The United States Continues to Indirectly Engage in Yemen’s Proxy War

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

The ongoing war in Yemen has claimed thousands of lives since 2015. As a result of the conflict, Yemeni citizens have been killed, wounded, displaced, and starved. They are living in a country without basic medical infrastructure and sanitation. According to a study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), by the end of 2022, 166,000 people will have died as a result of the fighting in Yemen, and the United States will have played a not insignificant part in it.

The Conflict Begins

Yemen’s history of conflict began in 1990 when the two initially independent countries, North Yemen, and South Yemen, competed in a fight for dominance in the modern Republic of Yemen. Separatists in the south broke from the nation when they tried to secede from the north in 1994.

The Houthi movement, or Anwar Allah, established by Hussein al-Houthi in 2004 emerged within a Shi’ite group in northern Yemen against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Uprisings throughout the 2011 Arab Spring—a series of anti-monarch, pro-democracy protests that challenged the status quo of the Middle East—caused a civil war in which competing foreign powers intervened. After Saleh departed his presidential seat in 2012 the country was still staggering from the violence that had occurred and former vice president ʿAbd Rabbuh Manṣūr Hadī took office.

During Hadī’s tenure, the Houthis became stronger and in 2014 conquered Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, while members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had already gained control of cities in northern Abyan. Iran showed support for the Houthis that share their Shi’ite affiliation, providing them with supplies and personnel, allowing the ultra-conservative group to develop their military. President Hadī, who had been captured by the Houthis, escaped to Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman launched military operations in Yemen to defend Hadī’s government, which aligns with his Sunni faith.

Iran and Saudi Arabia never technically declared war on each other, rather they are fighting indirectly by supporting opposing sides. The two major powers have engaged in this kind of proxy warfare around the Middle East in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Morocco, and Lebanon as well. Their geopolitical rivalry arose after anti-autocratic revolutionist and clergyman Ayatollah Khomeini, overthrew monarch Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

According to the National Foreign Assessment Center, in 1980, Iran was helping Shi’ite groups in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan overthrow their governments. In response to the spread of the revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with five other Gulf countries that sought to protect their monarchies from the rhetoric of Iran’s regime.

In 1982, after Iran was rising in power against Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia assisted Iraq, providing money, weapons and logistics support which increased tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia that lasted years. After the pivotal Arab Spring, the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict further spread across the Middle East and Saudi Arabia and Iran continued to support rival groups, however although the Sunni-Shi’ite division is an important difference, it is not the primary reason for the rivalry among the two.

The U.S. Chooses a Side

In the proxy war in Yemen between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States decided to support Saudi Arabia’s intervention against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. This is not surprising as there has always been tension in the U.S.-Iran relationship ever since the U.S. backed Iraq with arms and classified intelligence after it invaded Iran in 1980. Former president George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address in which he labelled Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil” strained the U.S. ‘s relationship with Iran even more.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance was formed after the 1938 discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia. In 1973, the Saudis imposed an oil embargo on the United States after it showed support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. A year later, Saudi Arabia lifted the embargo after it harmed the U.S. economy. The United States realized the importance of its relationship with Saudi Arabia and settled on an alleged arrangement in which the U.S. promised the Saudis political, military and infrastructure development support in exchange for oil and U.S. bonds and security investments.

The two countries are also linked under the 1951 Mutual Defense Assistance Treaty, which, among other things, provides Saudi Arabia military assistance and equipment. Although the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. strained Saudi-U.S. relations due to various leaders of the group being Saudis, the long standing relationship between the two countries withheld as Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen.

According to a statement by NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on the Situation in Yemen, the U.S. initially refrained from taking direct military action in Yemen amid the Saudi-led bombing campaign in March 2015. As per field research conducted by Human Rights Watch, the Obama Administration aided Hadī’s government and Saudi Arabia’s army by providing them financial aid and supplying weapons. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the U.S has also performed airstrikes against AQAP members in Yemen that have resulted in thousands of civilian casualties.

The U.S. Gets Directly Involved

Former President Barack Obama authorized the United States’ first direct involvement in the war in October 2016 when the U.S. Navy ship, U.S.S. Mason was targeted by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. In response to the failed attack, the U.S. military launched Tomahawk cruise missiles from the guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. Nitze at Houthi-controlled targets in Yemen. What followed was years of U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition against the Houthi movement.

After immediately responding to the 2016 attack, the Obama Administration continued to take military actions in support of the Saudi ally despite a war not being declared in Congress. The Foreign Policy Association Youtube series episode, “Yemen: A History of Conflict” describes the events that led to the dire situation Yemen is in. “Our goal as an organization is to help people understand what has been going on in Yemen. Yemen is a less visible part of the Middle East and is not at the forefront,” the video’s writer and producer Kyle Haddad-Fonda told Lenses in an interview.

The episode displays the perspectives of three U.S. officials, among other experts, who were present at the time the decision to intervene was being made. While former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes claims that the U.S. engaged in the war to be a “constraint” on the Saudis to prevent them from targeting civilians, International Crisis Group president and Obama’s Special Assistant at the time Robert Malley claims that tension from “the negotiations over the Iran nuclear program” influenced the U.S. to continue supporting Saudi Arabia.

However, his statement is contradicted by former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, who confirms that the U.S. didn’t enter the war to appease Saudi Arabia, rather agreed with the analysis of the Saudi Foreign Minister. This shows that there was a lack of communication between U.S. officials at the time. There is not a specific reason as to why the U.S. made the decision to enter the war and continue assisting Saudi Arabia.

Under President Trump’s leadership from 2017, the Saudi-led coalition received further backing for operations in Yemen. The Administration proposed to license the export of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia in order to further aid the coalition. Fifty-five members of Congress sent a bipartisan letter to Trump in response in which they asked him to engage with Congress before initiating additional military intervention in Yemen.

In November 2017, Saudi Arabia issued restrictions on an already fragile Yemen. The blockade on all of Yemen’s ports including its main port at Al-Hudaydah came after the Houthis fired missiles supported by Iran that landed in Saudi Arabia. The restrictions on aid and necessary goods raised the prices of oil, food, and medicine within Yemen causing food shortages and endangering Yemenis who were left to combat the vaccine-preventable cholera outbreak that was spreading quickly throughout the country. The U.S. supported the Saudi-led coalition’s decision to end the blockade for a 30-day period at the Al-Hudaydah port in December.

U.S. Politicians and Activists Raise Concern

On Apr. 16, 2019, Congress presented a measure to Trump that invoked the War Powers Resolution to discontinue U.S. support for the coalition in the Yemen civil war. The War Powers Resolution limits the president from engaging in an armed conflict if Congress doesn’t agree with his decisions. Trump vetoed the bipartisan measure and in his veto message denied U.S. engagement in the warfare in Yemen besides counterrorism efforts against AQAP. Per Congressional Research Service reports on oversight and legislation, after an intercepted Houthi attack aimed at the Saudi capital Riyadh on Mar. 28, the United Nations suspended fighting worldwide to combat the escalation of COVID-19, to which Saudi Arabia complied. A bipartisan group of nine senators wrote a letter to American Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in June 2020, which acknowledges the potential danger Yemen faces from the COVID-19 pandemic and encourages Pompeo to support a permanent ceasefire.

The State Department hasn’t responded to the letter publicly. A warning from UN spokesperson Jens Larke, at a virtual press conference, however, requests officials of the countries involved to end the war before Yemen’s health facilities completely collapse due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I urge the parties to forgo war and division and build on points of convergence. I call on them to join efforts to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and turn the tide for the sake of the people of Yemen,” UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said in a message.

Yemen Aid CEO, Summer Nasser, told Lenses in an interview that she doesn’t believe that the U.S. can choose to solve the crisis in Yemen because of the internal complexity of the conflict and the persistent domestic civil wars. Nasser recalls that although the U.S. was influential in the National Dialogue Conference of Yemen before the 2014 coup and pushed for a unified message and action towards rebuilding Yemen, it didn’t prevent the coup from making matters in the country worse early on.

“The conflict in Yemen is much more complex than the current status quo or the average understanding by the public. I think if the U.S. was strong in finding a solution to Yemen’s current conflict, their best chance of success would have been during the first year or two of conflict. Sometimes, the U.S understanding of Yemen is flawed. I hope that we can help re-tailor that understanding by carefully listening to local voices neutral to political groups,” Nasser said. “There are many problems with how the media creates attention to stories.”

Nasser acknowledged the inaccuracy of Yemen being viewed as a poor country. She believes that the country should be of interest in the news media due to it being one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East and due to its value in the global economy. “It is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since WW2. What happens in Yemen will evidently impact foreign policy in the Middle East by the international community, including the United States,” Nasser said. Yemen Aid has distributed food baskets and meals throughout households in Taiz, Abyan, Al-Mokha, Al-Hudaydah, Zinjibar, and other parts of Yemen. The organization has also worked with Muslim Aid USA to provide Yemeni hospitals medical shipments worth over two million dollars and to execute a water aid project featuring a solar paneled well in Dumnat Al-Naser, Al-Marawah and Al-Hudaydah. “It is not as simple as anyone would think. This work is exhausting, draining and overwhelming. However, every ounce of effort and stress is worth the reward of giving back,” Nasser said. “It feels tremendously great to know you are doing what you can for your country during times when many people walk away from it. But as I say: if you do not help your country at its worst, you do not deserve it at its best. The feeling of knowing you helped even one person is indescribable.”

American Students Step In

Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore Aamna Siddiqui is doing her own part to help the situation in Yemen. She is taking commissions for custom minimal style portraits to raise money for the International Rescue Committee’s Yemen aid fund, among other charities through her social media. Siddiqui had no idea about the famine in Yemen until a couple of years ago, but after learning more about the issue and understanding how the impact of COVID-19 could further harm the country, she realised she wanted to contribute. Siddiqui has raised $281 for Yemen so far. “I feel like a lot of the media has painted Yemen as a misfortune. People contacted me to learn more about what’s going on even if they couldn’t donate. I don’t consider myself an artist but I can create digital art on my iPad. People know that 100% of their money is going to the charity because I don’t have to pay for supplies,” Siddiqui said.

Rising seniors at Yale University Mehdi Baqri and Daud Shad are also raising awareness about the Yemen crisis with a student-led organization they founded at their university called Students for Yemen. According to rising junior at Yale Amal Altareb, who is a member of Students for Yemen, the Pakistani-American students created the initiative after they learned about the bus attack that killed 40 school children, 11 adults and wounded 79 others. They invited students at Yale to support their initiative through an op-ed they wrote on Yemen for the Yale Daily News. “They used their privilege to raise awareness of the human rights violations of the Yemeni people,” Altareb said.

Students for Yemen has hosted a gala, a phone bank, fundraisers for Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children and a national solidarity campaign called Fast for Yemen, among other events. Their goal is for the organization to expand to high schools and universities across the country. Altareb, whose family is from Yemen, thinks the initiative is a great way to elevate student voices and help young adults become more aware. “It took me so long to accept that Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. I realize that I could’ve been there. I could have been one of those kids, I could have been in that wedding party that turned into a funeral. You can’t separate yourself from it even if you try,” Altareb said.

Through Teen Lenses

What do you know about the United States’ involvement in Yemen’s civil war?

“As of now, the U.S. is not significantly helping Yemen in their civil war and I think I saw a video about how Trump vetoed a bill to stop getting involved in the Yemen war.” Anonymous
“I know that since 2015 the United States has provided the Saudi Arabia-led coalition military support and is currently supporting its aerial bombing campaign without approval from Congress. Saudi Arabia has also given U.S. defense manufacturers, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Boeing billion dollar contracts. COVID-19 has made the situation in Yemen worse. I learned all of this information from an infographic posted by the Students for Yemen Instagram account. I am a part of the UNICEF UMD chapter, we did a campaign to raise money for children in Yemen through UNICEF and raised $4,000.” Arzoo Paracha, 20, Rising Junior at the University of Maryland, College Park
“I didn’t know the U.S. still had involvement in the Yemeni civil war. I thought they had stopped years ago.” Anonymous
“What I previously knew is that the Houthis are a Shi’ite muslim group backed by Iran that began revolting against their government in 2014 and they ousted the then president in 2015. Based on what I’ve read on the BBC website and the Council on Foreign Relations website, as far as U.S. involvement goes they’ve sided with the Saudi Arabian government, which has tensions with Iran, and by extension, the Houthis. Also, the U.S. has carried out airstrikes in Yemen to put a stop to the efforts of extremists.” Sunaina Sunda, 18, Rising Freshman at Georgetown University
“I do not know what the U.S.’s involvement in the Yemini civil war is. I feel bad for not knowing because it hinders my ability to help the situation.” Anonymous