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Dangerous Spillover from the War in Yemen

If the war in Yemen continues, the Middle East remains vulnerable to escalation.

Words: Alexandra Stark
Pictures: Nadiia Ploshchenko
Date:

Violence has once again escalated in the war in Yemen and threatened to spill over into the broader Gulf region. On Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, the Houthis attacked the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with drones and ballistic missiles, killing three civilians and causing a fire near Abu Dhabi International Airport. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes launched in retaliation killed at least 60 people and wounded more than 100 at a temporary detention center in Saada in northern Yemen, and killed three children while damaging a telecommunications center in Hodeidah on Yemen’s west coast, causing a four-day internet outage across most of the country. This past Monday, the UAE and the US intercepted two ballistic missiles fired at Abu Dhabi and finally, early yesterday morning (Jan. 30, 2022), the UAE Ministry of Defense announced it had intercepted another Houthi ballistic missile.

Why is this escalation happening now? And is there anything the US can do to de-escalate tensions?

WHY NOW?

To casual observers, the first Houthi strike on the UAE may have seemed to come out of nowhere. But the strike represents an escalation in a long-standing cycle. The Houthis have targeted Saudi Arabia, the country leading the coalition intervention in Yemen against the Houthis, with drones and ballistic missiles frequently in recent years. While the UAE was once co-leader of the coalition, the Emiratis drew down most of their forces from Yemen and decreased their involvement in the coalition’s intervention in 2019, largely due to pressure from US officials and Congress. Before that, the Houthis claimed to have also carried out strikes on Abu Dhabi International Airport using drones in 2018, although these attacks were never confirmed by either Emirati or US officials.

As long as one side in the conflict believes it has momentum, it will continue to press its advantage to win more territory before coming to the negotiating table. The best way to de-escalate these cycles of strikes, and ensure that no more civilians are killed, is to find a way to end the war in Yemen.

The UAE’s involvement in the war in Yemen has increased again in recent months. Over the course of 2021, a Houthi offensive on Marib has led to Houthi territorial gains. Winning control of Marib would be a significant prize for the Houthis. Marib is the last governorate in northern Yemen that is held by the internationally-recognized government of Yemen. It is also one of the most important oil-producing regions in Yemen. The Houthis have pressed on in their offensive in Marib despite attempts to revive the UN-led peace process in Yemen because controlling Marib would put them in a better position in negotiations. However, anti-Houthi military groups made significant progress against the Houthis in this region in recent weeks. The Giants Brigade, a UAE-created and backed military group, was able to take back nearby Shabwa governorate from the Houthis, facilitating their ongoing counter-offensive on Marib with the assistance of air support from the coalition. Nadwa Al-Dawsari writes that the Giants Brigades had previously been active on Yemen’s west coast, playing a key role in taking back territory in this area from the Houthis.

The UAE has reportedly been drawn back into Yemen to counter the success of the Houthi offensive in Marib. Michael Knights and Alex Almeida report that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been more in sync at the tactical level than they have been since the beginning of the coalition intervention in Yemen, “coordinating their operations at the tactical level, using a joint operations cell at Ataq airfield in Shabwa.” The UAE also facilitated the redeployment of some of the military groups it supports into northern Yemen, thereby facilitating the counter-offensive. The Houthi strikes on Abu Dhabi, therefore, ought to be seen as an escalation in the fighting, and as a warning from the Houthis that they will target the UAE directly in response to its increased involvement in the fighting.

The coalition airstrikes also represent an escalation tied to recent conflict dynamics. The overall number of airstrikes and resulting civilian casualties had declined significantly in recent years. Yet, in October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council voted to end an investigation into human rights abuses in the war in Yemen, reportedly after a Saudi lobbying campaign to end the investigation. Soon after, as Yemen Data Project points out, the number of coalition airstrikes — and resulting civilian casualties — surged.

WHY IS THIS BAD NEWS FOR THE UAE?

The Houthi strikes created a tough dilemma for the UAE because they put the UAE’s economic model in jeopardy. The Houthis have targeted Saudi Arabia at a much higher rate than the UAE and have increased the number of attacks on Saudi Arabia over the past couple of years. In the first three quarters of 2021, the Houthis conducted 3.7 attacks in Saudi Arabia on average. These attacks tend to be clustered in southwestern Saudi provinces that border Yemen. They have targeted civilian and military sites, including an airport in Jazan and a Saudi Aramco refinery in Jeddah. 

The Kingdom seems to have calculated that being on the receiving end of a steady barrage of Houthi missiles is part of the cost of continuing to fight the Houthis. For the UAE, this is too high a cost to bear. The UAE’s economic model is dependent on attracting foreign investment and tourism. This model means the UAE advertises itself to the world as an oasis of stability in an otherwise turbulent and violent region. While it’s unlikely that Houthi strikes could cause serious damage to civilian infrastructure within the UAE, the threat of strikes is itself sufficient to disrupt the UAE’s economic plans. Although the second round of missiles launched by the Houthis on Jan. 17, 2022, was apparently intercepted without causing damage, the strike still disrupted air traffic at Abu Dhabi International Airport and led the State Department to issue a travel warning for the country. 

Emirati officials likely calculate that the UAE cannot sustain these sorts of headlines for long without serious economic implications. Indeed, the Houthis have said in so many words that this is their strategy for deterring further Emirati involvement in the fighting in Yemen. “We warn foreign companies and investors to leave the Emirates!” said a Houthi military spokesperson in a televised statement earlier this week. “This has become an unsafe country,” the spokesperson noted.

And there are already signs that the Houthi’s coercive strategy is working. On Friday, Jan. 24, 2022, the Giants Brigades announced that they would end their northern offensive and appear to be returning most of their forces to the south.

WHAT ABOUT THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL?

This round of escalation could also spill over into other regional issues, including the ongoing talks on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna. US officials have increased the urgency around the talks in recent weeks, suggesting that time to strike a deal could be running out.

The extent of the relationship between the Houthis and Iran can be opaque to outside observers, although it is clear that Iran does not exercise command and control over the Houthis. While it’s possible that pressure from Iran, or hardline factions within Iran’s government, had something to do with pressuring the Houthis to execute this most recent set of missile and drone attacks, that seems unlikely. Instead, the shifting dynamics of the northern battlefield in Yemen itself seem the likelier explanation.

Nevertheless, the Houthi strikes are an unfortunately-timed demonstration of the extent of Iran’s relationship with non-state actors across the region, and the ability of those actors, like the Houthis, to antagonize Iran’s regional opponents. The ballistic missiles themselves are indicative of the Houthi partnership with Iran: The Zulfiqar, or Burkan-3, the ballistic missiles that were intercepted on Jan. 17, 2022, are reportedly a modified version of Iranian Qiam missiles. The strikes illustrate how Houthi missile capabilities have expanded significantly over the course of the war in Yemen, with the help of Iran. Fortunately, the JCPOA talks are reportedly muddling ahead, adjourning last week for political consultations as the talks enter a “final stage.” Still, the strikes are indicative of how dynamics within Yemen can spill over into other regional issues.

END THE WAR IN YEMEN

As long as the war in Yemen continues, this kind of regional escalation remains on the table. As long as one side in the conflict believes it has momentum, it will continue to press its advantage to win more territory before coming to the negotiating table. The best way to de-escalate these cycles of strikes, and ensure that no more civilians are killed, is to find a way to end the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, ending the war in Yemen won’t be easy. The US can’t simply end the war unilaterally, but there’s more that the Biden administration could do to pressure the UAE and Saudi Arabia to make concessions at the bargaining table. So far, Biden administration officials have spoken out strongly in support of the UAE, but their statements about the coalition’s retaliatory strikes have been much more tepid. The US also intercepted Houthi missiles with its Patriot missile defenses at Al Dhafra Air Base, where about 2,000 US service members and personnel are stationed. While some have criticized the US for this involvement, it’s not hard to imagine the escalatory cycle getting worse if Houthi missiles had done more damage, especially to US personnel or infrastructure. At the same time, providing defensive reassurances, like helping to intercept Houthi missiles, could be defensive assurances that help persuade US Gulf partners to reach an agreement in Yemen to end the coalition intervention.

Even worse, the war has reached such a degree of fractionalization among conflict parties that ending the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention won’t be enough to end the war. But the US still has an important role to play in helping end the war in Yemen. Ending the coalition intervention would still spare the lives of Yemeni civilians, decrease the likelihood of regional spillover, and move the conflict one step closer to a comprehensive settlement. 

Alexandra Stark is a Senior Researcher at New America and holds a PhD from Georgetown University. She is currently working on a book manuscript, “Forgotten Wars: What intervention in Yemen’s civil war tells us about Middle East politics and the failures of US policy.”

Alexandra Stark

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