America Wins if Houthi Rebels Lose in Yemen

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America Wins if Houthi Rebels Lose in Yemen
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The deadly civil war in Yemen has reached a climax after three ugly years. No one can know for sure, but it looks like the coalition led by Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a major victory that could push the Iranian-backed rebels into an enduring cease-fire.

The legitimate Yemeni government, backed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, is poised to retake control of the vital port of Hodeidah, Yemen’s fourth-largest city and its principal port on the Red Sea. Yemen depends on imports to survive and Hodeidah is the port of entry for most outside goods. International aid groups worry a long-term siege there could disrupt the already-limited flow of medicine and food into the country. But the pain is worth the gain – especially for U.S. interests – because of Hodeidah’s strategic importance.

Iran has acted recklessly by supplying and financing Houthi rebels against Yemen’s elected government. These actions have directly contributed to a war that has killed over 10,000, wounded many more and created several million internal refugees. Saudi Arabia, with tacit Western support, has banded together with its regional allies to try to push Houthis back to their historical lands and out of the territories they conquered since early 2015. They are also trying to find a way to stop the Houthis from firing rockets into Saudi cities.

The Houthis have threatened Western diplomatic facilities in Yemen. Indeed, they managed to do what al-Qaeda and ISIS have not since the attacks of 9/11: drive the U.S. official presence out of an allied Arab state. As flawed as Yemen’s previous government was, its violent removal ended a host of U.S.-Yemeni stabilization projects that were designed to make it harder for international terrorist groups to plot strikes from inside the country. This has harmed U.S. interests.   

The war keeps getting worse. The Houthis, backed by Iranian logistical support and advisers, have launched missiles at ships in the Red Sea and have targeted Saudi population centers. Thousands of Americans work in Saudi Arabia and are as likely to be struck by these weapons as Saudis. These attacks are generally seen as Iranian proxy attacks, which is destabilizing in a region already rife with sectarian suspicion.

Houthis took control of Hodeidah early in the war. They have been able to ration food and medicine using this chokepoint. But the Saudi-Emirati coalition and its Yemeni allies refuse accept this status quo. All sides know how important the port is and that losing it would be the greatest military setback the Houthis have suffered. Indeed, if the Houthis were to lose Hodeidah, they might be forced to sue for peace or at least allow Yemeni government forces to reopen the vital artery.

It’s up to the retreating Houthis to decide how much of the port remains intact. Sadly, they could choose to sabotage the facility on the way out the door, creating lasting turmoil for the Yemeni people. What’s more, the killings in Yemen won’t end if Hodeidah falls to the coalition.

But expelling the Houthi movement from Hodeidah would be an important step toward returning control to the legitimate government. At the very least, a coalition victory in the port city will diminish the Houthi’s military capacity and prevent them from manipulating the flow of humanitarian aid so badly needed in the rest of Yemen.

Western and U.S. interests would come out winners if the Houthis were defeated. Iran’s obsession with meddling in its neighbors’ business would be seriously set back. Saudi Arabia would no longer fear for its safety on its southern border. Commerce in the Red Sea could go back to normal.

The battle for Hodeidah underway on Yemen’s west coast is pivotal to that outcome. Short of joining the actual fighting, the U.S. should support efforts to help our allies in this cause.

Bernard Hudson is a fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center and the retired head of counterterrorism for the CIA.



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