“The first duty in this joint effort,” President Trump said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21st, “is for your nations to deny all territory to the foot soldiers of evil.” Trump went further to emphasize American resolve against the Taliban and Islamic State, while also supporting “strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen.” Further, Trump accused Iran of supporting “terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups” in several countries including Yemen. It seems that Yemen is likely to see more direct foreign involvement in its civil war, especially in light of a record breaking $350 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia (though it has recently been put in doubt). The Trump administration is perfectly aware that these weapons will be used in Yemen, raising important questions about the current war, and the future of American policy in the country.
$350 billion of American weapons have been pledged to Saudi Arabia over the next decade, with intended sales of tanks, fighter jets (including the infamous F-35 Lightning II), combat ships, and Lockheed-Martin’s THAAD missile defence system. Although many of the ‘sales’ aren’t technically finalised contracts, at the very least these developments should be interpreted as the Trump administration signalling its confidence in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the Saudis will never receive THAAD, but the offer sends the message that the US cares about the Houthis firing missiles into the country. It is clear that America will maintain its role in what would more accurately be termed the US-Saudi War.
Thus far, Washington’s involvement has been ‘indirect,’ in that it has managed to bill itself as a morally conflicted supporting party, while giving weapons, diplomatic cover, and logistical assistance (such as critical refueling efforts) to coalition forces that are officially being led by Saudi Arabia. However, this is in addition to a mixture of drone strikes, US Navy SEALs raids, and secret operations like interrogations in an underground network of prisons in southern Yemen, which are largely meant to target Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State. As the conflict grows more ruinous, with botched bombings condemned by the United Nations and members of the U.S. congress, the Pentagon may decide to take a more direct role in the conflict. While this pivot would be done under the auspices of minimizing collateral damage, such a move would provide Washington with further strategic control on the ground. Whether these moves would be met with Trump’s blessings or indifference, as is the case with Afghanistan, is uncertain. In either scenario, the left needs to map how it can resist the US-Saudi push.
It is important to begin by putting the conflict into perspective, by engaging with Yemen’s complex history, particularly as it relates to revolutionary politics, as well the origins of its present crisis. Far too often, Yemen is crudely discussed as a backwater nation, notable only for the presence of AQAP and Islamic State. In such a rendering the presence of Islamic militants explains US military operations in Yemen, and its current “lawlessness” is seen to be a laboratory for new imperialist counter-insurgency tactics. These are important and not without some truth, but Yemen is also a country that boasts a remarkable legacy of revolutionary leftist movements.
Unlike the oriental tropes, Yemeni politics is a remarkable spectrum of different actors, including Marxist-Leninists, Nasserists, liberal reformers that seek greater economic development, tribal confederations that comprise a host of regional and sectarian identities, dictatorial generals that work with Saudi Arabia and the United States, and terrorist groups like AQAP, who, at different times, will either seek to work with or overthrow any of the above. A full view of the nation’s history and politics challenges easy narratives of what a poor Muslim-majority postcolonial state is “supposed to look like.”
Such a study is not merely academic or even local in its application. Yemen is a window into the combined elite strategies of balkanization and militarization of social struggle in the Mideast, North Africa, and South Asia, imparting lessons with a more general purchase. What’s more, recalling this recent history can impart key lessons from the failure of Yemen’s recent democratic movements to fill the power vacuum that emerged in their wake, while the demobilization of emancipatory movements highlights the practices that might comprise an effective anti-imperialist and anti-war movement in the United States today.
Two major conquests in the early 19th century have shaped modern Yemen. In 1839, the British East India Company landed hundreds of Royal Marines in order to take control of the southern port city of Aden, and much of the Yemeni coastline, to crack down on piracy and establish coaling stations. By 1849, the Ottoman Empire had taken large sections of the north including Sana’a, which it held as an extension of its interests in Mecca and Medina. North Yemen was ruled by a Zaidi Shi’a Imamate called the Mutawakaliat Kingdom after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, with Imam Yahya being assassinated in 1948. His son Ahmed ruled until his death in 1962, followed by the short tenure of Imam Muhammad, interrupted by army officers in a republican revolt inspired by Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser.
These events deteriorated into a bloody proxy war. Nasserist republicans supported by Egypt, fighting against Imamate royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, with further backing from Jordan, Britain, and Israel. It is important to note that Saudi Arabia clearly did not believe that the Imamate’s Shi’ism was much of an issue. The civil war was about monarchical rule in North Yemen, not rank sectarianism and intra-religious squabbling. Analysts often fixate on “the Sunni-Shi’a divide,” which makes it difficult to engage with the actual political history of the region. Yemen is no exception. The civil war ended with a republican victory in 1970, including a partial integration of the monarchists, but with enormous costs, particularly for Egypt. Historians later called the war “Egypt’s Vietnam” due its unexpected drain on military resources and morale despite Nasser’s initial expectations of a quick victory. The consequences would be far reaching; Israel learned enough from Egyptian tactics in North Yemen to eventually crush Nasser during the 1967 Six Day War.
In North Yemen, the end of the civil war saw an overhaul in state-tribe relations that has continued into the present. In 1911, Imam Yahya was able to temporarily unify the area’s divided tribal networks, gaining increased independence from the Ottoman Empire. After 1918, both Imams Yahya and Ahmed managed to keep the Imamate state stronger than individual tribes by constantly fermenting conflict between them while dissuading revolt by keeping the sons and brothers of major sheikhs as “hostages” in Sana’a. They also gave monthly stipends to sheikhs from the Hashid and Bakil Tribal Confederations, two of the largest tribal networks in Yemen, both dominantly Zaidi Shi’a. Critically, under the Imamate state and tribal networks were clearly separate, with the former managing the latter as something outside the state. Following the civil war, tribes were incorporated into the republican state as powerful (and armed) social actors with independent wealth and concomitant political influence.
Analysts frequently discuss Yemeni tribal politics as anachronistic, but tribal leaders are modern political actors that adapted intelligently to a changing revolutionary order. The Hashid Tribal Confederation was no longer being managed by the North Yemeni political process. Rather, it was shaping it during a period of massive state expansion; universities, cars and hospitals became widespread following the end of the Imamate’s extreme isolationism. Yet this “modernization” campaign was limited. Even as urbanization and consumption of foreign products took place, the vast majority of Yemenis still lived in rural areas. The weak manufacturing sector was unable to do much more than export products to South Yemen. From the 1960s to the present, with growing ease of travel and mounting demands from cities like Dubai, Yemenis have been able to supplement anemic foreign investment –– mostly in the form of humanitarian assistance –– with their own remittances. However, the economy itself still requires much closer and more skilled attention than has been afforded to it, to say nothing of the political will on the Gulf to allow Yemen to have an economy of comparable strength to Oman or the United Arab Emirates. Such a scenario would, after all, require wealth and developmental redistribution on the Arabian Peninsula.
Turning our attention to South Yemen, in 1963, armed factions including the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY), National Liberation Front (NLF), and tribespeople from the mountainous Radfan region, mobilized against British plans to reorganize its southern territories into the Federation of South Arabia and Protectorate of South Arabia. Anti-British guerrillas launched major attacks against military forces, leading the British to respond by declaring a state of emergency that same year. The Aden Emergency lasted until 1967, when the imperial forces withdrew, leaving the People’s Republic of South Yemen in its place. The NLF entered a period of internal upheaval, as it attempted to assert itself against rival factions like the more Nasserist republican FLOSY and the more Ba’athist Sons of the Arab League. Essentially, Marxist-Leninists slowly gained control of what was originally a broad coalition of which the left was only one part.
NLF leader Qahtan al-Shabi became the first president of South Yemen with strong Egyptian support, and initially governed as a Nasserist. He aspired to develop a strong militarized state with staunch anti-imperialist foreign policy, while supervising major economic reforms that were developmentalist but not necessarily socialist. Unlike his leftist opposition, Al-Shabi’s inspiration was Algiers and Cairo, not Beijing and the Eastern Bloc. Al-Shabi held power until 1969, when Salim Rubai Ali, Muhammad Ali Haitham, and Abdul Fattah Ismail (the most powerful of the three), led a Marxist-Leninist faction to win control of the party. On December 1st, 1970, the NLF declared the creation of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and over the next eight years its organization absorbed various Arab nationalist groups as well as the local Communist Party into the new formation: the Yemeni Socialist Party. The organization developed ties with the Soviet Union, and adhered closely to the socialist model of the Eastern Bloc, forming a Politburo and Central Committee based in Aden.
The PDRY faced multiple challenges following independence, including the interruption of vital shipping routes with the closure of the Suez Canal from 1967 to 1975. Politically, the situation grew more desperate, with pressure from major socialist powers like the USSR that no longer shared its leadership’s militancy and a failure to “export revolution” to its neighbors. The PDRY played a significant role in Oman’s Dhofar Rebellion and North Yemen’s National Democratic Front Rebellion in 1976. It also participated border clashes with both Saudi Arabia in 1969 and 1973, and again in North Yemen from 1972 and 1979. Its defeats in these conflicts produced economic stagnation, a growing dissatisfaction with President Abdul Fattah Ismail’s divisive leadership, and led to the 1980 rise of reformist Ali Nasser Muhammad Al-Hassani. Adopting a more modest stance on the international stage, Ali Nasser ruled until the 1986 South Yemeni Civil War. There, a returning Ismail died in a bloody attempt to retake power. It is important to note the relative absence of straightforward tribal politics in this period of sectarian violence. There are powerful tribal structures in areas like Hadhramout and Radfan, shored up by British subsidies in exchange for staying away from the coastal areas. However, South Yemeni rural areas were largely dominated by non-tribal landed elites such as sultans, who may have understood their largely independent control through the lens of tribal affiliations, but did not necessarily organize with them collectively.
Following independence, the PDRY undertook a complicated policy of expropriating lands held by elites associated with many tribes, while not necessarily banning tribal association. Regardless, tribes simply did not organize as independent political actors in the south to the same degree that they were organizing in the north. This not to say that there weren’t cases when tribal affiliation would correlate with a certain political position. For instance, the Hadhramis tended to oppose Ali Nasser in the 1986 South Yemeni Civil War. However, there were also many other times when tribal and regional identity was irrelevant in political developments, as shown by the fact that Salim Rubai Ali and Ali Nasser were from the same area, but fought each other in 1986. So while tribal identity can have real effects in the nation’s politics, it would be a mistake to think that tribalism as the sole or even principal cause of most political events in Yemen.
Following the violence, Ali Salim Al-Beidh became General Secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party. He started tapping oil reserves and sought eventual unification with North Yemen, at that point ruled by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh had become President of North Yemen in 1978, ascending from a provisional military governing council that took control following a string of coups and assassinations. Yemen was unified by May 1990, but bitterness grew over uneven resource distribution, heavy representation of northerners in parliament, universities, and major development projects. Perhaps worst of all, there was an obvious centralization of southern oil wealth in elite northern circles close to Saleh.
In May 1994, multiple southern provinces tried to secede from Sana’a under the leadership of former socialist politicians like Al-Beidh and Nasser Muhammad. Isolated from the international community, the fledgling state was overwhelmed by July, and much of its leadership went into exile. Saleh continued his uneven approach to unification, seeding future mobilization over the “southern question,” but also deepening concerns over economic mismanagement and political dysfunction in the north.
Finally, it is important to briefly go over Al-Qaeda, and the Houthis, both of which became domestic and international concerns after the civil war. The Houthis began in the early 1990s as an educational and cultural organization known as the Believing Youth, which tried to spark a Zaidi Shi’i revival in northern provinces like Sa’ada. The Believing Youth was reacting to a feeling of Zaidi insecurity in Yemen, as the largely Shi’a and Ismaili north encountered relatively novel forms of sectarianism as the Sunni Islamist Al-Islah Party and
a litany of Salafi preachers, media commentators, and community groups gained influence. Its own influence grew alongside popular opposition to Saleh’s alliances with Saudi Arabia and United States, which were strengthened significantly following Al-Qaeda’s bombing of the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000. While the US in particular has always been wary of Saleh, it expanded military ties with the understanding that Yemen could become an important battleground, a position that solidified with the War on Terror, and formation of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2009.
AQAP’s history begins with the Soviet-Afghan War, when thousands of North Yemenis went to fight against the Red Army with the mujahideen. It was during the war that they met Osama Bin Laden, and when they returned, Saleh attempted to use them against the south in the early 1990s. However, he was forced to revise his position somewhat, after the US started to become concerned that its former clients were now following Bin Laden’s 1996 Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places. Al-Qaeda in Yemen unified a group of Islamist dissidents who were inspired by his message, many of whom were former mujahideen with fond memories of Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the USS Cole bombing, and in the months that followed, American commandos and intelligence officers began arriving in the country to work closely with Saleh in order to monitor and destroy the group. Drone strikes first began in 2002, before intensifying greatly under Obama, as terrorist attacks in the West that were planned abroad were increasingly linked to networks that included Somalia and Yemen. In the late 2000s, Saudi authorities began cracking down on Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, chasing it across the southern border with Yemen. Al-Qaeda in Yemen fused with the defeated Saudi branch, resulting in AQAP, which became publicly known following an attempted underwear bombing in 2009. The Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was involved with the group until he became the first American citizen to be killed by a drone in September 2011. Two weeks later, his son Abdulrahman was killed as a civilian bystander in another strike, and his daughter Nawar was killed in January, during Trump’s disastrous raid in Yemen.
In the meantime, and especially in the chaos of the civil war (which now also features Islamic State) and US counterterrorist policies, AQAP, having changed its name to Ansar Al-Sharia, has grown immensely into an organization of hybrid warfare. It is now a loosely affiliated group of local actors, including AQAP militants, local leaders, and tribespeople that may impose hardline Salafism on the growing number of territories it holds, but also, is increasingly limited by how members of the Ansar al-Sharia coalition envision societal governance as well as the targets of its attacks. The group is not a monolith, and to add further complexity, several crown princes in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been accused of supporting these groups even as their militaries are officially working with the United States to eradicate them.
Returning to the Believing Youth: tensions finally boiled over in 2004, when activists linked to the group organized protests against the Iraq War in Sana’a, which was also an early example of the group chanting “death to America, Israel, and Jews” (the latter of which is particularly offensive, but must be understood in the context of Israel’s self-identification as a Jewish state, and a Houthi eagerness to emulate Islamist chants from Iran). Saleh become concerned about the largely tribal group’s increasing influence, particularly given his role in the War on Terror. Initially, Saleh tried to arrange a meeting with its founder Hassan Badreddin al-Houthi, before sending troops into northern Yemen to arrest him. Al-Houthi retaliated with force, and when he was killed later that year, the Believing Youth militarized, unofficially going by the name “the Houthis,” though they are officially known as Ansar Allah.
The Houthis would fight multiple wars with Saleh leading up to the 2011 Yemeni Uprising, at the same time that American activities against Al-Qaeda intensified during the War on Terror. Saleh tried to take advantage of this to obtain American military assistance against the Houthis, who he accused of being linked to Iran, but at the time, the United States dismissed his requests due to a lack of evidence. In 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry publicly accused Iran of supporting the Houthis, but Wikileaks cables from several years earlier clearly show that American diplomats were skeptical about the connection. While the Houthis may start to build links with Iran in the face of massive US-Saudi pressure, it’s clear that the claims are largely untrue, and that the Houthis are being called a proxy in order to justify foreign intervention.
The Yemeni Civil War, now featuring massive US-Saudi involvement, has grown out of unresolved tensions between existing elites over the course of several decades, and which exploded shortly after Arab Spring protests hit Yemen in 2011. The essential point is that by the end of June 2011, protesters had succeeded in cracking Saleh’s authority, opening the possibility for serious political change, but lacked the resources, skills, and planning necessary to seize the opportunity. As a result, existing political factions were able to capitalize on Saleh’s weakness, and a mixture of armed violence and cynical moves by existing factions transformed what was an energetic popular revolt into an elite power struggle.
Beginning on January 27 of that year, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the central squares of major cities like Sana’a, Ta’iz, and Aden, with further rallies on February 3 (a “Day of Rage” called by future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman), and February 18. Inspired by the Arab Spring, protests were initially driven by unemployment (which in 2010 averaged at about 40% across the Middle East and North Africa, reaching as high as 70% among people under 25 years old), slow economic growth, and plans to amend the constitution to allow Saleh to stand for another term. The rallies quickly developed into a more general uprising, as an enthusiastic urban youth movement expanded into broader frustrations over economic mismanagement and a lack of political freedoms, with particularly large gatherings in the central squares of Sana’a, Ta’iz, and Aden. By the end of February, several major tribal factions – split between rural and urban setting – joined the protesters, lifting their total numbers past a hundred thousand, with Saleh facing growing calls to resign.
The turning point of the protests is widely held to be the “Friday of Dignity” on March 18, after which Saleh’s resignation seemed inevitable, and his support vaporized overnight. Gunmen with undeniable links to government officials opened fire on protesters gathered in Sana’a’s Change Square, killing at least forty-five and wounding over two hundred. Saleh’s reputation suffered in particular because a paramilitary unit commanded by his nephew Yahya did not intervene to stop the violence, and the gunmen were seen as committing a massive moral and cultural transgression by firing on unarmed people in an unprovoked manner. The move attracted international condemnation, and led to a state of emergency as Saleh’s grip on power loosened. By the end of March, six of eighteen governorates were out of government control.
Despite his deteriorating position, Saleh spent months skillfully evading a deal mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to end the crisis, in addition to pressure from an international community outraged by the violence and concerned about a possible state collapse that would nurture AQAP. Meanwhile, established political elites sidelined enthusiastic protesters who lacked the resources and infrastructure to maintain a popular revolt. By June 2011, when Saleh was injured in a rocket attack and a temporary ceasefire was called in Sana’a, established parties like Al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate that received financial and intellectual support from Saudi Arabia, and other major elites such as those from oppositional tribal networks, began to take control of the movements forming in the squares. Al-Islah in particular quickly pushed out the grassroots opposition through its superior organizing resources, greater experience in dealing with political institutions, divisive religious rhetoric that fragmented protesters (especially through gender segregation), and straightforward physical intimidation of the non-Islamist opposition.
At the same time, armed groups including the Houthis, and tribes in the provinces of Arhab and Nihm, began to take territories across the country. Fearing their position in a rapidly changing political order, the Houthis knew they had to act quickly in order to avoid being overwhelmed by military elites like Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, and highly influential tribal leaders including Sadiq al-Ahmar of the Hashid Tribal Confederation. Further south, Islamist militias linked to AQAP took the provincial capital of Zinjibar. Given that Saleh had recalled military units to crack down on protests in Sana’a and Ta’iz, the US and Saudi Arabia immediately began to blame the “instability” caused by protesters demanding democratic freedoms and major economic changes in the country. America responded with intensified drone strikes and covert operations against AQAP, further destabilizing an already unstable situation.
In November 2011, Saleh finally signed a GCC initiative that gave him immunity, and transferred powers to his former Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, with strong support from the United States, European Union, and United Nations. The following month, the remaining youth movement, the Houthis, and Hirak, a movement of southern nationalists that grew out of pension protests half a decade earlier, staged a Life March from Ta’iz to Sana’a in opposition to the deal. However, the situation was broadly out of their hands. In February 2012, Hadi was confirmed as president in an election in which he was the only candidate, with the Houthis, Hirak, and many independents boycotting.
As agreed upon in the GCC initiative, President Hadi directed the Yemeni parliament to pass an immunity law for Saleh and five hundred of his aides. The move intensified divisions within Yemen, and drew widespread condemnation, including from Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and NGOs like Amnesty International. Hadi immediately moved against Saleh loyalists in the military and over a dozen institutions and launched the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) from March 2013 to January 2014. Tellingly, the youth and grassroots movements that drove the original protests weren’t invited. The NDC was intended to be an agreement between established political actors on structural reforms and a new constitution. After the process was concluded, Hadi stoked existing antagonisms by extending his mandate for another year, and gave little indication about how the NDC findings would even be implemented.
Finally, Hadi began to seriously lose ground in July 2014, when he made a deeply unpopular decision to lift fuel subsidies in order to appease the International Monetary Fund. The Houthis took advantage of public outrage to organize protests with vicious criticisms of the NDC process, along with demands for fresh subsidies, and a new government. By September, an agreement was reached, but Houthi commanders understood that there was now an opening. Several weeks later, the Houthis took control of Sana’a, and dissolved parliament by January 2015. Regardless of the developments, the US continued what it called counterterrorist operations, and briefly also had lines of intelligence to the Houthis, which it called “anti Al-Qaeda.” As usual, American interests in Yemen were primarily driven by anti-terrorism, with other concerns like democracy and international legal norms being secondary.
After Hadi fled to Aden, the Houthis formed a new Revolutionary Committee, and issued a Constitutional Declaration in February 2015. In the document, the Houthis outlined that the Revolutionary Committee would lead the government, rights and freedoms would be protected by the Revolutionary Committee, and that a transitional state would work to implement the National Dialogue Conference protocols over a course of two years, before submitting a draft constitution for a referendum. The Houthis also tried to work with local urban and tribal elites (to some degree of success), replaced the Yemeni parliament and local councils with a 551 member Transitional Council that former officials were entitled to join, and outlined that a five member Presidential Council appointed by the Transitional Council would replace Hadi. It was clear to local and international actors that while the document seemed promising, and the transitional process under Hadi was flawed from the outset, the Houthis sought to preserve their own position as a representative of armed Zaidi Shi’a tribes in northern Yemen. The group was particularly opposed to plans to restructure Yemen into a federation of six regions, which would have greatly fragmented Houthi influence and political power.
Shortly after the declaration, the Houthis began to advance through Yemen, and a cycle of crackdowns and “revenge killings” quickly consumed the country. The Houthis took Ta’iz by the end of February, where they were greeted with mass protests, and on March 25, had surrounded Aden with Hadi leaving the country. On March 26, at midnight, Saudi Arabia announced that a coalition of largely GCC nations, with generous American support, would intervene through a combination of aerial bombardments, ground troops, and eventually, state building initiatives (to date it has been best known for the first). In May, despite fighting a six year insurgency against the group, Saleh directed his loyalists to join the Houthis in an alliance that would bolster them militarily, provide them much needed influence through Saleh’s old networks, and also allow him to potentially regain his lost power.
As a result, the Houthis have been better able to resist the GCC/US push, but the group is still struggling with basic issues of governance. The Houthis have tried to carry out important functions through agencies that report to the Revolutionary Committee, but constant bombings, a blockade of Yemeni ports (including Hodeidah, a major shipping point for international aid and local commerce), and a reluctance to work with humanitarian organizations brought on by wartime paranoia and concerns over a hostile civilian population, have totally limited its capacity to manage the territories under its control. It is no wonder that Yemen is overwhelmed by famine, internal displacement, and medical scarcity. This is in addition to growing sectarianism, particularly in cities formerly held by the Houthi-Saleh alliance, where Salafi organizers have prospered in the context of political hopelessness, human rights violations, and indiscriminate targeting of civilians (by all sides, but the Houthis and Saleh are getting the most attention). The Siege of Ta’iz has now become a symbol of the war’s brutality, with snipers hunting its streets, and organizations like the International Commission of the Red Cross struggling to help those trapped in the city. Elsewhere, coalition bombing runs hit militants, aid workers (especially those from Médecins Sans Frontières), and civilians indiscriminately.
It is a far cry from the hope and excitement that originally started the revolt in 2011.
It is unclear how the war in Yemen will evolve from here, especially with regard to the United States, which seems likely to get more directly involved, but also continues to oscillate between different positions. As evidence of its often contradictory behaviour, consider that the US Navy bombed multiple Houthi radar sites in October, shortly after reacting to hundreds of civilian deaths in a Saudi funeral bombing by warning that its support is “not a blank check.” It is possible that the Pentagon could push for a role in the conflict that extends beyond the logistical support (with the US sharing intelligence, and placing American officers in coalition targeting rooms), weapons manufacturing, and diplomatic assistance that has already taken place. Given the bad press that is being generated about the bombings in particular, and how they are radicalizing forces on the ground, the Pentagon could seek to control the damage done by its allied commanders.
It is also important to note that the Republicans want to publicly confront Iran, but cannot actually do so in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The reality is that the United States either needs Iranian cooperation and support, especially in Iraq, or lacks the capacity to confront the country in other contexts, such as through Hizb’Allah. The GOP could turn to Yemen for a relatively safe victory against Iran, either through full-scale deployments, or engineering a theatrical and strategically insignificant operation like Trump’s disciplining of Assad earlier this year.
Trump would simply have to develop Saudi Arabia’s already successful arguments that the war is one of self-defense and exaggerate stories about alleged Iranian support for the Houthis. Of course, as the present coalition appears to be learning, such an approach could easily go the way of the North Yemeni Civil War, and Aden Emergency, when hopes of a quick and decisive win were swept away. It is also possible that the United States continues with its current role, to ensure that it is not the public face of the conflict, and force its allies to take official responsibility for the conflict’s bloody excesses. The US would simply be doing on a much larger scale what it already does through proxy detention in Yemen, which is offloading maintenance tasks, along with the worst torture of prisoners, on foreign security forces like UAE Special Operations, while achieving its own objectives by interrogating terrorism suspects. Essentially, the detention is a joint project between the US and its allies, but the former claims that it is “Emirati-led” or “Saudi-led” or “coalition-led” in order to gain cover as it pursues its main foreign policy objectives in Yemen, which are neutralizing the Houthis and other threats to its allies and “fighting terrorists.”
Regardless of what happens, there are multiple strategies going forward to resist the war’s possible expansion, and starve the Saudi Arabian war machine. It is easy to lose hope when Trump brands the Houthis as part of “the foot soldiers of evil,” but anti-war campaigners, media specialists, and the left more broadly have multiple options when it comes to raising awareness, pressuring governments, and targeting arms companies as part of a wider strategy of disrupting supply lines into Saudi Arabia, ending Yemen’s naval blockade, and forcing coalition forces to withdraw from the country.
In the United States, activists like Code Pink, in addition to various NGO and state agencies, already managed to pressure the Obama White House to restrict cluster bomb sales to Saudi Arabia. Obviously, these approaches have become more difficult with the election of President Trump. The GOP-dominated government is much less likely to bow to political pressure, unless it comes in the form of overwhelming public opposition and major disruption by organized anti-war groups. Activists need to examine which “nodes” of the coalition military supply chain are closest to them, especially in the United States, given its role in the conflict, and stage their own anti-war interventions.
This can be done through standard campaigning work such as leafleting and rallies, but it will be easier to target individual suppliers with direct actions that generate a great deal of publicity, including L-3 Fuzing and Ordnance Systems, Raytheon, and BAE Systems. In Europe, activists currently have a greater ability to carry out these actions, given crackdowns on popular dissent in the US, and a wider range of potentially positive outcomes. Organizers like Campaign Against the Arms Trade have used a variety of tactics to disrupt and challenge the legality of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Campaigners should also remember that different governments will be responsive to slightly different strategies. For example, German activists can leverage a specific sense of national moral obligation traced back to the downfall of the Nazi regime, while Swedish arms exports run against its avowed policies of Scandinavian pacifism. Obviously, no one set of actions will be enough, and a broad international campaign is necessary to prevent coalition forces from getting the training, supplies, and support that they need, in addition to making the US more cautious about expanding its activities in Yemen.
From there, activists can press for a broader and more sweeping demilitarization of the country, including the gradual disarmament of its heavily armed population. That clearly won’t solve Yemen’s problems, which are a reflection of decades of corrupt governance, dwindling resources, insufficient grassroots politics, and massive inequality both domestically and regionally. However, it could provide the right setting for Yemeni activists to recuperate and, with support from activists internationally, organize the sustained actions that will be necessary to democratize the country in the long term. It’s a process that will take years, but has no chance of beginning in the current situation, which currently seems far more likely to end with Yemen divided into several undemocratic administrative units run by the Houthis, Salehs, various tribal groupings, and old elites from the PDRY eager to separate from the north.