vessels over the past several years, and Iran has supplied its Yemen proxy with drone boats, conventional aerial drones and ballistic missiles.

Iran’s threats to disrupt international waterways should not be taken lightly. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) targeted Gulf oil tankers in the mid-1980s, prompting the U.S. Navy to launch Operation Earnest Will to protect the flow of oil. IRGC speedboats were deployed from Iran’s Farsi Island to launch rockets at oil tankers in the dead of night. An underwater mine placed by the IRGC struck U.S.-flagged oil tanker MV Bridgeton.

There is plenty of reasonable criticism of the war effort in Yemen. The conflict has exacerbated a terrible humanitarian crisis and claimed the lives of thousands of civilians. But any resolution to this war that leaves the Houthis with control over the Yemeni people, or allows Iran to exert its influence over one of the world’s most strategic waterways, would be a humanitarian and security disaster.

Mohammed Khalid Alyahya is a Saudi Arabian political analyst, commentator and senior fellow at the Gulf Research Center, an independent research institute with offices in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia. He previously was a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council. His writings have been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, the Guardian, Newsweek and elsewhere.