The Complicated War in Yemen

by Paul R. Pillar

No matter how much some analysts in the United States see the conflict in Yemen as a Manichean contest between good guys and bad guys, the complexities of the war keep intruding. Long overlooked has been how the “good side”—that is, the one on behalf of which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have intervened—has been where some genuinely bad guys belonging to al-Qaeda have resided. Similarly overlooked is how the Houthi “bad side”— the Houthis have accepted some Iranian aid—has been among al-Qaeda’s staunchest opponents in Yemen. Lest we forget, the Yemeni-based al-Qaeda branch is the wing of the organization that has come closest to inflicting post-9/11 damage on the United States.

The civil war line-up in Yemen got more complicated a few weeks ago with the falling out between the Houthis and allied forces associated with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, leading to Saleh’s death in December. Even more inconvenient for the Manicheans has been a big new split among the forces that the Saudis and Emiratis—and thus indirectly the United States—have been backing. Southerners have seized control of Aden, the principal city and port in the south. This represents a break between them and the titular president who lives in exile in Riyadh, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The move harks back to the south’s previous independent existence as a Marxist, Soviet-supported state. Many Southerners have never been satisfied with the unification of Yemen in 1990, which they see as having led to northern domination. The new split is also in effect a split between Saudi Arabia, which has the strongest ties with Hadi, and the UAE, which has been more interested in backing the Aden-based southerners.

Actually, the line-up is even more complicated than that. Even a re-division of Yemen along the old international boundary, although that might help to ameliorate some of the biggest divisions of the war, would be no guarantee of unity on either side of the line. Warlords scattered through the south are opposed to taking direction even from Aden. It is hard to keep the players in the war line-up straight, even with a scorecard.

Despite this head-swimming complexity, the latest splits should not have been surprising. The most important thing for the non-specialist to keep in mind is that the disputes underlying this war were originally and fundamentally very local, even though the later Saudi military intervention, in which civilian casualties from air strikes have become a regular occurrence, has turned the conflict into a humanitarian catastrophe. The American obsession over Iran, which has become ever narrower and hardline under the Trump administration, represents a failure to understand this. The Houthi rebellion originally broke out for reasons that had nothing to do with Iran but instead concerned discontent among northern tribes over how the central government treated their interests. The Houthis captured the capital Sanaa against the advice of Tehran.

Defining the U.S. approach toward the Middle East narrowly and overwhelming in terms of countering Iranian influence—as the current administration does—is a prescription not only for failing to curb that influence but also for getting mired in local conflicts in which the United States has no stake. The U.S. posture can even create new conflicts that become major headaches for U.S. foreign policy, as is true of how the U.S. posture in Syria has made a mess of relations with Turkey. In Yemen, the problem is not only an erroneous conception of whom the United States is opposing there but also no clear idea of exactly whom or what it is supporting. With the forces backed respectively by Saudi Arabia and the UAE going separate ways, on whose side is the United States now?

The lack of a good answer to that question is another reason, in addition to the lack of a conscionable basis for supporting the devastating air war against Yemen, for not taking sides at all.

Photo: Aftermath of bombing in Yemen (Almigdad Mojalli). 

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Thanks; I knew some of this, but was unaware of quite how tangled things had become.
    One advantage of a genuinely stalemated bipolar world was that each side kept the other reasonably ‘honest’, a term used only with the utmost irony. But still useful.

    The US is desperate to ignore anything beyond its most provincial prejudices. When, in the light of ‘9/11’, Iran offered sympathy and support, it was promptly impaled on the ‘Axis of Evil’. Even granting a certain self-interest in fence-mending, this was a genuine attempt at rapprochement. When the US gets a bee in its bonnet about anything, what little reason (and less knowledge) it once had, is out the window. Cuba, as Exhibit A, after all these decades.

    It’s sad the the EU has remained so limp and cowardly in the face of Yemen, and the US,, at very least. Because there, and Syria, and Libya, and … , is the motivation for huge refugee flows that grow without cease..

    And it’s not just Trump. Obama had lots of opportunities to lean on the Saudis. Instead,, they were favored customers for the arms trade. Likewise UK, France and Russia. Truly, the UN has become as futile as was the League of Nations.

  2. Actually none of his matters to the US warmongers so long as the “national security threats” guarantee a high level of Pentagon spending, so the more instablity the better

  3. Any settlement in middle east (and of course elsewhere like korean peninsula), affair would mean less foothold for arm sellers (and peace meddling merchants). So it is natural when they try to keep the fire of regional conflicts flaming. When is everybody going to realize that it is not a matter of good or bad, but the long-term looming arms market that matters for politicians?Even If 9/eleveners help to keep the fire hot they are welcomed as they are. Withought us millitarism, a peacefull world may not remain dependent on USD circulation to secure thousands of billion annual budget deficit to be paid by papers.
    Trying to find a logical reason for something selfish in essence is unreasonable!

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