The Houthis Are Apt to Win the War in Yemen. The U.S. Needs a Plan for What Happens When They Do

November 5, 2021 | David Schenker
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Since coming to office, the Biden administration has made promises to use diplomacy “to end the war in Yemen,” a conflict that pits the Iran-backed Houthi rebels against forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and a few other factions. Supporting the latter are Saudi Arabia and a coalition of pro-Western Arab states. Since a U.S. military intervention is unlikely, the war can end only with a Houthi victory. David Schenker considers the situation:

Riyadh doesn’t need any persuasion to want to end the war. In fact, in recent years, the Saudis have engaged in what are, by all accounts, good-faith talks on the future of Yemen, including with arch-foe Iran. The problem is the Houthis, who have proved consistently recalcitrant and are now playing for time as they make slow but steady progress. . . . The Houthi inclination toward a military rather than a negotiated solution is paying off. Two years into their military campaign in Marib—a strategic governorate named for its capital city—the rebels are on the verge of conquering both.

If they [succeed], the Houthis would essentially have won the war. For Riyadh, Washington, and the Yemeni people, this represents a worst-case scenario. Even if the war were to end, the humanitarian situation would remain critical, with two-thirds of Yemen’s 30 million citizens continuing to face famine. . . . Meanwhile, Iranian proxies will control another Arab country, and Saudi Arabia will remain vulnerable to missile and drone attacks from its southern neighbor.

Notwithstanding President Joe Biden’s obvious antipathy toward the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, the first order of business [in that event] will be to bolster the kingdom’s defensive capabilities. . . . Perhaps most importantly, to prevent Iran from fully completing its project of recreating a Hizballah-like entity on Saudi Arabia’s southern front once the Houthis gain control, the Biden administration will need to reinvigorate the 2015 UN arms embargo on Yemen.

Should the Biden administration fail, the risk is not just that more and increasingly advanced weaponry with Iranian components will be pointed from Yemen toward Riyadh. Concerned about Houthi and Iranian intentions, the Israelis twice this year deployed Patriot and Iron Dome missile-defense batteries against potential missiles and drones emanating from Yemen.

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