In a recent interview to Vanity Fair magazine, US President Barack Obama acknowledged that he grapples with the question “what might I have done differently along the course of the last five, six years” in Syria in the “knowledge that you have hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed, millions who have been displaced.”
As far as Syria is concerned, such contemplation is too late. The damage has been done, and Syria and the wider region will not recover for decades.
There is, however, one theatre of conflict in the region where the US can still take action now in order to avert a calamity such as Syria. That is Yemen.
If left as is, Yemen has the potential to become another Syria, and a likely prospect incomplete state disintegration, increased sectarianism, and in response, hardened extremism. The conflict has already resulted in 10,000 dead, including 4,000 civilians. The United Nations estimates that 80 per cent of the Yemeni population is in need of humanitarian assistance. In the city of Taiz, 200,000 people are besieged by the Houthi alliance with humanitarian aid cut-off, and 37 of the city’s 40 hospitals have been forced to close due to bombardment. Taiz is Yemen’s Aleppo.
Moreover, following the breakdown of peace talks in Kuwait in August, the conflict has only intensified. On October 8, a missile strike by the coalition forces, which a coalition spokesperson clarified was the result of wrong intelligence provided by the Yemeni army, hit a condolence service hall in the capital Sana’a, killing 140 people and injuring more than 500. It was the deadliest single strike as far as civilian casualties are concerned so far. In response, Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al Houthi and former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh called for the mobilisation of their followers to “proceed to the battlefront.”
At the same time, Al Houthi alliance launched missile strikes against international shipping, hitting the UAE vessel ‘HSV-2 Swift’ on October 1 followed by attempted strike against the American destroyer ‘USS Mason’ on October 9. Additional ballistic missile strikes were carried out against Saudi Arabia, including one against the city of Taif more than 500km from the Saudi-Yemeni border.
These recent incidents point to a sharp escalation of the conflict. And unless stopped, Yemen faces the prospect of a downward spiral into complete chaos. With the example of Syria in front of us, the implications of this should be clear. The strengthening of extremist groups like Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) feeding off a dislliusioned generation of Yemeni youth, a severe humanitarian crisis along with increased refugee flows further impacting the fragility of the wider Middle East and beyond, and the further decay of state institutions as power is dispersed between militia and non-state actors are likely to make Yemen ungovernable. The parallels to Syria are evident.
To prevent such a scenario, there have been growing calls for Saudi Arabia to cease its military actions in Yemen and for the US to withdraw its support for the Saudi-led coalition. But, as in any war situation, the circumstances are more complicated. For one, Saudi Arabia has national interest issues at stake including its territorial integrity being constantly threatened by missile strikes and across-the-border incursions. Will such strikes stop if the kingdom is forced to withdraw? Second, the fact remains that the Houthi rebels overthrew a legitimate government, an action that the international community condemned in UN Security Resolution 2216. Third, while Saudi Arabia has been criticised, there is no suggestion as to what the alternative for Yemen is. With their militias, Al Houthis are in the process of creating a ‘state within a state’ and have, as the conflict progressed, increased their links to Iran. The missiles recently used by Al Houthis, it is alleged, originated in Iran. Their use does not only threaten Saudi security but international shipping though the Bab Al Mandab as well.
The question therefore is if Saudi Arabia withdraws, what are the guarantees that Yemen will regain political stability, or that extremist groups will cease their activities against what they perceive as a ‘Shiite’ government, or border incursions against the kingdom will stop. All this seems highly unlikely. The more probable outcome instead is a trajectory along the lines of Syria, including increased external involvement by Iran and, possibly, Russia.
Under such circumstances, the only plausible alternative is that the US increases its involvement in the Yemen conflict with the clear stated objective of bringing about a political solution. Unlike Syria, a political process for Yemen has already been outlined in UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2216 including a national unity government which includes Al Houthis.
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s revised plan under which militia disarmament would occur alongside the establishment of a coalition government represents a viable process that all parties to the conflict should accept. Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states have already voiced their clear support for this arrangement.
The US and British call for an unconditional ceasefire is a step in the right direction. But more concrete US leadership is needed. An increased US role should include the expansion of its involvement in the command and control operation of the Saudi-led coalition to enable effective targeting and, as much as possible, prevent civilian casualties. The attack on the condolence hall is said to have been the result of poor intelligence and poor targeting and could be the direct result of the US having recently severely limited its involvement in assisting with command operations. More US-coalition cooperation will prevent such terrible mistakes.
The US should further be ready to respond forcefully to Al Houthi provocations such as it did recently by destroying radar sites in response to the missile attacks on its ships. Further action to degrade Al Houthi missile capabilities both to protect international shipping and the Saudi-Yemeni border might be needed. Combined with a vigorous diplomatic effort, such increased US involvement is not primarily meant to save Saudi Arabia from the unsustainable position the kingdom currently finds itself in but will enable a political process that all parties to the conflict are currently either unwilling or incapable of implementing. Only US action can give the political process under a UN mandate a realistic chance. Meanwhile, moves aimed solely against Saudi Arabia are not only one-sided, they are also counterproductive.
The Yemen conflict must be brought to an end before a second Syria scenario emerges. In Yemen, Obama still has the opportunity to bring about a cessation of hostilities before things unravel further. This, however, will need greater US political and even military involvement. Unlike Syria, where Obama’s argument has always been that military action in the absence of a clear political alternative will be ineffective or even counterproductive, a political alternative in Yemen exists because of the previous National Dialogue Process and the steps outlined in UNSCR 2216.
Unless the US begins to act to enforce such international resolutions, the envisioned process will remain only on paper with no end to the continued suffering of the Yemenis.
Dr Christian Koch is Director of the Gulf Research Centre Foundation, Geneva.