Recent Houthi Missile Attack Underscores Longstanding Religious Proxy Battle

Al Jazeera reported on Monday, 26 August, that the Yemeni rebel group Ansar Allah, (“Partisans of Allah”) better known as the Houthis, fired a salvo of ten ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, targeting a civilian airport in the southern city of Jinzan. Dozens of casualties were reported, despite six of the missiles being shot down by Saudi air defence forces before they could reach their targets. Arab News reported that the Houthis had also used a drone aircraft during the attack. This reflects a continuation of a strategy increasingly used by the Houthis, as the Yemeni Civil War enters a brutal deadlock; the Houthis were responsible for a similar attack using drones on a natural gas liquefaction plant in Saudi Arabia, near the border of the United Arab Emirates, earlier this month.

According to Reuters World Report, Yemen has been riven with internal tensions since the more religious, Saudi-influenced North Yemen unified in 1990 with the secular, Marxist South Yemen. The unified country was led thereafter by the autocratic North Yemeni general Ali Saleh. According to the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, The Houthis, a religious movement of Zaidi Shia within northern Yemen that challenged the corruption of the Saleh government, began a deadly insurgency in Yemen concurrent with the Arab Spring. This escalated into a full-blown civil war in 2015, when the Houthis took control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. The community of largely Sunni Arab states has, in turn, escalated the conflict, launching airstrikes into Yemeni territory. The Congressional Research Service reports that this has led to retaliatory strikes by the Houthis, assisted by the Iranian supported Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, have launched missiles into Saudi Arabia. The subsequent Arab response is another front in a long series of proxy wars for control of the Middle East between Iran and the Sunni powers, chiefly Saudi Arabia.

This use of airstrikes by the Saudis in tackling the Houthi insurgency has been ineffective and detrimental to the humanitarian situation in war-ravaged Yemen. Food and medical aid have been slow in entering the country, leading to malnourishment and vulnerability to infectious disease. This has resulted in an ongoing massive cholera outbreak, and resulting in, as of 2018, more than 85,000 children across Yemen dying of starvation. Meanwhile, a report by The Independent stated that direct war deaths had climbed past 70,000.

Constant and indiscriminate airstrikes have led to deep resentment on the part of the Houthis within the war-torn state. According to the Houthi-controlled Saba News Service, people increasingly rally to the Houthi side as the Saudis support the internationally recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who the rival Houthi government has declared to be a traitor. Thus, the Houthis are seen as the only true force fighting for sovereignty on behalf of the Yemeni people. This is augmented by the fact that a central tenant of the Houthis’ faith, Zaidi Shiism, is the fight against corruption itself. The use of airstrikes and military aid to support the Houthis’ enemies bolsters their own religious beliefs and feelings of persecution, as they view themselves as the only group fighting against corruption, rather than defending and propagating it. These factors embolden their desire for revenge against Saudi civilians, as can be seen by their use of indiscriminate missile bombardment of civilian areas and facilities.

Several drastic steps must be taken, in order to ensure that the civil war in Yemen comes to a close, which will in-turn cease the attacks against Saudi civilians. First and foremost, Saudi and western airstrikes in Yemen must come to an immediate halt, except for surgical military operations against those affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State that are operating in the country to, reportedly, gain power in the region. Ideally, these operations will result in the arrest of the terrorists in question, rather than more deaths. Stopping these terrorist organizations, as well as the widespread use of airstrikes, will allow food and medical aid to enter the country unabated. Simultaneously, international organizations such as the United Nations can help negotiate a cease-fire, and hopefully a lasting peace deal. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, which counts both Sunni and Shia dominated states among its members could also be of assistance in helping the Shia Houthis and the largely Sunni Hadi government reach a peaceful settlement.

As to what this peaceful settlement should result in, one would do well to look to Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State. The ideal goal of a settlement between the major factions in Yemen would be a confederal state not unlike Iraq, with the Sunni Hadi government and Shia Houthi regions being given autonomy, along with southern Yemen, which would be allowed to run along more secular lines. The formation of this Yemeni Confederation would take place under the supervision of United Nations peacekeeping forces, with observers remaining afterwards to ensure that human rights are respected and measures are put in place to ensure a balance of power within all three regions of control.

The path toward peace, even in the best of circumstances, is sure to be long and arduous. Yemen should follow the example of post-Islamic State Iraq, as through power-sharing, agreements, and a nonsectarian approach to new policies, a modicum of peace can be achieved.