Attacks by Houthi rebels breach international law and risk war.
This is an opinion piece by Professor Sandeep Gopalan, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Academic Innovation and Professor of Law, Deakin University. The author's view and opinion may not imply or reflect Deakin Law School's view.
Iran has upped the ante in Yemen — its proxies, the al Houthis, have escalated their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia during the past week. Missile strikes against Riyadh were reportedly intercepted by the Saudi Defense Forces, and the latest strike injured an expatriate worker. Some estimates put the total number of missile attacks at over 104. The U.N. Security Council has “condemned in the strongest possible terms the multiple Houthi missile attacks, including the use of ballistic missiles.” The Security Council underlined that “such attacks pose a serious national security threat” to Saudi Arabia and expressed “grave concern” at the flouting of an arms embargo imposed by U.N. resolutions.
Notably, the United Nations issued its statement shortly after Saudi Arabia donated $930 million — about one-third of the $2.96 billion required to provide humanitarian aid to 22 million people in need in Yemen.
This country of 28 million people — 60 percent of whom are below the age of 25 — is located at the strategically important entrance to the Red Sea. Once a major trading post, it is thought to be the source of the first commercially cultivated coffee.
The country’s modern avatar was constituted in 1990 following the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen (once part of the British Empire). It has had a troubled history — following earlier sectarian clashes, in 2011 during the Arab Spring, rallies against then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh culminated in his ouster after a rule that lasted from 1978 to 2012. Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been the vice president, was elected president. Hadi concluded a transition process as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s peace initiative that included constitutional reform in 2014.
The Houthis — a theological movement of the Zaydi Shia sect, named for their leader Hussein al Houthi who led the campaign against Saleh — were opposed to the proposed division of the country into six provinces, perceiving the division to be disadvantageous and motivated by a foreign conspiracy.
After their leader died in fighting with government forces, the Houthis oddly united with Saleh against Hadi and launched a major offensive against the capital Sanaa. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia in 2015, and the latter commenced Operation Decisive Storm with a coalition of forces in March 2015 to stop the Houthis. This marked the start of the current conflict. To complete the circle, Saleh turned against the Houthis and was killed in December 2017.
More than 10,000 people have died in Yemen’s civil war since 2015, at least 5,200 of them civilians. The United Nations has called it the world’s largest humanitarian crisis; there are over 2 million internally displaced persons.
The firing of ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabian cities has raised the risk of war with Iran — only Iran makes these types of missiles and Saudi Arabia might act in self-defense. A U.N. panel previously “identified missile remnants, related military equipment and military unmanned aerial vehicles that are of Iranian origin and were brought into Yemen after the imposition of the targeted arms embargo,” meaning that Iran breached the arms embargo. The missiles, said Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, “might as well have had ‘Made in Iran’ stickers.”
U.N. Resolution 2216, adopted by the Security Council in April 2015, imposed a ban on the supply of arms and related material of all types, “including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment … and technical assistance, training, financial or other assistance.” The Houthis were asked to “immediately and unconditionally” stop the violence, retreat from seized territory, and end provocations directed at neighboring states.
Clearly, the escalation of missile attacks against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia demonstrates defiance of the U.N. resolutions. But the United Nations, with a statement issued on March 29, offered more verbiage with little prospect of ending the humanitarian crisis or saving civilian lives.
Unfortunately, there are virtually no good options in Yemen. The history of duplicitous alliances and betrayals (briefly outlined above) highlights the dangers involved. The Trump administration should focus on assembling indisputable evidence of Iran’s breach of the arms embargo and then persuade the United Nations to move from words to action, requiring states to collectively impose sanctions against Iran.
Targeted sanctions would alter Iran’s strategic calculus and level the playing field for Saudi Arabia. Iran is waging a proxy war on the cheap, whereas Saudi Arabia is spending the equivalent of billions of dollars every month. Faced with a significant economic burden, Iran might decide to keep its missiles at home, diminishing the prospects of war.
Without the backing of Iran, the Houthis would have a greater reason to explore peaceful options. The United Nations then could deliver the desperately-needed humanitarian assistance, establish an inclusive government committed to the rule of law, work to end government corruption, and provide a peaceful future for Yemenis.
If a peace effort fails, Yemen’s demographic dividend — its median age is 19.5 — could turn into a demographic nightmare for the world as millions of disaffected youths turn to violence. The consequences of that nightmare may not stop in the Gulf of Aden.