Small Wars

This Week at War: The Upside of the Proxy War in Yemen

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The Saudi-Iranian proxy war escalates: good news for the U.S.

A sectarian rebellion in northern Yemen has now become an open contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence over Yemen and the Gulf of Aden region. This week the Saudis brought their air and naval power to bear against Yemen’s Houthi rebels — Shiite insurgents very likely supported by Iran – after a Houthi incursion into Saudi territory. Iran responded by warning Saudi Arabia to stay out of the conflict. What remains to be seen is whether this conflict will create and harden a Sunni-Arab alliance that might someday effectively contain Iran.

According to the New York Times, the Houthis captured a strategic mountain near the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border and clashed with a Saudi border patrol on Nov. 3. The Saudi response was a sustained air and artillery campaign against Houthi positions inside Yemen. On Nov 10 Saudi naval forces began a blockade of Yemen’s coast in order to cut the Houthis off from resupply.

The Saudi and Yemeni governments believe that Iran is supplying the rebels with weapons, though Tehran denies it.

Why has Saudi Arabia felt the need to overtly intervene in what was previously an internal Yemeni dispute? According to the United Nations, the latest flare-up in the Houthi insurrection has created 175,000 refugees. Breaking the insurgency might curtail the refugee crisis and prevent it from spilling over into Saudi Arabia.

At the geostrategic level, Saudi leaders might fear the creation of a pro-Iranian Shiite enclave adjacent to the Red Sea shipping lane, similar to what Iran has achieved with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. From the Saudi perspective, it would be best to strangle that possibility immediately.

Other players are taking note of the escalation in the Houthi conflict and making their own arrangements. On Nov. 11 Yemen disclosed that it had signed a military cooperation deal with the United States; the terms of the deal were not disclosed. Separately, the growing friction between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-Arab states in the Gulf region on the other seems to be good news for arms exporters. According to Bloomberg News, major U.S. and European defense contractors expect $40 billion in sales over the next five years to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to upgrade aircraft, missile, and naval systems.

U.S. officials should be pleased by this reaction. Any real challenge Iranian ambitions will require Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to balance Iranian power. Accomplishing that will require more resolve and teamwork than the Sunni Arab states have demonstrated so far. If the proxy war generated by the Houthi rebellion achieves this response from the gulf countries, it would greatly serve U.S. interests in the region.

Sri Lanka’s civil war is not really over

When does a war really end? Last May, the Sri Lankan army overran the last holdout of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the insurgent group that for 26 years had battled for a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka’s north. The final, bloody battle seemed decisive – the Tigers’ founder Vellupillai Prabhakaran, his son, and many other top leaders of the LTTE were killed. The Tigers’ sanctuary was vanquished. The army herded the LTTE’s remaining foot-soldiers, along with the population that supported them, into razor-wire encampments.

Six months later, the guarded refugee camps remain. Might the embryo of a new Tamil insurgency be growing inside the camps? On the one hand, Sri Lanka’s leaders likely understand that the longer the refugee situation remains unresolved, the higher the probability rises for another Tamil insurgency. On the other hand, after experiencing a long, bitter, and extremely violent civil war, these leaders are in no mind to gamble with their recent victory.

In The Utility of Force, his brilliant analysis of modern war, Rupert Smith asserted that today’s conflicts, especially the ethnic variety, are never actually resolved. The best a policymaker can hope for, wrote Smith, is to contain over time their intensity and consequences. This is exactly the situation Sri Lanka now faces.

Sri Lanka’s leaders are apparently hoping to prove Smith wrong. According to a recent Washington Post story, the government is using its lock-down of the Tamils to sift through the population of military-aged males in search of suspected Tiger sympathizers. By separating possible insurgent organizers from the rest of the Tamil population, the government hopes to permanently end Tamil resistance.

The Sri Lankan government may need to hurry up its search for potential troublemakers. It faces the possibility of a United Nations war crimes investigation and is under increasing pressure from the European Union and the United States to explain its resettlement policies.

Sri Lanka’s leaders are likely counting on diplomatic contact with the West, combined with some well-publicized initial resettlement efforts, to remove the internment camp story from the news. This would provide the Sri Lanka security services with more time to track down and isolate potential insurgents who might be lurking in the camps.

Will Sri Lanka’s government show how to permanently resolve a stubborn ethnic conflict? As Smith explained, modern history provides no good examples. We should bet that the Sri Lankan Way will be no different.

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