BESA Center Perspectives (Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies) November 29, 2017
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Since the onset of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, there has been a continuous upheaval in Yemen, which has escalated into full scale civil war between the Houthis (a Shiite political-religious movement), supported by Iran, and the internationally recognized Government of Yemen, supported by Saudi Arabia. The recent missile attack on Riyadh International Airport, which originated in Yemen and triggered a Saudi-Lebanese confrontation, is the fourth such attack this year. The Yemeni civil war has received scant attention in Israel, but its outcome could significantly affect Israel’s national security and the stability of the Middle East.
In a CNN interview on November 6, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel Jubair asserted that “Lebanon has declared war” on his country. This accusation was made following the launch of a ballistic missile from Yemen towards Riyadh International Airport (it was shot down harmlessly by Saudi Arabia’s Patriot defense system). “This was an Iranian missile…launched by Hezbollah,” Jubair said. “We regard the Lebanese Government as a government that has declared war on us.”
To most Israelis, this sounds like fake news. What is Hezbollah – a Lebanese Shiite militia dedicated to fighting Israel – doing in Yemen? And what has it got to do with ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia?
Yet this is not fake news. Hezbollah does indeed have a presence in Yemen. For the past two years, it has been supporting the Houthi insurgents in their war against the Saudi-led coalition. In the course of that war, ballistic missiles have been regularly launched against Saudi Arabia’s major cities.
As far as we know, the November missile attack on Riyadh was not the first but rather the fourth such attack this year. Moreover, ballistic missiles are being fired from Yemeni territory not only at Riyadh but also at border towns and major cities across the Saudi Kingdom. This missile campaign is part of a strategic move by Iran to establish its hegemony in the Middle East. It is skillfully exploiting the existence of Shiite-affiliated minorities throughout the region.
Since the 2011 outbreak of what some still call with macabre humor the “Arab Spring,” a bloody civil war has raged in Yemen, a war that has cost the lives of 10,000 civilians to date. This civil war – perhaps the least reported of all the upheavals to have engulfed the Arab world in the past six years – is not the first of its kind. Yemen is notoriously prone to civil war. The one that raged between 1962 and 1970 saw the first use of chemical warfare in the Middle East, when Nasser’s Egyptian army used it during its intervention on the side of the rebels against the regime of Imam Yahiya.
The presence of a large Egyptian army contingent in Yemen created a sense of relief in Israel and led to expectations in early 1967 that there would be no war in the next year or so. Those expectations were rudely shattered when Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and marched his army to the Sinai. The rest, as they say, is history.
A shorter civil war raged in 1994 between South Yemen (previously the British colony of Aden) and North Yemen (historical Yemen). This too is one of the most forgotten conflicts in history. It nevertheless saw high-intensity fighting, including ballistic missile exchanges between the sides. The North launched short-range, Soviet-supplied SS21 missiles against the city of Aden, and the South launched Soviet-supplied Scud Bs against Sana’a, the national capital. The South claimed that its air defense artillery managed to shoot down Northern missiles, and the North reported dozens of deaths and significant damage in Sana’s from Southern missiles. This war, like its predecessors, warranted scarcely a mention in Western media and military publications.
The current fighting in Yemen started with non-violent protests against the incumbent President Ali Salah that quickly escalated into armed clashes between tribes and factions across the country. In 2015, these clashes grew to full-scale civil war between the Houthi-led coalition (Houthis are a Shiite religious-political movement) and the forces loyal to the current president and supported by Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi coalition, which was already in control of Yemen’s highland regions, quickly overran Sana’a and Aden (previously the capital of the extinct People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, aka South Yemen). In response, Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition of Sunni Arab states from the Gulf and from Africa (Sudan) that invaded Yemen with the aim of defeating the Houthis.
Following initial Sunni successes, mainly the liberation of Aden and its environs, the front line became static. Yemen is now divided between the southern region, controlled by the Saudi-led coalition, and the northern region, ruled by the Houthis. The two regions roughly coincide with the former territories of North and South Yemen.