Saudi Arabia’s American-Backed War in Yemen Went Really Badly Today

Despite Saudi airstrikes, the Houthis continue their advance. Meanwhile, al Qaeda is gaining territory.


Through its backing of Saudi Arabia — with bombs, intelligence, refueling, and search-and-rescue capabilities — and Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, the United States is effectively at war with the impoverished land that occupies the southwestern heel of the Arabian Peninsula. That war is going spectacularly badly.

Two weeks ago, Riyadh and a coalition of Gulf states intervened in Yemen with a campaign of airstrikes aimed at halting the advance of Houthi rebels and restoring President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power.

Neither of those goals currently appears achievable. Instead of being halted, the Houthi rebels, whom Saudi Arabia claims are backed by Iran, have gained territory. On Thursday, they took the city of Ataq, a Sunni stronghold. Local residents told Reuters that the city’s security forces and tribal chiefs helped the Houthis enter the city.

Meanwhile, fighting continues in the city of Aden, a city of about 800,000 on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The city, a port on the southern coast, is currently the scene of street-to-street fighting, and humanitarian agencies report having difficulties delivering aid. International shipping companies are steering clear of Yemeni ports — terrible news for a place that imports about 90 percent of its food and which faces a looming water crisis. “It’s nearly catastrophic,” Marie Claire Feghali, the International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman in Yemen, told Reuters.

Amid this fighting, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group’s Yemen affiliate, is making territorial gains. On Thursday, the group seized government offices in al-Siddah district, which had previously been controlled by the Houthis. Last week, AQAP, which U.S. spies consider to be al Qaeda’s most dangerous offshoot, seized the port city of Mukalla.

With Hadi, the U.S.- and Saudi-backed president, out of power, U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the country have been severely hampered. U.S. special forces have been evacuated from the country, and American drones are now flying intelligence missions in support of the Saudi air campaign.

The Houthi advance, meanwhile, is leading to confrontations between that group and AQAP. The Houthis are virulently opposed to al Qaeda, but their anti-American rhetoric and alleged backing by Iran have made a Houthi-U.S. alliance against AQAP a non-starter.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia views this war as a showdown with Iran. And while Iran has some ties to the Houthi movement and has provided it with some support and weapons, allegations of Iranian backing have been exaggerated by Saudi Arabia to cast the intervention in Yemen as part of a broader regional and sectarian struggle between the two powerhouse nations. The Houthis are Zaydi Shiites, but that religion is doctrinally closer to Sunni Islam.

In a speech Thursday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described the intervention as an act of genocide. While civilian casualties are mounting — the World Health Organization says at least 643 have died in the latest round of fighting — that claim is likely another exaggeration in the war of words over Yemen.

Khamenei chided the Saudis and cast this military campaign as a product of Saudi Arabia’s new generation of rulers, calling 79-year-old Saudi King Salman part of a cadre of “inexperienced youngsters.”

Khamenei predicted a drawn-out military campaign for the Saudis.

On that point at least, independent analysts voiced some agreement with the ayatollah. “The days of a Yemen that could be run by one person who could be dealt with and who could take care of things are gone,” Farea al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told the Washington Post. “This is becoming their Vietnam.”


Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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