When Saudi aircraft struck a funeral in Sanaa on Oct. 8, Yemen’s Houthi rebels vowed to retaliate. The attack, which left 19 generals and 14 colonels among the 140 reported dead, dealt a heavy blow to Houthi forces, and no one expected it to go unanswered. But an international escalation was never part of the plan, despite recent Houthi missile launches against Emirati and U.S. naval vessels that might seem to suggest otherwise.
On Oct. 9, Houthi fighters fired Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles at the USS Mason and USS Ponce as they traveled through the Red Sea. Three days later, the Houthis launched a second, similar attack, again targeting the USS Mason. And on Oct. 15, a third missile strike was launched, again at the USS Mason. It is unclear whether the strikes were intended to hit the U.S. ships or were simply a misguided effort to target any vessel passing by Houthi territory.
In response, the United States took out radar stations along the Yemeni coast with Tomahawk cruise missiles. Besides reducing the visibility of vessels transiting the Red Sea, the U.S. counterattack sends a message that further strikes against ships in the area will not be tolerated, no matter who conducts them or which vessels are targeted. But the restraint of the response also conveys Washington’s desire to defuse the situation.
Balancing Two Middle Eastern Adversaries
According to the Pentagon, no information about who supplied the cruise missiles to the Houthis has been uncovered. The missiles appear, however, to be similar to weapons that Iran has access to, builds its own variants of, and has a history of providing to militant groups in the region. The United States, already struggling to maintain its fragile relationship with Iran, will be hesitant to implicate Tehran in the incident. But ironically, blaming Iran for supplying the Houthis with the missiles would go a long way in rebuilding trust between Washington and Riyadh, yet another Middle Eastern country with which the United States has troubled ties.
Washington’s awkward position between the longtime regional rivals has made its role in the Yemeni conflict tricky to maintain. For the past year and a half, the United States has lent its support to the Saudi-led coalition in the form of logistics, aid and refueling. It has worked diligently, however, to keep those operations separate from its counterterrorism mission in southern Yemen, where it cooperates with Emirati special operations forces to combat al Qaeda. Moreover, as members of the media and U.S. Congress become increasingly aware of the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the country, they have begun to scrutinize the conflict more closely. As a result, the United States has started to scale back its support for Saudi Arabia. Even so, the latest disbursement of military aid to Saudi forces was accompanied by the most vocal congressional criticism yet of the war’s humanitarian costs and of Washington’s relationship with Riyadh.
Friction is increasing between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Recently, U.S. officials sought to make future batches of aid contingent on the kingdom’s willingness to order its troops to honor the terms laid out during the latest round of Yemeni peace talks in Oman. The United States and the United Kingdom on Oct. 16 even doubled up on their usual call for the warring parties to adhere to cease-fire efforts. Nevertheless, Washington is unlikely to press too hard as President Barack Obama’s final term wraps up, especially since the United States’ reason for assuming an advisory role in Yemen’s civil war in the first place was to ease Saudi Arabia’s concerns over the West’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Avoiding an Unsellable War
In the meantime, the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea will give Riyadh added incentive to step up its military involvement in Yemen. A fresh Saudi-led offensive against the Houthi-held northern province of Saada is already making significant gains, as coalition forces overtook the Buqa Port passage on Oct. 11. Washington, however, will not satisfy Riyadh’s wishes to become a more active member of its coalition. The U.S. government would have a difficult time convincing the American people of the need to become mired in another Middle Eastern conflict, especially against an opponent with which Washington has no qualms. Furthermore, blatantly backing Saudi Arabia in the fight would upset the balance the United States has tried to maintain between its relationships with Tehran and Riyadh.
It will not stop Saudi Arabia from trying to use additional Houthi attacks to persuade the United States to change its tune, though. The number of missiles the militants have at their disposal is still unclear. At the very least, Riyadh can count on Washington to help keep an eye on the threat, given the risk such weapons pose to international shipping.
Either way, Yemen’s civil war shows no signs of abating, and as the conflict drags on, leaders on both sides are quickly losing their legitimacy. Conditions for civilians in besieged areas such as Taiz, al-Hudaydah and Sanaa are growing more dire by the day. Embattled President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi has extended several olive branches to the country’s unhappy populace, announcing a $25 million project to build a power station in Hadramawt and plans to rehabilitee several cities’ colleges and police buildings. But this will not be enough to appease Yemeni citizens or to reverse the economy’s downward slide. Many of Yemen’s critical transportation routes are blocked, and the central bank’s dwindling assets are hostage to the whims of regional politics. Amid it all, neither the Saudi-led coalition nor the Houthi rebels have shown any sign of weakening resolve, signaling more violence ahead for the war-torn country.