Since the Saudi-led coalition entered the war in Yemen in early 2015, both politicians and media outlets have described the conflict as a “proxy war” between the regional giants of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although the conflict in Yemen is certainly fought by groups of conflicting ideology, the often-used designation of “proxy war” augments and distorts the reality on the ground. So why has the conflict so commonly been labeled this way? Does this argument have any accuracy? And if not, what objectives does this rhetoric serve? In order to facilitate accountability and objective discourse surrounding the conflict in Yemen, this rhetoric needs to change.
Karl Deutsch defined a proxy war as “an international conflict between two foreign powers, fought out on the soil of a third country, disguised as a conflict over an internal issue of the country and using some of that country’s manpower, resources and territory as a means of achieving preponderantly foreign goals and foreign strategies.”
If this definition is to be applied, the war in Yemen cannot be characterized as a proxy war, even if the Iranian-Houthi relationship is to be ignored. Saudi Arabia, rather than groups affiliated to Hadi, has been bombing Yemen directly. An external military aggression such as a bombing campaign breaks the first condition of the definition.
Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist specializing in U.S. security policy, asserted that the use of the term “proxy war” seeks to soften the reality that a close U.S. ally is engaged in a high casualty bombing campaign on the territory of another state. If the war were to be characterized in a different way, that is to demonstrate that the war is anything but reciprocation to Iranian aggression, public sentiments towards the Saudi relationship and weapons sales to the Kingdom may turn.
Now let’s return to the assertion that the conflict in Yemen is a proxy war between the rival interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Deutsch puts forth a second category to fulfill a proxy war; that the territory of a third party state is being used to achieve foreign goals. From the outset of the bombing campaign Riyadh stated its objectives to be fighting back against the encroachment of the Houthis and reinstating Hadi. Iranian involvement in the conflict is much more foggy and difficult to determine, as Tehran has made no such equivalent statements. From the outset of the war, the word “Houthi” has been practically tied to the term “Iranian-backed,” meaning that scrutiny of the relationship between the two actors has been diminished.
The assumptions made about the close-knit relationship between Tehran and the Houthi leadership in Sana’a primarily stem from the ostensibly sectarian affiliation between the two actors. The Houthis are adherents to a Shiite sect called Zaydism, which falls outside the clutches of Iran’s religious leadership despite it also being a majority Shiite state. Possibly the strongest driving factor behind any relationship which may exist between Iran and the rebels is the joint desire to push back against U.S.-Saudi-Israeli domination of the region. This is evident in the Houthi slogan, printed upon the group’s flag; two middle lines read “Death to America, Death to Israel,” a slogan drawn from pre-Islamic revolution Iranian rhetoric.
Some have seen the above factors as reasons to support the thesis that the Houthis are at the whim of Iranian interests and are very much reliant upon Iranian support. However, U.S. intelligence services reported to the Huffington Post that in taking over Sana’a, the Houthis had disobeyed recommendations from the Iranian leadership in making the military offensive. This divergence in strategic ambitions is further supported by evidence showing that the majority of the Houthi’s weapons in early 2017 were sourced not from Iran, their largest regional ally, but on the black market from the remnants of the Yemeni government. For Iran, Yemen does not seem to be a priority to other interests, comparatively to groups which it is alleged to support in Iraq and the Levant.
Reports analyzing Iran’s relationship with the Houthis demonstrate that it is not as strong as commonly thought, undermining the mainstream narrative. However, this does not negate the existence of any relationship. A Century Foundation article reported that following the Houthi occupation of Sana’a, fourteen direct flights between Sana’a and Tehran commenced on a weekly basis. The Yemeni diaspora in Iran and vice versa is insufficient to justify such a frequent flight schedule. Accordingly, passenger manifests were never released, raising questions as to what the flights may have been transporting.
A relationship between Iran and the group has been forged by their joint opposition to Saudi influence, however the support given by Iran is likely much smaller than that implied by the use of the term “proxy war.” Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, stated that “Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal.” The Iranian leadership does not have enough influence over the Houthis for the group to be considered a proxy, therefore rendering the term “proxy war” problematic on a variety of fronts.
For effective and objective discourse to occur about the conflict in Yemen, governments and the media need to diverge away from the term “proxy war.” The Saudi bombing campaign on Sana’a has claimed a huge amount of civilian casualties, limited food and water supplies and contributed to the Cholera outbreak that has plagued the city. While the conflict is characterized as a “proxy war,” discourse is shifted away from the Saudi bombing campaign and the support it receives from its western allies. The term is inaccurate by definition, raising the question; who stands to gain and who to lose?