Much of What You Think You Know About the Yemen War … Is Wrong
Let’s cut through the misinformation
by TOM COOPER
With the latest spate of air strikes, civilian massacres and ballistic-missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and a U.S. Navy warship, the seemingly endless war in Yemen has worked its way back into the headlines.
Many foreign observers, however, remain frankly befuddled by the conflict. And for good reason. It’s … complicated. And misinformation abounds.
The truth is that Yemen’s government lacks popular support. Its military has largely sided with the insurgents. Iran probably plays very little role. And the terrorists in Yemen are, at best, a side show to the main fighting.
In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab states — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain — launched a military intervention in the Yemeni civil war, which has raged with frequent and often lengthy interruptions since 2004.
Saudi Arabia’s official position is that the coalition is supporting forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government of Pres. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as they battle insurgents from the Iranian-backed Houthi political movement.
The Houthis’ position is that they are fighting back against U.S.-supported “Saudi-Zionist” aggression.
The Americans’ position is less clear. Washington insists that the U.S. military is merely providing intelligence and logistical support to its regional allies in their operations against … someone. Who exactly the enemy is from the American point of view is something the U.S. government seems uncertain of or unwilling to clearly state.
The only target in Yemen that Washington has clearly defined is the so-called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terror group, or AQAP.
However, AQAP is not the Saudi coalition’s primary target. Indeed, it is barely gets any mention in Riyadh and allied capitals. Among the coalition members, only the United Arab Emirates routinely cites AQAP as its main enemy.
Now, there’s little doubt that the Houthis — an armed religious-political movement of Yemeni Shia Zaidis — expresses strongly anti-American, anti-Jewish and anti-Saudi views.
The group, which calls itself Ansar Allah — “Supporters of God” — operates from strongholds in northern Yemen, primarily in Sa’ada Governorate. Its 20,000-strong militia force has fought a series of bitter campaigns against the central government in Sana’a since 2004.
While scoring clear-cut victories in most of these actions, the Houthis lost badly in their initial confrontation with the Saudis in 2009 and 2010.
Early on, Ansar Allah’s demands might have sounded perfectly reasonable. It wanted an end to its own economic disenfranchisement, political marginalization and discrimination as well as to the outright conversion of ever-larger parts of Yemeni society to Saudi-style Wahhabism.
But since taking over the capital of Sana’a in September 2013, the Houthis’ rule has increasingly been characterized by violence against any sort of political opposition. Indeed, the methods of rule they apply in the parts of Yemen under their control are as bad as those of the most oppressive Middle East regimes.
There’s scant evidence of direct Iranian support for the Houthis. Authorities have intercepted one or two small ships loaded with small arms and ammunition heading for the Yemeni coast. The Houthis have fired off a few Iranian-supplied missiles. A video has circulated depicting an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps instructor talking with several Houthi commanders.
That’s it. The truth is, with Syria gobbling up money and men, Tehran cannot afford a major proxy war in Yemen.
Likewise, there are reasons to doubt Saudi Arabia’s claim that it’s defending Yemen’s legitimate government. Actually, Pres. Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi has next to no popular and political support in Yemen. His predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh is much more popular than Hadi is within the Yemeni armed forces.
Apparently convinced that Hadi remained legitimate, the Saudis seemed to believe that air strikes and limited ground operations would force the Houthis to withdraw from Sana’a and let Hadi take over again.
They were wrong.
Between September 2014 and March 2015, up to two-third of the Yemeni army either sided with the Houthis — because Saleh also did so — or were overrun by them. This included five out of 10 brigades of the 3rd Military District in Ma’arib, 10 of 13 brigades of the 4th Military District in Aden, four out of seven brigades of the 5th Military District in Hodeida, all nine brigades of the 6th Military District in Sa’ada and at least two of the six brigades of the 7th Military District in Dhamar.
Only the units of the 1st and 2nd Military Districts based in eastern Yemen remained untouched by insurgency. However, several of these were subsequently overrun and disarmed by AQAP— and some outright butchered, too.
At least three brigades of the Defense Reserve Forces, nearly the entire Special Forces Command, most of the Missile Defense Command and all four crack brigades of the Presidential Protection Force — some of these equipped with T-80 main battle tanks — sided with the Houthis, as did nearly all of the Yemeni air force’s air-defense brigades.
In total, more than 50 out of around 90 brigade-size formations of the Yemeni military aligned with the Houthis, only four or five with Hadi and three with southern separatists. AQAP overran four.
Considering that the total pre-war strength of the Yemen military was around 400,000 personnel, this means that the Saudi-led expeditionary forces of around 40,000 Bahraini, Emirati, Sudanese and other troops — deployed in southern Yemen since August 2015 — faced up to 200,000 Yemeni troops hardened by years of bitter civil war.
Little surprise then that the Saudi coalition quickly hired foreign mercenaries and scrambled to establish, recruit and train an entirely new military force, the Yemen National Army.
Considering the size, experience and capabilities of the Houthi-allied Yemeni forces, it’s no wonder that the Houthis proved capable of launching raids across the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border … and even holding Saudi territory.
Moreover, it’s not the Houthis who are firing ballistic missiles including Scuds, Frogs, SS-21s and SA-2s at Saudi Arabia, at Saudi bases inside Yemen and — more recently — at the American destroyer USS Mason. Rather, the three brigades of the Yemeni army Missile Defense Command and several air-defense units are the ones lobbing the missiles.
But you won’t read that in many mainstream news reports. Most of what we in the West think we know about the war in Yemen bears little resemblance to what’s actually happening on the ground.