The civil war that has ravaged Yemen for nearly three years has now killed more than 10,000 people, sickened 1 million with cholera and displaced more than 2 million, leading the United Nations to call it “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
Yet the fighting, which many see as a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has pretty much been ignored by the American press; nor has it gotten much attention from the Trump administration. And that’s a mistake, say two former U.S. envoys to Yemen who spoke at a recent Washington event organized by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Gerald Feierstein, the US ambassador in Yemen from 2010 and 2013, shared the stage with his immediate predecessor in Sanaa, Stephen Seche, who served from 2007 to 2010. Moderating the Dec. 12 discussion was Ellen Laipson, director of the international security program at George Mason University.
The recent assassination of Yemen’s longtime dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, actually changes little on the ground, because he had already been marginalized, according to Feierstein.
“On the military side, the situation in Yemen has been stalemated for quite a long time. Over the course of the 30 months of the conflict, the influence of the pro-Saleh forces has steadily declined,” he said. “The Houthis had absorbed a lot of the military that originally was loyal to Saleh. They’ve replaced the officers with their own followers.”
Seche, executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, called the Dec. 4 killing of Saleh “a significant moment” for the nation he had ruled for 33 of his 75 years.
“I don’t think Ali Abdullah Saleh was ever going to be part of the solution in Yemen,” said Seche. “He was going to be part of the problem forever, so you removed at least part of that problem by dispatching [him] — and I never say badly or ill about anyone who has just left this earth—but at least we don’t have Ali Abdullah Saleh to worry about in that regard right now.”
Saheh ruled North Yemen since 1978 and became president of the entire country in 1990 after its unification. A wily political operative, Saleh often played tribal allegiances and foreign powers against one another to cement his rule. After the Arab Spring uprisings, however, he stepped down in 2012, paving the way for Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to take over under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The northern-based Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, have long chafed under Sunni-majority rule. In 2015, they ousted Hadi from power with help from forces loyal to Saleh. In an illustration of the fickle alliances that dominate Yemeni politics, the former dictator teamed up with the Houthis even though he had waged several wars to tamp down a Houthi insurgency during his 33-year rule.
Meanwhile, following the Houthi takeover, Hadi — whose government enjoyed international legitimacy but scant popularity back home—fled to Saudi Arabia, which promptly launched a bombing campaign to return him to power.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of meddling in its southern neighbor, which controls the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key chokepoint for the global transit of oil. This latest intervention is widely seen as a proxy battle to counter the growing influence of Riyadh’s regional and religious rival, Iran, which Saudi Arabia says is directly supporting the Houthis with weapons and money. While the Houthis are generally aligned with Iran, many experts say Saudi Arabia has exaggerated claims of Tehran’s ties with the rebel group.
Since bursting onto the scene in 2015, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious up-and-coming ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has embarked on an aggressive foreign policy aimed at crushing Iran and consolidating power at home and abroad.
That includes a largely unsuccessful blockade of Qatar, ostensibly in response to its support of terrorism and links to Iran; a clumsy attempt to pressure Lebanon’s prime minister to resign in protest of Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics; a purge of Saudi princes and businessmen; and the military foray into Yemen, which many observers say has become a quagmire for the Saudis and their regional partners.
The Saudi-led coalition has also been roundly condemned by the international community for its indiscriminate killing of civilians in Yemen.
According to Human Rights Watch’s “World Report 2018, the coalition has repeatedly attacked populated areas, launched scores of airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians and deepened the humanitarian crisis through its blockade in 2017. (The report also accuses Houthi forces of blocking humanitarian assistance and committing serious abuses.)
Yet Feierstein takes the opposite view of most human rights organizations by defending Saudi Arabia’s intervention and blasting Iran’s interference. Feierstein is now director of Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank that has received funding from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as well as the U.S. State Department.
During his 41-year Foreign Service career, he was posted to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Israel, Lebanon, Tunisia and Pakistan, most recently serving as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
Feierstein called the Houthis “a sectarian Shia pro-Iran movement” that is “not terribly popular with the vast majority of Yemenis.” In addition, he said, a campaign by Houthi rebels to eliminate the senior leadership of Saleh’s General People’s Congress—which governed Yemen for over 30 years—“is going to make the recovery in Yemen much more difficult once the fighting stops, as inevitably it will.”
But he doesn’t see that happening any time soon.
“One of the political obstacles to resolving the conflict is the fact that individuals and groups on both sides of the conflict are making a lot of money by keeping the war going,” he said. “And until you address that part, it’s going to be very difficult to convince them.”
Added Seche: “There is this equilibrium of misery that’s been established in Yemen now, and it’s where you have this stasis on the battlefield where both sides are neither winning nor losing; they’re just stuck. And you have this war economy in which both sides are profiting, and you have a level of human misery which is so bad—yet it’s not so bad where we’re going to get the international community to come rushing in to save Yemen. So things sit at this terrible, awful status quo.”
So terrible, in fact, that the United Nations says 22 million of Yemen’s 28 million people need humanitarian assistance, including 8.4 million who are “a step away from famine.”
Long the Arab world’s poorest country, war-ravaged Yemen—a desert country the size of Colorado and Oregon combined—imports 90 percent of its staple food and nearly all of its fuel.
Despite recent progress in pressuring Saudi Arabia to open Yemen’s Red Sea ports to commercial and aid shipments, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock recently warned that the situation is being made worse by a recent increase in fighting and airstrikes. The country has recorded more than 1 million cases of cholera, according to the World Health Organization, as well as a rapidly spreading diphtheria outbreak.
“Yemen’s biggest disadvantage is the fact that it’s so isolated physically. You don’t have that flood of humanity washing abroad offshore in Europe. It’s been largely contained, and for that reason you don’t have this alarm sounding around the world about Yemen,” said Seche, who served at U.S. missions in Peru, Bolivia, Canada, India, Syria and Yemen before ending his 35-year Foreign Service career as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
“And that’s why it falls off the front page of our newspapers, into page four and five and elsewhere. So until that changes—and it probably is not going to geographically — we’re going to have to figure out a way to keep this on the front burner for people,” Seche said.
On that note, Feierstein squarely criticized the White House for not paying more attention to the grinding crisis in Yemen.
“One thing that’s absent from the approach that the Obama administration had versus the Trump administration is that [Secretary of State] John Kerry was personally engaged certainly toward the latter part of 2016 in trying to help drive some of the decision-making that would advance the U.N. process,” he said. “We have not seen that same level of high senior leadership from the Trump administration that we saw in Obama. And I think that demonstrates a lack of real commitment on the part of the Trump people.”
The Pentagon has provided logistical and refueling assistance to the Saudis, but after Saudi airstrikes killed hundreds of people at a wedding and a funeral in Sanaa, the Obama White House eventually halted the transfer of cluster munitions and precision-guided missiles to Riyadh. Trump has been far more supportive of the Saudis in their bid to roll back Iranian influence, reversing Obama’s suspension of cluster bombs and pushing a $110 billion arms deal with Riyadh.
At the moment, the United States has no active embassy in Yemen. Matthew Tueller, the U.S. ambassador to Sanaa since early 2014, is physically located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he runs the Yemen Affairs Unit.
Feierstein urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to “be more directly engaged in trying to push” a negotiated end to the war in Yemen. He also suggested that “Iran might be willing to play a larger role in pushing a political resolution to the Yemen conflict. It would be, without a doubt, the most direct way for them to reduce tensions with Saudi Arabia.”
Tensions have escalated, however, since Houthi rocket attacks inside Saudi Arabia.
On Nov. 4, a missile came close to hitting Riyadh’s international airport, and on Dec. 19, the Saudi-led coalition intercepted a ballistic missile that had apparently targeted a meeting at al-Yamama Palace “in response to the heinous crimes committed by the U.S.-Saudi aggression against the people of Yemen,” according to the Houthis’ Al Masirah website. Saudi Arabia accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with the Burkan H2 missile and has said the missile attacks could constitute an act of war by Iran.
Nikki Haley, Washington’s UN ambassador, tried to bolster the Saudis’ case during a December presentation in which she argued there was “undeniable” evidence that Iran supplied Yemini insurgents with missiles and other weapons. Haley’s claims were met with skepticism by defense experts and the UN panel charged with investigating the missile fragments.
As Riyadh and Tehran point the finger at each other for Yemen’s suffering, Feierstein disputes the notion that the hostilities in Yemen amount to a proxy war between the Saudis and the Iranians.
“This is not a Saudi-Yemeni war. It is a Yemeni civil war where each of the parties have seen fit to appeal to external friends, to partners,” he explained. “Obviously, the government, looking to Saudi Arabia [and] … the Iranians were more engaged in support of the Houthis really going back at least to 2012…. So they are engaged in supporting their various friends, but again, I would say that ultimately it’s going to be a Yemeni solution.”
To that end, the Houthis are not “a wholly owned subsidiary of the government of Iran,” as many observers often suggest.
“They are pursuing what is largely a domestic political objective for themselves. But I would say that Iran has played a significant role in terms of enhancing Houthi capabilities,” he said. “The ability of the Houthis to fire these extended-range Scuds is almost certainly the result of assistance that they’ve received—either from the Iranians directly or via Hezbollah, which is certainly operating at Iranian direction. And so while I don’t think that the war would stop if the Iranians walked away, I also think that Houthi capabilities would diminish if it were not for the support that they’ve received from Iran and from Hezbollah.”
From the Saudi point of view, three things are absolutely required, Feierstein said.
“One is a secure Saudi-Yemen border. Secondly, a friendly government in Sanaa, a government they can deal with. And third, no Iranian foothold in Yemen that would threaten their security,” he said. “And I think that, from a U.S. perspective, we should agree with all three of them. I think they are three legitimate objectives.”
During the Q&A that followed their panel discussion, the ambassadors were asked what exactly Yemen’s Houthi rebels want. Seche said he really doesn’t know.
“One of the great mysteries of the Houthis, to me, has always been they’ve never issued a manifesto. They’ve never said, ‘This is who we are. This is what we expect to have, and this is our overall, overarching ambitions and goals,’” he said. “So it’s still very murky territory. And it’s open to redefinition at any moment for them when they decide it’s in their interest to do so.”
Toward the end of the event, moderator Laipson drew laughter when she asked about qat, a mildly narcotic weed chewed by 90 percent of Yemen’s men and over a third of its women. Men sometimes spend upward of $800 a month to feed their qat addiction, according to a Jan. 4 article in The Economist that also said qat cultivation is growing by 12 percent a year.
“I’ve never been in a Yemeni conversation where we haven’t talked about qat,” Laipson quipped. “So I need to know, are the crops still thriving? Has the qat culture survived the war?”
“Yes,” Feierstein replied. “That’s one aspect of the economy that still functions.”