Yesterday brought news of more indecisive violence in the most war-ravaged area of the world: Yemen. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia announced that recent air strikes around Marib had killed over 200 Houthi fighters, on behalf of Yemen’s internationally recognized government (IRG). The country’s civil war has been devastating the Yemeni people since 2014.
In 2011, the previous Yemeni autocracy buckled under the pressure of the Arab Spring protests. A subsequent attempt at a national dialogue under a new government failed three years later when the Houthis—a long-disaffected sect of Shia Islam—captured the capital, Sana’a. Since then, the war has become the worst humanitarian crisis of the past decade.
The Saudi-led coalition, supported by the United States, immediately intervened on behalf of the new IRG, conducting air strikes which resulted in significant civilian casualties. The Houthis have waged their offensive with similar brutality. Famine and a major cholera outbreak have exacerbated the suffering. Well over 200,000 people have lost their lives.
The Houthis, now seven years since they captured Sana’a, are in the midst of a major offensive against Marib, the temporary capital of the IRG. Marib is also a center for oil and gas extraction and the last refuge of many displaced Yemeni civilians.
While the Houthis press their advantage, the IRG remains on its back foot, trying to hold the city. Even with Saudi support, the IRG has—albeit in fits and starts—continually lost ground over the past seven years. It is generally understood that without international support they would have folded completely by this point.
Given the impotence of the IRG, the war is effectively taking place between the Houthis—who are linked to the government of Iran—and the foreign coalition. Ostensibly, the coalition has offered a ceasefire, but it has refused to budge on certain Houthi demands, including the cessation of a naval blockade.
A step removed from the conflict, but by no means absent, is the United States. In response to a dedicated public advocacy campaign, President Joe Biden has put a stop to all “offensive operations” support for Saudi Arabia. However, the line between “offensive” and “defensive” operations is blurry, and it’s not clear that the Pentagon has meaningfully ended assistance.
It’s important to recognize that there are no identifiable “good guys” who have power in this conflict. The Houthis, the internationally recognized government, and the coalition of Arab nations have all conducted themselves almost without humanity. The United States has short-sightedly continued to support one of those brutal actors—the Saudi-led coalition—even despite the waning odds of victory. As such, it has trapped itself in the bizarre position of lending its considerable power to autocratic regimes rather than to the resolution of the decade’s worst humanitarian crisis.
While the United States is not well-positioned to bargain with the Houthis, it may be able to push the Saudis to offer realistic terms that could actually bring some relief to the Yemeni people. In the present case of Marib, the Houthis have indicated that they do not want to begin an all-out assault. Instead they would prefer to surround it and secure its surrender through negotiation. But if that becomes infeasible, an attack will happen, and tens of thousands of internally displaced civilians will suffer.
Mr. Biden has asserted that the near future of international politics will be constituted by a contest between democracy and autocracy. “Democracy” is not on the table in Yemen as of now. The best we can hope for is some measure of peace and stability, an end to the horrific conflict. However, “democracy” isn’t merely a form of government but a series of principles, among which is a central belief in the dignity of human life. If the Biden administration shows itself to be a friend of autocracy and militarism over humanitarianism, it would be senseless to take its stated concern for democracy, at least in the international sphere, seriously.Subscribe to Spectacles