Situation worsens in Yemen with mounting Proxy Wars in Middle East

Navjit Singh | Updated: March 10, 2021, 9:57 IST

Situation worsens in Yemen with mounting Proxy Wars in Middle East

In the latest developments, which seem like another episode of counterattacks happening since 2015 between the Houthi rebels and Saudi-led military coalition in the Yemen Civil War, Houthis have targeted the Saudi’s capital Riyadh with ballistic missiles and drones, as confirmed by Saudi state television.

Houthi Rebels’ spokesperson threatened that their operations will continue and become more hostile against enemy forces until external powers cease the siege on Yemen. Houthi rebels escalated the attacks on Saudi Kingdom implementing their strategy to capture the Saudi-backed Yemeni government’s last bastion, Marib, in the northern Yemen, where rebel positions were pounded by defensive forces using air strikes sponsored by Kingdom.

The attack was thwarted by Saudi as it destroyed a bomb-laden drone launched towards border city Khamis Mushait in south-west Saudi. The latest series of events have made chances of de-escalation almost negligible, and to make matters worse, have led Saudi-led military coalition to be more aggressive. This would just increase the pile of bodies on ground.

Based in Sa’dah (city in North-West Yemen), Ansar Allah, which is also known as the Houthi Movement, has battled for power with the internationally recognised Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG).

ROYG has been aided militarily by Saudi Arabia, and, until its 2019 troop withdrawal, the United Arab Emirates. As of late 2020, the epicentre of fighting has been around the Yemen’s northern governorate and the city of Marib, which is one of the last Yemeni areas under the control of the ROYG. Marib also contains Yemen’s modest oil and gas reserves.

The Houthis have been pressing ROYG forces along three fronts, but Saudi airstrikes have somewhat slowed Houthi advances. Tribal forces aligned with the ROYG also have stymied the Houthis from seizing Marib city. Several of these local tribes have strong ties with Saudi Arabia, and have co-ordinated with Saudi forces to repel the Houthi offensive. The Houthis have suffered several notable casualties, including one Hezbollah-trained Houthi commander, who was a close confidant of Houthi leader Abdul Malek al Houthi.

Yemen War - How did it start and who are the Houthis?

Situation worsens in Yemen with mounting Proxy Wars in Middle East

Rise of pro-democracy movements, also referred to as Arab Spring, in 2011 witnessed the toppling of power in several West Asian and North African countries – a region also called Middle East by western scholars.

One such country was Yemen where President Ali Abdullah Saleh was dethroned after ruling unified Yemen for over two decades. President Saleh’s resignation destabilised the de facto balance in the country which further created local centres of power by various internal militant groups. Most of these groups were formed by tribal population which took up arms to maintain their authority and autonomy. This led to multiple armed conflicts that torn the country apart and eroded central governance in Yemen.

The Houthi rebellion, consisted of majorly Shiite rebels, raised up against Sunni government, demanding lower fuel prices, and a change in regime. Dismayed by seeing the demands not meeting, the Houthis allied with parts of the Yemeni military and stormed the capital, Sana’a. They took control of the capital, forcing the internationally recognised government into exile which further started the Yemen’s civil war in 2014.

In 2015, after the negotiations between Houthis and government failed, rebels seized the presidential palace leading President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to resign. This was followed by a military campaign launched by Saudi Arabia with other gulf states to eliminate the Houthis forces using air strikes and economic isolation using US’ logistical and intelligence assistance in order to restore the government.

A UN brokered peace deal talks stalled in the summer of ’16 between Houthis and Yemeni government. Former president Saleh, ousted in 2011, joined hands with Houthis to form a “political council” to govern Sana’a and much of northern Yemen against a common enemy. The co-operation, however, could not even last longer than a year. 

Saleh broke with the Houthis, and announced to fight against them along with his followers, mostly the tribal clans around Sana’a, but Saleh’s forces got defeated in mere two days. Death of Saleh eliminated the main political competitor of Houthis in the north Yemen which gave more legitimacy to the rebel forces to rule and fight against Yemeni government.

Iran and US proxy war

The dissolution of territorial integrity of Yemen and subsequent collapse of state institutions created the geo-political implications which paved the way for international actors to enter into the war through supporting different factions fighting in the Yemen.

The situation alarmed the United States and other actors in the international community which feared that state failure may empower transnational terrorist groups active in the region and they will try to destabilise the vital international shipping lanes near Bab-el-Mandeb strait. The Bab-el-Mandeb strait, after Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, is one of the world’s busiest chokepoints in terms of volume of crude oil and petroleum liquids transported through each day.

The US was more concerned about the role Iran will play to increase its regional power by supporting Houthis and destabilise the region as the collapsed state would provide an opportunity to Iran to threaten Saudi Arabia’s borders, which is a strategic ally of the US in the Middle East. 

The Houthi movement is a predominantly Zaydi Shia revivalist political and insurgent movement, whose history goes back to 740 CE when Zaydis revolted against Caliphate. Zaydis believed that the Caliphate is corrupt, and to this day, they hold that it is their religious duty to rebel against unjust rulers. 

Zaydism is an offshoot of Shia Islam which gives the historical and cultural reason to Iran – the de facto leader of Shiite Islam of the world – to support the Houthis in conflict, apart from taking geo-strategic advantages.

The Houthis have fought six wars in northern Yemen against their Sunni-dominated central government after 2004 under the leadership of Houthi family which revived the Houthi movement by forming the Yemeni governorate of Sa’dah (in the mountainous district of Marran). They also became politically active by propagating the anti-government agenda while successfully mobilising the aggrieved population in a war-torn and neglected north.

The Houthi uprising originally began to end the Saudi-backed efforts to marginalise Zyadi communities and beliefs, but its scope and ambition expanded in the wake of Arab Spring. Subsequently, the movement turned into an anti-establishment one, and eventually wanted to overthrow the Saleh regime.

On the other side, apart from re-establishing the friendly regime in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has another reason to enter into the War.

During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia’s leaders supported northern Yemeni Zaydis as a bulwark against nationalist and leftist rivals, and engaged in proxy war against Egypt-backed Yemeni nationalists during the 1960s.

The revolutionary, anti-Saudi ideology of the Houthi movement, which emerged in the 1990s after the unification in 1990, presented new challenges. The rebellion even fought the civil war in 1994, and came under the rule of strongman Saleh who once described governing his nation’s myriad of tribal groups, militant groups, and alliances as “dancing on the heads of snakes.”

In 2009, Saudi Arabia launched a three-month air and ground campaign in support of the Yemeni government’s Operation Scorched Earth which ended with Saudi Arabia agreeing to the cease-fire with Houthis in 2010 after losing the lives of 133 soldiers.

Saudi Arabia believes that Houthis are the frontline warriors, who are not fighting for their own cause only, but in a broader context, embody what Iran seeks to achieve across the Arab world i.e. the cultivation of armed non-state, non-Sunni actors to pressurise the Iran’s adversaries politically and militarily like Hezbollah in Lebanon to counter Israeli interests.

Also read: Biden’s chance to stabilise US-Iran relations post Trump-Era 

Iran is supporting the Zyadi-Shia Muslim Houthis by providing critical expertise and equipment to assist the Houthi missile program that targets the Saudi cities, military bases, and oil facilities. Houthis fired cruise missiles into Saudi territory and damaged a Saudi Aramco oil distribution station in Jeddah in November 2019, a major port located on Saudi Arabia’s western coast. Without Iran’s assistance, it was highly unlikely for Houthis to fight the war with Saudi-led military coalition, which was armed with highly advanced US arms technology.

Apart from motivations Iran had, it is the only internationally recognised nation-state to recognise the Houthi government to exert its influence in Sana’a.

Situation worsens in Yemen with mounting Proxy Wars in Middle East

There is another conflict going inside Yemen War far from North and Houthis which directly involves the US strategic interest. The stronghold of non-state actor called Al-Qaeda in certain areas of Arabian Peninsula concerns Washington. Al-Qaeda is considered by the US to be the most dangerous militant franchise which attacked USS Cole off Yemen’s port city of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. This is the same terrorist organisation that carried out 9/11 attacks, the biggest on American soil.

From George Bush to Trump, every US President was directly or indirectly involved in conflicts on the land of Yemen. US soldiers were present during Saleh’s regime in Yemen, involving directly. Washington sold bombs and fighter jets to Saudi Arabia that Kingdom used against Houthi insurgency to aid the Yemeni-governmental forces, involving indirectly.

Obama administration in 2015 offered USS targeting assistance to Riyadh’s command and control that was supposed to minimise the civilian casualties, but it did not and eventually, Obama rolled back the program, but Trump resumed the assistance to Saudi in war efforts by selling weapons worth of billions of dollars.

The Collapsed State

Beyond geo-strategic concerns, the collapse of Yemeni institutions during wartime has exacerbated poor living conditions in the most impoverished Arab country, leading to what is now considered the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Look at some figures which will do justice with above statement.

UN estimated that war has killed 1,30,000 people since it began, including 15,000 civilians. 22 million Yemenis are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, eight million are at the risk of famine, and a cholera outbreak has affected over a million people.

Innumerable children are suffering from malnutrition, and every faction involved in the conflict have violated human rights and international humanitarian law. Infrastructure is the first casualty in the war as the Saudi-led coalition’s continuous air strikes have heavily damaged Yemen’s infrastructure, including a crucial seaport, and important bridges as well as hospitals, sewage facilities, and civilian factories.

Crucial services on which population have depended for their subsistence are gone, destruction is the only thing one can see standing on the ground which has undermined the country’s already weak economy. Repeated closure of airports and crucial sea ports by different parties, whoever holds the control, have made it harder for humanitarian organisation to bring in and distribute aid, and fly wounded Yemenis for treatment.

Cholera, a bacterial infection spread by water contaminated with feces, got the fertile environment to turn lives of Yemenis miserable. First world countries do not acknowledge these diseases as it is not life-threatening disease for them, but the third world, especially the war-torn countries, are the hub of such type of diseases which are killing more people than war itself. The world community, international institutions, and the so-called super powers are watching silently while Yemen is burning to ashes. 

Again, the United Nations has called the situation the world’s largest humanitarian crisis for a reason. With more than 10 million people who require immediate assistance, the situation can become even worse, if necessary steps are not taken by the involved parties. 

Trump-Era actions led to prolonged War

In the last hours, Trump State Department designated the Houthis, backed by Iran, as Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). This move was more of a political act, than a technical one, to create a roadblock for coming administration to reverse the decision as removing the designation is a very difficult political and bureaucratic process.

The designation of FTO comes with the certain implications. Branding the Houthis as terrorists would be an attempt to block the Biden administration and international community to conduct dialogue of any kind with them. The reality is the Houthis control most of northern Yemen, so it is better to deal directly with them than to live in denial.

Having more outside contact with the rebels will help alternative voices to influence them. It will also hamper the efforts of humanitarian relief organisations to get food and medicine to Yemeni civilians living in the territory that the rebels’ control.


Positive side is Trump-era has gone and new administration in the White House has decided to end the US support for Kingdom’s war in Yemen. This move conveys that Trump’s open support to Riyadh was a matter of the past, and Biden administration is here to end the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but it will not be easy road to walk.

President Biden’s move to end support to Saudi is to pressurise Riyadh to back out its military coalition forces from Yemen, just like in the summer of 2019, UAE unilaterally pulled out its ground forces facing a perceived threat from Iran, and receiving international criticism of its conduct in Yemen.

However, later Biden has made a point to say the US would “continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people” which indicates that current Biden administration is no mood to abandon its historical ally in the Middle East. 

The only way to end this “lose-lose” battle, to end the famine staring on Yemen, to end the misery of millions of people stuck in this endless conflict, and to end this permanent war is that Saudi-led military coalition should end the blockade and initiate talks with Yemen’s multiple rebel factions.

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