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Yemen: The Pivotal Middle East Conflict No One Is Talking About


With all eyes on Syria’s disastrous civil war and the offensive against ISIS in Mosul, it’s easy to miss what’s happening in Yemen. But don’t be fooled. This impoverished country, south of Saudi Arabia along the straits between the Red and Arabian seas, is at the epicenter of the shifting international order in the Middle East.

Yemen is in the middle of a civil war. Since the beginning of October, the Shiite Houthi rebels have fired once on a United Arab Emirates ship and twice on two U.S. naval destroyers. But these rebels are not acting on their own. In their shadow lurks Iran, planning to reassert dominance in the region and diminish America’s role. Not surprisingly, we’re proving very cooperative in that effort.

How Yemen’s Civil War Began

In order to understand these recent naval attacks, some background is required. Like many Arab countries, Yemen took part in the Arab Spring. In early 2011, mass protests erupted, seeking the removal of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. After months of refusing to step down, Saleh finally ceded authority to his Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, ending his 33-year rule over a cruel police state. But this transition of power did not result in Saleh’s prosecution, and was rejected by the Houthis.

The Houthis, who are led by Abdul-Malik Houthi, have resisted the government since 2004. Finally, in 2014, they took advantage of general dissatisfaction with the new president, who had failed to deal with food shortages and Al Qaeda, and took over the capital of Sanaa. In March 2015, they led a successful coup to take over the Yemeni government. Since then, the Houthi and the Hadi (those loyal to the president) have been engaged in civil war. The Houthi rebel stronghold is in the north of the country, where they still hold the capital of Sanaa. The Hadi control the southern portion of the country, including the port city of Aden.

The Shia Houthi are backed by the parts of the military still loyal to former president Saleh. But they are also widely believed to receive significant support from Shia Iran, including weapons and training. The Sunni Hadi government, which is still considered by the international community to be legitimate, is in exile in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, the epicenter of Sunni Islam, has been carrying out air strikes against the Houthi and deploying troops since 2015. Other Arab nations—including Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, and Morocco—have also taken part in the Saudi-led military intervention, while the U.S. supplies the Saudis with arms and munitions that are being used in its offensive in Yemen.

While Iran has come under much scrutiny for its support of the Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia has also been criticized for its airstrikes in Yemen, which have targeted civilians on numerous occasions. Most recently, The Saudi-led coalition bombed a funeral party in Sanaa, killing more than 140 people and injuring hundreds more.

This Isn’t Just About Yemen—It’s a Struggle For Power

This war represents the continuing struggle between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Both countries would like to be the regional powerhouse in the Middle East. Due to the international community’s isolation of Iran over the past several decades and its alliance with the United States, Saudi Arabia has enjoyed a degree of regional hegemony. But as the Obama administration has sought to de-isolate Iran, tensions are rising once more. Iran is flexing its muscles in the Middle East and challenging the Saudis.

This month, Yemen’s civil war spilled onto the international stage in a more overt way. At the beginning of October, Houthi rebels fired on a United Arab Emirates civilian ship carrying aid, civilians, and wounded Yemeni. Only a week later, U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer the USS Mason and the USS Ponce were fired on twice from Houthi-controlled territory. The missiles did not reach their targets, either because of counter-measures or targeting errors. Two days later, on October 12, the USS Mason was fired on again by a cruise missile from Houthi-held territory. This time, the destroyer deflected the missile by firing countermeasures.

Last Thursday, in reaction to these assaults, the U.S. launched cruise missiles against Yemeni radar installations in the Houthi-controlled coastal areas that were used during the attacks on the USS Mason and Ponce. But because this is the Obama administration, the Pentagon made it clear that these strikes were limited and do not indicate that the U.S. will use direct military force in Yemen.

How Iran Is Using the Houthi Rebels

There’s little doubt that the missile strikes by Houthi rebels were thinly veiled attacks by Iran. It’s believed that Iran supplied the anti-ship cruise missiles the Houthis used. But Iran’s involvement in the strikes isn’t just plausible logistically. It’s also consistent with their motivations in the region.

The Islamic Republic is angling to control the Straits of Bab al-Mandab: a sea passage that connects the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea, and from there connects to the Indian Ocean. It is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, with millions of barrels of oil passing through it daily. Iran would no doubt love to have control of freedom of navigation through the straits. It would provide them with an invaluable bargaining chip.

But Iran has other goals in mind as well. In order to increase its regional strength and diminish U.S. strategic positioning, Iran needs to assess American reactions and response times to hostile actions. The country’s leaders want to test our resolve. In Yemen, Iran can do this via the Houthi rebels with plausible deniability. In doing so, it proves that it can attack us with impunity. Why? Because the Obama administration will do almost anything to “prove” that their nuclear deal prevented war with Iran, and will go to great lengths to keep that narrative alive.

The U.S. Can’t Ignore the Threats of Iran

In 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed that the U.S. would “stand by” any country that felt threated by Iran. Meanwhile, Iran was sending two navy vessels to the Gulf of Aden. Kerry said, “Iran needs to recognize that the U.S. is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized or while people engage in overt warfare across lines, international boundaries and other countries.”

But Kerry is proving that he won’t do anything to jeopardize his legacy of an “historic” nuclear deal with Iran—and neither will Obama. This means that it’s very unlikely the U.S. will call out Iran for these strikes. And Iran knows it.

The Houthi-Iranian strikes on the U.S. Navy is yet another indication of irreverence toward the U.S. They’re a sign of increasing destabilization in the Middle East, and a warning that this kind of “saber rattling” is practice for the real thing. While we cow to Iran in every possible way, Tehran has the upper hand.

So keep your eyes on Yemen. Though it might not grab as many headlines as Syria or the Battle of Mosul, it’s where major changes to the international order are playing out right now.