The Undeclared US War on Yemen Will End in Failure

The US government has continued air strikes against Yemen’s Houthis while claiming not to be at war. But the Houthis are unlikely to be deterred: even Yemenis who formerly took up arms against them now support the attacks on Israeli-bound ships in the Red Sea.

Thousands of Houthi supporters, holding Yemen and Palestine flags, gather at the Sebin Square to stage a solidarity demonstration with Palestinians and protest against the Israeli attacks on Gaza on February 9, 2024 in Sana’a, Yemen. (Mohammed Hamoud / Anadolu via Getty Images)

In response to Israel’s assault on Gaza, Yemen’s Ansar Allah movement, known as the Houthis, have launched explosive-laden drones and fired ballistic missiles at ships in the Red Sea. The stated objective of these attacks is to disrupt the trade of ships heading to Israel or affiliated with Israel, aiming to impose an economic cost for the atrocities in Gaza in a critical sea lane for global trade.

The United States and UK have retaliated with extensive air strikes against Houthi positions and vowed to continue until the Houthis end their Red Sea campaign. What do the people of Yemen, in a country already ravaged by years of civil war and foreign intervention, think about the action of the Houthis and the US response?

Interviews I have conducted with ordinary Yemenis indicate that their solidarity with Palestinians is already shifting their political allegiances and is of a depth that no US military action can diminish. Many Yemenis who are politically hostile to Ansar Allah — even those who previously took up arms against their forces — nonetheless approve of their challenge to Israel and its Western allies.

The Pain of Others

I served as an aid worker in Aden, the internationally recognized capital of Yemen, from April to December 2022. Yemen is currently divided into two distinct regions: the Sunni-dominated south, where the Gulf states wield significant influence, and the northern area governed by the Shia-affiliated Ansar Allah group, which has ties to Iran. The majority of the contacts with whom I spoke are drawn from the southern part of Yemen.

Yemenis tend to speak with conviction about the issue of Palestine. I observed a tendency for Yemenis to express more emotive sentiments when discussing Palestine compared to how they spoke about their own country. This led me to wonder if addressing the injustices related to Palestine serve as a metaphorical portal through which Yemenis convey their experiences, without having to delve into their own traumas and complicated political context.

Against this backdrop, the Houthis are establishing legitimacy through their active resistance on behalf of the Palestinian people — a cause that is almost universally considered legitimate throughout Muslim-majority states. The deep emotional resonance with the plight of Palestinians has profound roots in the anti-colonial and emancipatory struggles of the Arab nationalist movements, which saw the military and de facto colonial occupation of Palestine as a central concern.

A frequently cited reason for the importance of the situation in Palestine for Yemenis is the shared perception of a common Islamic history that binds the two regions together. A soft-spoken pharmacy student in his late twenties expressed the hope that Yemenis might join the fight for Palestine “if the borders are opened.” He clarified that one reason why “the entire Arab nation, especially Yemen,” stands with Palestine is “that all Arab countries originate from Yemen, especially Palestine, an oppressed country.”

Historically, Yemen played an important role in the emergence of the Arab people, and its Sheba civilization is mentioned in the Quran. Pivotal moments in Islamic history occurred in Palestine, where, as the same contact pointed out, the “Al-Aqsa Mosque, from which our honorable Messenger Muhammad ascended to the highest heaven,” is located.

This contact also drew explicit parallels between the histories of the two countries:

Yemen has gone through a period of war and has known the consequences of war, destruction, deaths, displacement, and hunger. We are human beings, and we feel the pain of others.

Perspectives on Palestine

The recent Israeli raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque are of particular concern. A Yemeni who has spent extensive time in North America emphasized that the Yemini reaction “indicates faith in God and jihad for the sake of God to support their brothers in Palestine and liberate Al-Aqsa Mosque, the holy mosque, from the hands of the oppressive, brutal occupier devoid of all senses of humanity.”

He impressed upon me that “Muslims in all parts of the world are considered brothers in God and in religion. If you read and delve deeply into the teachings of our religion, you will find that God commands us to be brothers, and this is an important part.” As he went on to elaborate: “Our religion says that Muslims are like a single body; if a part of the body is injured or wounded, the entire body is in pain and suffers.”

He also reminded me that there has been a rich history of pan-Islamic military solidarity in recent decades:

Arabs and non-Arabs went to fight and jihad for the sake of God to support their brothers in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Yugoslavia. Too many of them were martyred, but in the end, they were victorious, and this is God’s promise to the mujahideen, either victory or martyrdom.

He predicted that if the border to Palestine ever opens, “you will find the Yemeni people and Muslims from all over the world racing on foot to Palestine, and Israel will not stay for a single day. It will find itself on the run, without shelter, scurrying, heading to the White House to sleep there.”

Another contact of mine, a young physician who volunteers much of her time in a children’s hospital, offered a more universalist perspective. She made it clear to me that she would “not speak to you as an Arab, but rather I will speak to you from a human side. I am never in favor of killing civilians, but if someone takes up arms against the Palestinians, then fighting with him is not an inhuman thing.”

Her empathy for Palestine is partly shaped by a past encounter with a Palestinian, one of many who sought refuge in Yemen:

I have a Palestinian friend. She studied at the University of Aden. She is a doctor. She usually goes to Gaza after graduation. She is injured, Jonas, and detained in the hospital. Many of her family members are injured or dead. I am sad. She is an ordinary girl. Their house was bombed. Really, we are far away. From any peace on earth.

Her expertise kindled a hope to offer practical medical assistance:

I am very sad. The scenes I see make me lose my mind. I swear if they open the crossings, I will go there. I can no longer. There are thousands of wounded people who need paramedics, doctors, and medical supplies. . . . I have long experience in dealing with wounds and injured infants. I can help. My mother screams at me every time I tell her about my desire to go.

New Admirers

Many southern Yemenis who participated in intense urban warfare to repel the Houthis during their invasion of Aden in 2015 now support the group’s military actions in the Red Sea. These Yemenis recognize the absence of a state that would represent their interests on a global scale. A young worker in Aden’s service sector expressed admiration for the current Houthi leader:

Congratulations to this heroic operation, and a mandate to the leader of the revolution, Mr Abdul-Malik Badr al-Din al-Houthi, to move forward in taking the necessary measures to support the Palestinian people. While none of your Excellencies and Highnesses dared to say to the Zionist enemy “no” to the aggression against Gaza or even to condemn the crimes and violations of the children of Zion, the man of words and deeds, Mr Abdul Malik Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, rose up with his honorable and courageous stance.

Intrigued by his answer, I asked him if he could trust the Houthis, considering that residents of Aden had lived in fear of their movement in 2015. He responded: “I think they did the best, but in the end, they are our enemies and the Iranian soldiers in Yemen. But we do not have to believe in them, and in the end, it is a war in which each party has an interest.”

Such responses reveal ambiguous attitudes toward military actors and their regional and global supporters in the Middle East. For example, southern Yemenis expressed support for the assistance of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in expelling the Houthis from Aden.

In a similar way, many Christians in Syria hoped that Russia would protect them from the opposition, including jihadist groups. Kurds welcomed US air support in their fight against ISIL, while people in southern Lebanon view Hezbollah and its Iranian backers as protection against Israeli bombings and incursions.

However, such endorsements of specific maneuvers by imperial or regional powers, which have long been decisive drivers of political change in the region and may be rationally perceived as safeguarding particular populations in certain instances, are often accompanied by profound ambiguity.

Regular Reminders

As these perspectives suggest, the Houthis lack incentives to cease their attacks, and the United States is unlikely to degrade their low-cost technologies supplied by Iran. The Houthis are gaining legitimacy throughout Yemen, even in regions over which they do not rule.

This effect extends to the wider Middle East and the Global South as a whole. It even resonates among segments of the Western public who have become morally troubled by the images of suffering in Gaza.

A law lecturer in the north, reflecting on the state of Yemeni society, remarked that “we no longer have anything to lose” after the role of external powers in “supporting projects aimed at destabilizing the state,” a fact that he stressed had been “demonstrated over the past fifteen years.” A naval blockade on northern Yemen, the lifting of which is anticipated as part of the peace process between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, contributed to what the UN labeled the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” before the Israeli war on Gaza generated even more catastrophic conditions for its people.

Both Yemen and Palestine face embargoes imposed by external powers, with minimal aid dedicated to alleviating the suffering and providing lifesaving services. As of June 2023, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNWRA) had only secured $107 million of the $300 million required to sustain operations, and major donors are now disinvesting from the agency. Similarly, by August 2023, less than a third of the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen had been funded.

US attempts to amass a coalition against the Houthis are already riddled with complications. Its Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are not eager to support the US campaign overtly. For one thing, fighting a war on behalf of Israel is a very unattractive proposition. They have also learned what the Ottomans, the British, and the Egyptians learned before: Yemenis are very hard to defeat on the battlefield.

Recent progress in peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis hints at a potential scenario in which the Saudi kingdom could utilize oil and gas revenues from the territories they control to fund salaries for civil servants in the de facto Houthi state in the north. As the leader of the campaign in Yemen, Saudi Arabia neither wants to reenter hostilities nor to engage in a war perceived to be in the interests of Israel.

When evaluating the reaction of Muslim-majority states to the atrocities in Gaza, Western commentators often exclusively emphasize the role of antisemitism. While rising antisemitism is a grave concern worldwide, such statements constitute grand oversimplifications. They neglect the shared identity and historical experience in those societies of colonialism, military intervention, occupation, and dictatorships often supported by foreign powers.

Yemenis in Aden or Sana’a need look no further than outside their windows to witness the ruins of buildings bombed with Western weapons. This serves as a stark and regular reminder of the trauma currently being experienced by Palestinians.