How a Saudi-Led Alliance Battling an Iran-Backed Militia Devastated Yemen
Yemen was already the Arab world’s poorest country before its civil war began in 2014. Then a Saudi-led coalition joined the fight against the Iran-backed Houthi militia, spreading the ruin.
Months after a rebel movement aligned with Iran seized control of Yemen’s capital in 2014, Saudi Arabia pulled together a military coalition and unleashed a rain of bombs aimed at driving the rebels back to their homes in the mountains.
It didn’t work.
Instead, it set off an escalating cycle of violence that heavily damaged Yemen’s cities and killed an untold number of civilians while creating new threats to the global oil supply and maritime traffic around the Arabian Peninsula.
Seven years in, victory for Saudi Arabia, which receives extensive military aid from the United States, remains elusive. Now, the kingdom is searching for a way out of the war by backing a cease-fire and a new presidential council to lead the Yemeni government, which was announced on Thursday.
Here is a look back at how the war settled into a grinding stalemate that has shattered communities, sent starving children to depleted hospitals, and spread diseases such as cholera across Yemen in what United Nations officials have deemed one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
How did the Yemen war begin?
The conflict began as a civil war in 2014, when the Houthis, seeking to take over the country, took control of the northwest and the capital, Sana, sending the government into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Dig deeper into the moment.
The Saudi-led coalition soon intervened, but the Houthis stayed put while the coalition’s bombs fell, often killing civilians and destroying factories and infrastructure in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country.
Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, also backed various Yemeni fighting groups to battle the Houthis.
What went wrong?
Early on, the coalition heavily bombarded Saada Province, the Houthis’ ancestral homeland, embittering its residents and providing an opening for accusations that it was committing war crimes by not differentiating between civilian and military targets.
Elsewhere, Saudi bombs repeatedly fell on civilian gatherings, including weddings. An attack on a high-profile funeral in Sana in 2016 killed more than 100 people, including political figures who might have helped bridge gaps between Yemenis to end the war.
That and other strikes made the war hugely unpopular in Washington and other Western capitals whose governments had sold the Saudis many of the weapons being used to kill civilians.
The Saudis and their allies said they adopted protocols to ensure better targeting.
But then in 2018, they bombed a school bus, killing at least 44 people, most of them young boys on a field trip. That renewed questions about whether the Saudi air force had poor targeting skills or just did not care enough to take the necessary precautions.
The harshness of the bombing campaign and the imposition of a blockade that hobbled the economy and left more Yemenis dependent on limited international aid made the Saudis deeply unpopular in parts of the country and increased support for the Houthis’ idea that they were fighting unjust aggression.
“First, they gave them the moral high ground by attacking civilians, then they made it possible for the Houthis to recruit by applying economic sanctions that impoverished the population and made enlisting in the Houthi forces the only survival option,” said Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.
How did Iran get involved?
Iran, the Saudis’ regional nemesis, had a relationship with the Houthis before the war but dramatically ramped up military aid to the movement after the fighting began.
Understand the War in Yemen
A divided country. A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting in Yemen against the Houthis, a Shiite Muslim rebel group that dominates in northern parts of the country, for years. Here’s what to know about the conflict:
The origins. The conflict has its roots in the country’s Arab Spring uprising, which forced then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in 2012. Mr. Saleh then decided to join forces with the Houthi rebels, which had been growing in strength.
Hostilities begin. In 2014, the Houthis, supported by sections of the military loyal to Mr. Saleh, stormed Sana, the capital of Yemen, and forced then-President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition including the United Arab Emirates began bombing the country in 2015 in response.
A proxy war? The conflict has been a source of friction between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran in their battle for influence in the Middle East. The Saudis have accused Iran of supporting the rebels. Iran has denied the claim, though the rebels have used Iranian-made weapons.
The U.S. role. The United States has backed the Saudi-led coalition from the start of the conflict. President Biden announced the U.S. would end its support, but his administration has continued selling it weapons. In January, the U.S. military intervened to help the U.A.E. thwart a missile attack by the rebels.
Enduring crisis. Yemen remains divided between the Houthis, who control the north and Sana, and the Saudi-backed government in the south. As military operations drag on, the country has become the site of what aid groups say is one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
A truce. On April 1, the United Nations said that the two warring sides had accepted a two-month truce. President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi also announced his abdication, another sign that his Saudi backers may be looking for a path out of the bloodshed.
It was a win-win for the anti-Saudi team.
The Houthis needed help to fight back against a much wealthier and better equipped foe, and Iran found a new way to menace Saudi Arabia and weaken its defenses without attacking the kingdom directly.
Over time, the Houthis progressed from targeting spots along the Saudi border with short-range missiles to targeting the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with large ballistic missiles as well as using exploding drones to attack Saudi oil facilities deep inside the kingdom.
“When we are talking about the Houthi movement, the biggest inflection is the military capability, which has allowed them to have an outsized effect on the region and put them in the position where they are the gatekeepers to peace in Yemen,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Smoke billowed from a Saudi Aramco oil depot after an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, last month.
Smoke billowed from a Saudi Aramco oil depot after an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, last month.Credit…Hassan Ammar/Associated Press
Does this mean the war will end?
Saudi officials have argued that they had no choice but to fight the Houthis and often ask what the United States would do if a violent militia seized control of territory across its border and started firing missiles at American cities. Wouldn’t it bomb them, too?
The Houthis also stand accused of committing war crimes, including using child soldiers, and they rule their areas with an iron fist that leaves no room for disagreement with their policies
The Yemeni government’s new presidential council, announced on Thursday and backed by the Saudis, is supposed to lead peace talks with the Houthis, and a two-month cease-fire that went into effect on Saturday could also provide an opening for negotiations. Both are indications that Saudi Arabia is intensifying efforts to find a way out of the war.
But some analysts question whether the Houthis want to end a war that has so greatly expanded their power, and that costs Saudi Arabia so much to pursue.
“It is expensive for the Saudis, and it is certainly more expensive for them than it is for their enemy, which is always a problem, even if you are the rich guy,” Ms. Zimmerman said.