The situation in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has become one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The death toll is estimated to have passed 10,000. Some 3 million people have been displaced. The blockade of Yemeni ports has caused dire hardship. More than a quarter of the population is on the brink of famine.
The Shia rebels from the north, known as the Houthis, backed by military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh seized Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, with much of the country in 2014. They ousted deeply unpopular President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in January 2015. Two months later Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies launched a military campaign to reinstate Mr Hadi, who has international recognition. The operation started with airstrikes followed by the deployment of troops.
The Saudi-led air and ground campaign has evicted Houthi rebels from the southern port city of Aden, but has left the region in chaos, which allows Islamist extremism to spread. The bombing campaign has dented the strength of the Houthis, but neither side has been able to gain the upper-hand. The government controls most of the south and swaths of the east, the Houthi rebels control Sana’a and much of the country’s north and west.
Saudi Arabia is locked in proxy battles for regional influence with Shia-dominated Iran, which holds sway through its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The kingdom considers the Houthi rebels to be the proxy force for Iran, akin to the Lebanese group Hezbollah. The purpose of starting a military campaign in Yemen, therefore, was to send Tehran a message that Riyadh would resist Iran’s regional expansionary plans.
The US has offered Saudi Arabia the intelligence and logistical support as well as air-to-air refuelling and precision weaponry. The Obama administration decided to support the Saudi war effort in Yemen to allay the kingdom’s concerns over a nuclear deal, which wasreached between the world powers and Iran last year. Washington, however, is increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia’s military actions, because of a sharp increase in civilian deaths. Saudi air strikes have struck schools, medical facilities supported by Doctors Without Borders, religious sites and marketplaces. Roads and houses have been bombed to rubble. On October 8th, two missiles hit a packed funeral hall in Sana’s, killing more than 140 mourners, including civilians and rebel commanders loyal to Mr Saleh. Saudi Arabia said that its investigation concluded that an air raid had been caused by wrong information and improper procedures. The kingdom, however, is unlikely to alter its military operation, because Riyadh is determined to check Iran’s regional ambitions.
The Houthis have stepped up their operations. On two occasions, they fired missiles at the Mason, an American destroyer, in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, though they missed the target. The US retaliated on October 12th, destroying three radar installations in rebel-held territory, which had targeted the Mason. That marked the first direct US engagement in the Yemeni civil war.