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There should be no US 'containment strategy' for the Houthis in Yemen

We can't let external forces in the region tie Washington to the Middle East by inflating what is a domestic militancy.

Analysis | Middle East

Few like change, especially those comfortable with the status quo. Nowhere is this more so than the Middle East, where a century of geo-strategic importance and military manifestation have skewed political calculus, calcified innovation, and comforted many regimes that their privileged way of life can continue indefinitely. Yemen is the reductio ad absurdum of this mentality.

The origins of the current Yemeni civil war are numerous and debated, but the conflict can be summed up as half a dozen elite political factions each trying to capture the Yemeni state to benefit their own clique. The “internationally recognised” government is led by Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi, the former vice-president under Ali Abdullah Salih, who embezzled $32-60 billion during his reign. Ali Muhsin, the new vice-president, was Ali Abdullah Salih’s henchman, while three other factions are also ancien regime cliques, each trying to cling to power and privilege.

The Arab Spring caused fear among the Sunni Arab monarchies: four Arab dictators — including Ali Abdullah Salih — were overthrown, another revolution loomed in Syria, and mutinous crowds thronged Bahraini and Omani streets. Once the monarchies recovered from their shock, they tried to install new military strongmen in these states to forestall democracy and preserve their dynasties. The monarchies were successful in Egypt, with Gen Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi. In Libya, Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s counter-revolution seems doomed, while in Yemen, the smooth transition of power to Gen. Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi via the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative descended into civil war.

The region’s external influences — the United States, United Kingdom and France — intend to contain an increasingly domineering China in the Indo-Pacific, necessitating a shift of their military and geo-strategic focus away from the Middle East. The political shift is mirrored by an economic one, as renewable energies replace hydrocarbons, while other hydrocarbon discoveries have reduced the importance of Middle East oil. 

This prospect has unnerved most of the status quo powers — the Arab regimes and Israel — who fear that decades of uncritical U.S. support may be ending, and with it their privileged lifestyles. To forestall that, they have begun a broad campaign to keep Washington engaged in the Middle East, through spoiling actions, and lobbying — directly and indirectly — through think tanks.

A recent example from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy was entitled “Yemen’s ‘Southern Hezbollah’ Implications of Houthi Missile and Drone Improvements.” Writing of “Yemen’s ‘Southern Hezbollah,’” the piece appears to conflate the Zaydi Ansar Allah (aka the Huthis) with the Sunni Southern Transitional Council, who are also rebelling against Hadi's faction, and also have drones (albeit supplied by the UAE). Actually, the piece is trying to tar the Huthis with Hizballah’s brush.

The piece continues, discussing weapons of which: "further range increases that could allow the Iran-backed rebels to reach new targets [...] as part of a wider effort to exert themselves in the Red Sea (e.g., hindering international shipping, targeting Suez Canal infrastructure)." 

Militarily, the putative further range is irrelevant to the effect, since the Huthis have always been able to interdict the same ‘international shipping’ in the Southern Red Sea — if they so chose. Thus far, the Huthis have attacked UAE / KSA military and strategic targets (and, mistakenly, some U.S. Navy ships), but not commercial shipping.

However, since this increase in range would also enable Yemenis to hit Iran, Tehran is unlikely to assist — in design or parts — in increasing the Huthis' range. Iran has been careful about the natures and quantities of capability which they have supplied to the Huthis, who are Zaydi. Ja’afari Iran rightly do not have the same confidence in the Zaydi Huthis as they do in Lebanon’s Ja’afari Hizballah, such that the relationship will not endure much after the end of the conflict. (Iran’s Islamic Revolution is seen in the West in a religious light; but in the Middle East, it is seen in revolutionary terms, with Khomeini as an unlikely Middle East version of Che Guevara.)

Indeed, the Huthis approached Iran — along with Russia and China — not on a sectarian basis, but on assumed common antipathy towards the United States and its regional clients.

WINEP observes that, per its “count of announced attacks, the rate of launches is greatly accelerating — this March alone, 70 major weapons systems were fired into Saudi Arabia (24 Sammad 3, 25 Qasef 2K, 17 Badr type, 3 Burkan 3, and 1 Quds 2 cruise missile), compared to 25 in February and 3 in January.” The increased tempo of Huthi attacks probably partly reflects a re-supply of missiles. (Iran probably ran down Huthi stocks as the war seemed likely to end.) But, after the United States ended its support for offensive operations, it mostly served to increase further the pressure on Sa’udi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to withdraw from the conflict. While some attacks have targeted military sites, the Huthis have concentrated on the hydrocarbon industry which is Sa’udi Arabia’s Achilles Heel — crucial if MbS wants to fulfil his Vision 2030.

The WINEP piece then discusses improved Huthi capability: “If the latest systems can combine accuracy with slightly extended range, they could seriously disrupt the Saudi airbase in Khamis Mushait, the linchpin for the defense of Marib.

Abha and Khamis Mushayt are already within Huthi range (as is the untroubled CIA base): a Huthi UAV hit an aircraft at Abha in February 2021. It has been the Sa’udis’ Air Defence systems — not a lack of Huthi range or accuracy — which has prevented more damage. Indeed, the Huthis reportedly have UAVs “assessed to have an effective range of 2,000 to 2,200 kilometers” (so Israel repositioned Air Defence assets to Eilat.) The simplest way to stop airfields in KSA being attacked is for it to stop backing one faction in the civil war in, and withdraw from, Yemen.

The piece continues: "If the Houthis overrun Marib, Yemen’s energy hub, they will effectively win the war they launched in 2014 when they overran Sanaa." 

Ma'rib may be where there is some remaining oil (and a power station / LPG refinery), but since the pipeline transits Huthi-controlled territory, the Huthis control the oil's export (although there are reports that the Hadi faction truck oil to Rudum on the Gulf of Aden). Crucially, Ma'rib is Hadi’s HQ for military operations, astride the main supply route from KSA to Aden. Ma’rib is also the location of 385,000 internally displaced persons. (A Huth-aligned site suggests that the HQ may have moved to al-Wadi’a in Sa’udi Arabia.)

While a Huthi capture of Ma'rib would probably doom Hadi's return to power, its fall may not end the conflict. The Huthis may have ambitions further East, although their ability to secure the rest of Yemen is questionable.

WINEP then boldly opines: "U.S. interests are not served by the Houthis controlling Marib,” although that is not reflected in CENTCOM’s mission and priorities. Indeed, U.S. interests in Yemen are unclear, apart from countering Al-Qai’da in the Arabian Peninsula. Before KSA attacked the Huthis, the Huthis had a modus vivendi with CENTCOM in hunting down AQAP: “[Gen. Lloyd [Austin] was enraged by the Saudi intervention because we [the Americans] were quietly supporting the Houthi fight against AQAP at the time,” according to a senior CENTCOM officer quoted in Foreign Policy. Since then, AQAP have been fighting in Ta'iz and, recently, in Ma'rib alongside the Sa’udi-led, U.S.-backed Coalition forces, against the Huthis.

The piece suggests that Washington "Think the unthinkable" and conduct a "dispassionate review of its policy toward the Houthis,” but offers ideas that are less a review and more a reprise of the past six years. Genuinely "Thinking the unthinkable" in this case would involve the United States collaborating with the Huthis in the fight against AQAP and the Islamic State (and quite possibly against Iran in Yemen.) Such a volte face is not particularly “unthinkable” either: it is how many groups — most famously the Gurkhas — came to fight alongside the British.

The piece winds up to its key message: "If such a review concludes that the Houthis are likely to be a U.S. adversary in the future regardless of how the Yemen conflict ends, then officials should start thinking about a containment strategy now rather than later." The Huthis are militarily, religiously and economically irrelevant to the United States, albeit a potential nuisance to the Sunni Arab monarchs — at least until an effective, civilian-compatible means of defeating the cruise missiles and UAVs is developed.

Washington’s containment strategy which the piece pre-supposes would tie U.S. forces down in the region to no U.S. benefit. Indeed, while spending further U.S. blood and treasure might keep the princes in their palaces for a few years longer, it would do nothing to address the popular discontent within the states of the region, nor the artificial imbalances between them, a disparity maintained in great part by U.S. power. The optimal solution for the region — and for Washington — is to allow domestic and international forces to equalise and return to balance. Regional states can concentrate on managing the imminent impact of the energy revolution and climate change, while the United States can shift its focus to more critical geo-political challenges. It’s time to redeploy, not reinforce failure.

Houthi supporters shout slogans during a rally against the United States' designation of Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation, in Sanaa, Yemen January 25, 2021. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
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