The U.S. House of Representatives has voted 248-177 to force the U.S. to cease military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Islamic insurgents in Yemen. Most press reports are framing this as a rebuke of President Trump’s foreign policy, particularly his “alliance” with Saudi Arabia. Tensions with Saudi Arabia have been strained since their brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.
The truth of what is happening in Yemen is more complex, however.
Yemen has been in turmoil for most of the last half-century. For a while it was actually two separate countries, separated north and south. These merged in 1990, but a civil war shortly began. Presidential elections were eventually held in 1999, but a new insurgency by Islamic Shia militants began in 2004. This insurgency is led by a Muslim cleric named Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, and the group is therefore known as the Houthis. They have been fighting against the Yemeni government since then, although the person and groups in charge of the official government have changed throughout this time. A revolution in 2011 eventually led to fresh elections in 2012, although there was only one candidate on the ballot: Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Thus, the current war pits the internationally-recognized government of Hadi against the Houthi insurgents. As the Houthis are Shia, they are believed to have support from Iran (also Shia). The Saudis (Sunni Muslims) have led a coalition to fight against the Houthis; in this coalition are the United Arab Emirates, Senegal, Sudan, Morocco, Qatar, France, and the United States. Since the U.S. Obama administration, American forces have served in an advisory role as well as conducted drone strikes in country.
At a surface level, then, the war is a proxy between Iran and Saudi Arabia over primacy in the Arabian peninsula. Iran is ethnically Persian and religiously Shia Muslim; Saudi Arabia is ethnically Arab and religiously Sunni Muslim.
However, an added level of complexity is that there are third-parties in this fight: al-Qaeda (Sunni) and the Islamic State (Shia). Saudi forces have partnered with al-Qaeda on attacks, and the Islamic State has fought against the Houthis.
Thus, there is this strange situation in which the Houthi rebels are fighting against the internationally-recognized government of Hadi as well as against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. A scorecard would be helpful to keep track of all the belligerents.
The question could legitimately be asked then: why is the U.S. supporting Yemen and Saudi Arabia when these two governments are partnering with al-Qaeda and being assisted by the Islamic State? The answer is Iran. Iran is perceived as a greater threat to regional stability and threatens to upset the current balance of power in the area. Iranian influence in the region has been on the ascendancy ever since the fall of Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country. Iraq was formerly the regional check on Iranian power; that mantle has since been picked up by Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. is therefore in a difficult position. Continue the fight against the Houthis, knowing that it is implicitly assisting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State? Or, cease support and risk Iran gaining more power in the region through their Houthi proxies?
As in many instances in international affairs, there are no purely “good” choices, only various shades of “bad” choices. Which “bad” one chooses depends upon one’s preferences and beliefs. For now, the U.S. House has chosen the “bad” of trying to end U.S. support of the Saudi-led coalition. The U.S. Senate and President Trump are likely to block this in order to continue the “bad” of supporting the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels.
A person can legitimately disagree with either of these “bad” choices, but it is helpful and intellectually honest to at least know the context before forming an opinion. Hopefully the U.S. House has spent the time to do this before voting to end U.S. support of the war against the Houthis, rather than seeing it as simply a rebuke of Trump’s policies.