After five months of deescalation, the war in Yemen is heading back in the wrong direction. Fighting is escalating on the ground. The Houthi rebels have resumed missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and the Saudis have resumed air strikes on Sana’a. If the war escalates further, there is a danger it will expand and draw in Iran and America more than previously.
The missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s vital oil infrastructure in Abqaiq last September were the galvanizing event that persuaded Riyadh to start deescalation. The pin-point accuracy of the attacks demonstrated the acute vulnerability of the Saudi economy. Immediately after the strike, the Houthis — who claimed credit for what was actually an Iranian attack — offered to cease missile attacks in Saudi Arabia if Riyadh stopped bombing. Tehran approved the deal. The United Nations mediators used the opening to get a reduction in violence, a prisoner exchange, and medical flights from Sana’a for the people most in need of care.
The Saudis were very alarmed that President Trump said the September attacks were against Saudi Arabia and not the United States. The differentiation made the Saudis lose faith. Despite the presence of American combat troops in the kingdom (Trump returned them last year after they had left in 2003), the United States said it was not going to fight for their defense against Iran. The Democrats were even firmer in opposition to going to war for Saudi Arabia. Senator Bernie Sanders, for one, has called the Saudis “murderous thugs.” It was a wake-up call, and the killing of Qassem Soleimani did not resolve Riyadh’s concerns. They began direct negotiations with the Houthis.
But the talks failed to develop a political framework for a firm ceasefire and a resolution of the civil war, which is at the core of the struggle. Riyadh was unwilling to give up the discredited government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is in exile in the Saudi capital. Without a political process, the reduction in violence is at risk.
Iran’s influence with the Houthis is growing. The assistance Tehran provides to the Houthis missile program is crucial to its growing capabilities. An Iranian-supplied surface-to-air missile brought down a Saudi Tornado jet a week ago. Spending far less than the Saudis, Iran has every reason to keep its Arab rivals bogged down in a quagmire that costs tens of billions a year. The Houthis give increasing prominence to their association with Iran.
The Iranian commander in Yemen, Abdul Reza Shahli escaped an American assassination attempt on the same day Soleimani was killed. The attack on Shahlai was a dramatic demonstration of a deeper American involvement in the Yemen war than had previously been documented. Despite Congress’ attempts to end U.S. support for the Saudi war, the administration ordered an attempt to kill the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force commander in Sana’a. Shahlai is a very experienced officer, which is a signal of the importance of the war for Tehran.
The pace of operations is still less than it was six months ago, but the trend is worrisome. The Houthis are not controlled by Iran, but the war is pushing them deeper into the Iranian orbit — precisely the nightmare the Saudis said the war was intended to prevent. The Saudis claim they foiled a Houthi attack on shipping in the Red Sea last week, another sign of escalation.
The Trump administration is not going to press Saudi Arabia to end the war: For instance, the secretary of state made no effort to end the war in his visit to the kingdom last week. The administration believes the war is part of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran, and it has vetoed Congress’ efforts to end U.S. involvement in the war. Congress is going to need to redouble its efforts to shut down the American support for the war. If the conflict escalates further, the humanitarian consequences will add to the existing catastrophe of malnourished and starving Yemenis. Time is of the essence.