This past week marks the first time the U.S. military actively became involved in the Yemen Civil War. Early in the week, Houthi rebels fired two missiles at the USS Mason, a U.S. Arleigh Burke class destroyer off the coast of Yemen (1). Additionally, another U.S. ship was targeted by missiles; both attacks were unsuccessful and hit neither ship. However, this prompted a response by the United States in the form of cruise missile strikes against radar installations used by Houthi rebels (2).
In the scope of American mainstream media, the Yemen Civil War has received considerably less coverage than the Syrian Civil War, due to Syria’s high number of civilian casualties and the mass migrations caused by the conflict. However, the geopolitical implications of the emerging conflict in Yemen are significant, as the region is an important trade location.
The Yemen conflict began in 2014, mainly between Shia Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized Sunni government of Yemen. The Houthis are a rebel group that adhere to Zaidism under Shia Islam and are around one-third of the Yemeni population (3). Disagreements between the Houthis and the government date back to the 1990s and early 2000s, as the Houthis demanded more representation in the Yemeni government. The conflict erupted into its current state when the Houthis successfully took control of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and spread to the coastal city of Aden in 2014 and 2015. Shortly after control expanded to Aden, Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was forced to flee as a result of the Houthi offensive. In addition, fighting has resulted in major humanitarian issues and instability within the area, as this military and social strife has entangled other states in the region, al-Qaeda of the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and the U.S.
The Yemen conflict is not covered nearly as much the Syrian conflict; however, there are similarities between the two. Just as the Syrian conflict has foreign powers intervening, Yemen has become a proxy war for states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, in addition to the long-standing domestic issues between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in securing their border and ensuring that the Shia Houthis do not take control of Yemen. The Houthis inhabit northwest Yemen, which lies directly on the border with Saudi Arabia. Due to the Houthis quick outbreak in 2014, Saudi Arabia organized a coalition to push back the Houthi advance with air strikes and prevent Yemen from being overrun by the Houthis. The airstrikes began in 2015, as Saudi Arabia built a coalition to include Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal—all of whom have a vested interest in preserving the stability of the region (4).
To further complicate the conflict, Iran arms and supports the Houthi rebels, prompting the view that along with other parts of the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting wars of support for Shia and Sunni groups, respectively; U.S. naval forces recently boarded a freighter in the Red Sea suspected to be bringing arms from Iran (5). Iran influence conflicts throughout the Middle East, and their reach extends to Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The Yemen conflict is another example of conflict within the Middle East that showcases the long-standing friction between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
The United States will likely increase its role in the conflict due to the Houthi missile attacks on U.S. ships, as well as the long-term concern of AQAP operating in a state that has the potential to increase in instability. The U.S. considers AQAP to be one of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous branches, which has prompted the U.S. to operate drone strikes in Yemen (3). The United States attempted to not involve itself in another Middle Eastern conflict, due to negative public reception and extreme complexities within the conflict. However, involvement in the Middle East is important to U.S. decision-makers, as the mix of conflict and terrorist organizations can lead to terrorist organizations holding significant amounts of territory, such as ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
Beyond the threat that AQAP poses to the U.S., there is a vested interest in maintaining maritime security in the Gulf of Aden; the recent missile attacks targeting U.S. ships indicate the threat this conflict poses for Gulf security. International trade would be heavily impacted by threats to ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. 3.8 million barrels of oil travel through the Bab el-Mandab Strait every day (6). 12.5-20 percent of global trade passes through the Gulf of Aden (7). Maintaining open passageways through the Red Sea is vital to international trade, and any further escalation will likely lead to further foreign involvement in Yemen.
Conflict is likely to persist, as the Yemen Civil War is shaping up to be another proxy war within the larger fight for geopolitical hegemony in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has serious concerns with allowing Houthis to come to power near their southern border, while Iran continues to support Houthis fighting against the legitimate Yemeni government. It will take increased escalation, threats of endangering trade, and further humanitarian crises for the international community to become more involved.
(1) "USS Mason American Naval Destroyer Targeted by Missiles from Yemen Houthi Rebel Territory after Saudi Funeral Airstrike."CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 10 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/uss-mason-american-naval-destroyer-missiles-yemen-houthi-saudi-airstrike/>.
(2) Rosenberg, Matthew, and Mark Mazzetti. "U.S. Ship Off Yemen Fires Missiles at Houthi Rebel Sites." The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/world/middleeast/yemen-rebels-missile-warship.html?WT.nav=top-news&action=click&clickSource=story-heading&em_pos=large&emc=edit_nn_20161013&hp=&module=first-column-region&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=76302747&pgtype=Homepage®ion=top-news&_r=0>
(3) "Yemen Crisis: Who Is Fighting Whom?" BBC News. N.p., 26 Mar. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423
(4) "Key Facts about the War in Yemen." - News from Al Jazeera. N.p., 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/06/key-facts-war-yemen-160607112342462.html>.
(5) Nissenbaum, Dion. "U.S. Moves to Stem Iran Arms Flow to Yemen." WSJ. Wsj.com, 12 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-wants-to-block-iran-from-arming-yemens-houthi-rebels-1428868461>.
(6) Bender, Jeremy. "These 8 Narrow Chokepoints Are Critical to the World's Oil Trade." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 01 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.businessinsider.com/worlds-eight-oil-chokepoints-2015-4>.
(7) By Concentrating Forces EU NAVFOR Can Provide Influence, Deterrence or Insight into Legitimate Activities, and Thereby Co-ordinate Better Future Activities to Deter Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea, and Thus Re-assure Legitimate Merchant Mariner. "About MSCHOA and OP ATALANTA." About Us. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.mschoa.org/on-shore/about-us>.
Image: © Dmitry Chulov | Dreamstime.com - Yemeni military on duty at the security checkpoint, Hadramaut valley, Yemen.