Since 2015, the United States has supported a coalition of Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, in a brutal blockade and bombing campaign on Yemen. This coalition has committed atrocities and war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of civilians. They have also systematically targeted civilian infrastructure over the course of the war, bombing schools, food distribution centers, and water treatment plants, as well as hospitals and other medical facilities. Combined with a land, sea, and air blockade of northern Yemen, this has created what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The aim of this page is to provide some history and context for understanding the current conflict to DSA members who are organizing to end it. We hope that you can use this document and its references to answer questions from comrades and debunk some of the myths and confusion surrounding the U.S.-backed war.
Parties to the conflict
The primary conflict in Yemen is between Ansar Allah, otherwise known as the Houthi movement, and a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the U.S. and the exiled Yemeni government. Other armed groups, such as the Southern Transitional Council and al-Qaeda, have fought both the Saudi coalition and other domestic Yemeni groups to pursue their own goals.
While it is useful to understand the many sides and political factions involved in the war, the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition remains chiefly responsible for the current humanitarian crisis. Removing U.S. support from the coalition would go a long way toward reducing civilian deaths and enabling Yemeni self-determination.
Ansar Allah (“Assistants of God”) aka the Houthis
A social/political/(para)military movement that began in the north of the country in the 1990s. Often called the Houthis, in reference to their founder Hussain al-Houthi and the prominence of members of the Houthi tribe in the movement, they originated as a protest movement organizing to address discrimination against Shi’ite Zaidis within Yemeni society and political institutions. Zaidis comprise approximately 35-45 percent of Yemen’s total population. In the 2000s, the Houthis were targeted by the central government for repression. After a failed transition to create new political arrangements in the wake of the overthrow of long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis launched a military campaign and took control of the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014.
Southern Movement and the Southern Transitional Council (STC)
A separatist movement originating in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in South Yemen. Some southern groups maintain the goal of full secession, while others favor a two-state federal structure based upon the former Yemen Arab Republic and PDRY borders. Today, the STC and their military arm, the Security Belt Forces (SBF), control much of the former PDRY territory, with support from the UAE and diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
Republic of Yemen Central Government
Recognized as the legitimate government of the country by the United Nations (and members such as the United States) and led by Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi from exile in Saudi Arabia. Forces loyal to Hadi seek to regain territory lost to Ansar Allah and other groups and exert control over the country once again.
A “big-tent” Islamist political party with origins in the Muslim Brotherhood. A member of the party at the time, Nobel laureate Tawakol Karmen, gained prominence through her role in the Arab Spring protests that led to President Saleh’s resignation. Al-Islah has repaired their relationship with Saudi Arabia over the course of the war, by aligning with Hadi and against the Houthis, but they remain in conflict with southern separatists and the UAE.
Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP)
A powerful regional branch of al-Qaeda, which fought the Houthis before the war with limited support from President Saleh. Together with its offshoot, Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP seized significant territory in the south in 2014 and still controls some territory there today. Over the course of the war, they have sometimes fought alongside U.S.-backed Saudi and Yemeni government forces against both the Houthis and the STC.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)
Gave Hadi protection and launched primarily an air war with a coalition of other states to return Hadi to power. The coalition also includes (or has included): UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan.
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
A key member of the Saudi-led coalition. UAE has had a more significant on-the-ground military and political presence than KSA, which operates primarily from the sea and skies. It occupied the island of Socotra and the former southern capital of Aden, where it established a notorious detention and torture program. It also played a key role in funding and directing Yemeni government forces in their 2018 siege on Hodeida.
A key supporter of the Saudi-led coalition, providing targeting and logistical support to Saudi fighter jets. Long-time primary arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Has also been waging a drone war in the country since 2010 (there were several more limited strike and special forces raids in 2002).
Islamic Republic of Iran
Has supported the Houthis, albeit more recently and at a smaller scale than is commonly asserted in U.S. and other international media. The Houthi movement is not a proxy force created or controlled by the Iranian government.
History of Yemen
The current war, which began in late 2014, is deeply rooted in the processes of state formation that began in the early 20th century and culminated in the creation of the Republic of Yemen in 1990.
Until unification in 1990, the territories that now constitute Yemen were divided and are commonly referred to as North and South Yemen, although the formal names for these territories changed over time.
North Yemen was traditionally ruled as a so-called Mutawakkilite Kingdom under imams of the Shi’ite Zaidi sect. The Zaidis would continue to be a major force in Yemeni politics and would eventually give rise to the Houthi movement. The territory that would become known as South Yemen was ruled by the British from the mid-20th century and after the merging of territories, became known as the Federation of Southern Arabia in 1962.
In 1962 the North Yemeni army staged a coup, and, supported by the Egyptians and Soviets, began a revolution to overthrow the monarchy. Saudi Arabia supported the royalists with the aid of Jordan, Israel, and England, while the Americans recognized the new Republican government. In February 1968, after six years of civil war, the monarchy was defeated and the Yemen Arab Republic was established. In 1967, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) was formed in the South, when Marxist revolutionaries began an insurgency that drove out the British. The PDRY was governed by a Marxist party that received aid and assistance from the USSR.
In the 1970s North and South Yemen engaged in two military conflicts. In 1978, after a series of military coups, General Ali Abdullah Saleh assumed power in North Yemen.
In 1990 the two Yemens came together as one country, installing Saleh as the new country’s president and Ali Salim al-Beidh, General Secretary of South Yemen’s Socialist Party, as vice-president.
In the following decade, Wahhabism—the fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia—became a major force in Yemen. Saudi Arabia funded publications and mosques as Yemenis returned from working in the Gulf or as mujahideen in Afghanistan. This influence was welcomed by the new government of Yemen as it sought a buffer against both the Zaidi elite and the Socialist Party (the ruling party of former South Yemen). Certain Wahhabi preachers directly attacked Zaidi practices and traditions.
As Zaidis fought back against Wahhabi influence, the Houthi family and their organization Ansar Allah (Supporters of God) took center stage. Between 1990 and 2011, resistance groups like Ansar Allah faced violent repression from the Saleh government.
The current conflict has its immediate origins in 2011 and the Arab Spring, when mass protests in Yemen forced then-president Saleh to step down. Under a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered agreement to establish a transitional government, Saleh’s vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, assumed the presidency in an uncontested election. In 2013, 565 delegates from numerous political factions held a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) brokered by the United Nations.
Among other things, the NDC advocated for restructuring the government into a federalist system, a major sticking point in the negotiations. Southern representatives and Ansar Allah rejected the NDC outcome. The proposed borders would have left the Houthis without access to oil resources or a seaport. And so, in 2014, Houthi Ansar Allah forces, with assistance from the deposed Saleh, began their military campaign against the central government, capturing the capital in September 2014 and forcing Hadi into exile. On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia launched its military campaign, “Operation Decisive Storm,” against the Houthis with the goal of restoring Hadi to power. The Houthis declared a formal alliance with Saleh in 2016, but it collapsed shortly in December 2017. Houthi forces killed Saleh as he attempted to flee to Saudi-controlled territory. Hadi remains exiled in Saudi Arabia today, while the Saudis continue to bomb and blockade Yemen, officially on his behalf.
President Obama committed to supporting the Saudis in 2015 and pushed for the passage of UN Resolution 2216, which sanctioned the Houthis and Saleh, endorsed Hadi, and called for the rebels to disarm. The U.S. supports the Saudis directly with military aid, logistical support, and military intelligence, as well as unending political cover at the UN. Under Obama, the U.S. supplied arms to the Saudis, helped identify bomb targets, and provided midair refueling for their bombing runs. Obama continued this support even in the face of mass murder bombings, like the one in Hajjah Market in March 2016 (114 dead) and one targeting a funeral in Sana’a in October 2016 (140 dead).
Trump has since escalated the war in Yemen by reversing Obama’s decision to suspend the sale of precision-guided missiles to the Saudis. The U.S. has sold over $13 billion worth of military equipment to the Saudis since the war began.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is the U.S. supporting the Saudis?
The reasoning behind American support for Saudi Arabia can be primarily divided into two spheres: economic incentives and regional grand strategy considerations.
Since 1945, the two countries have worked hand in hand – the Saudis act as a friendly partner to the Americans in the global oil market, and the Americans provide military aid to the Saudis to maintain their status as a power in the region. Saudi Arabia’s capacity for oil production allows them to exert their influence on global oil prices. By keeping oil production levels low, crude oil prices can be set at a high rate, benefiting U.S. states that rely on oil production as a cornerstone of their economies. Conversely, higher levels of production would lead to lower crude oil prices, risking layoffs and lower oil revenues in those same states.
In the interest of maintaining a positive relationship, the United States supplies military aid to the Saudis, providing billions of dollars in weapons deals with Western defense contractors. The current war in Yemen has been materially backed by the U.S., UK, France, and Germany, each of which has collectively supplied at least $3.5 billion worth of planes, tanks, helicopters, and munitions for the Saudi bombing campaign. Taking it a step further, the United States has provided midair refueling and has used MQ-9 Reaper drones to assist with munitions targeting.
Support for Saudi Arabia as a major power in the Middle East furthers the United States’ ability to exert its influence over the region. Though initially aligning with the Soviet Union, conflict with Egypt in the wake of the 1962 Yemeni revolution drove the Saudis to seek military support from the United States. Empowering the Saudis as a military force created another friendly proxy for the United States during the Cold War to counter potential Soviet influence in the area. After the USSR dissolved, the American-Saudi military relationship continued, although now with a new enemy in Iran.
As two major powers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran have taken opposing sides in conflicts via proxies throughout the Middle East in pursuit of regional hegemony. Saudi dominance over the region would strengthen the United States’ own influence, ergo the U.S. will often provide support for the Saudis in these proxy fights. Even though the Houthis in Yemen are not directly linked to the Iranian government, a successful Saudi campaign in the country would further its bid for hegemony and in turn strengthen the American imperial project in the Middle East.
Who is benefiting from the war? What domestic political forces are we up against, and why?
The role of U.S. weapons manufacturers in U.S.–Saudi relations is overwhelming. In 2014 the White House announced that the U.S. had around $100 billion worth of open “military sales” contracts with Saudi Arabia. Around $15 billion worth of contracts were signed under Trump.
Weapons manufacturers have pushed these sales in order to offset military spending cuts in the U.S. and Europe. With the Trump Administration, they found an unusually sympathetic ear. Trump appointed Peter Navarro, a White House trade advisor, as a liaison to defense firms, and his administration rewrote the rules for arms exports such that the State Department, previously responsible only for licensing arms deals, would become a broker for these deals. Trump was open about his desire for boosted arms sales. In October 2018, directly following the Khashoggi assassination, he told Fox Business that “I want Boeing and I want Lockheed and I want Raytheon to take those orders [from the Saudis] and to hire lots of people to make that incredible equipment.”
The oil industry
The oil trade also plays a major role in the U.S.–Saudi relationship. Saudi Arabia accounts for 13% of U.S. oil imports, second only to Canada. The Saudi state oil company Aramco has major investments in the U.S., including a 50% stake in an oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas (the largest refinery in the U.S.).
Saudi oil money flows back into the U.S. through the financial sector. Saudi Arabia may be the third largest investor in U.S. Treasury bonds in the world, after China and Japan. The reason this is uncertain is that, whereas the Treasury discloses the numbers for most foreign countries, Saudi Arabia’s holdings are hidden within an aggregate number for the OPEC nations. In 2016, when Congress was considering legislation to allow lawsuits against the Saudi government for its role in 9/11, Saudi Arabia threatened to sell off $750 billion worth of U.S.-based securities, thus revealing some measure of its significant Treasury holdings.
The economy at large
Saudi Arabia is a significant importer of U.S. goods and services, with a net flow of $5 billion to the U.S. in 2017. Major imports include automobiles, planes, and helicopters. In 2017 GE signed $15 billion in deals to build infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. Starbucks and AMC (the movie theater chain) both have extensive franchises there, with Domino’s Pizza joining them in 2012.
Saudi Arabia (along with other Gulf states) has lavished money on U.S. think tanks, helping pull them out of budgetary shortfalls caused by the crash of 2008-09. For this and other reasons, U.S. think tanks have mostly maintained support for the kingdom and its supposedly “reform-minded” crown prince.
What is Iran’s role in the conflict? What is the relationship between the Houthis and Iran?
The U.S. intelligence establishment views the Middle East through the lens of a supposed years-long “cold war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. U.S. intervention in places like Iraq and Syria have been justified through allegations of Iranian support for proxy forces there. This same dynamic has occurred with respect to Yemen.
In resisting Saleh and Saudi/Wahhabi influence, the Houthis would often cite Hezbollah and Iran as exemplars of muscular anti-Western resistance. The Yemeni government took this as evidence of a Houthi-Iranian connection when Ansar Allah began its insurgency in 2004. The United States initially denied such a connection, seeing it as an exaggeration by Saleh to justify his counterinsurgency.
As anti-imperialists, we must emphasize at every turn that no amount of Iranian influence would warrant U.S. intervention or support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen. Nevertheless, we may also seek an accurate understanding of the Iranian role so as to counter imperialist propaganda.
Iran has not remained neutral. In October 2014, an advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei stated that “We are hopeful that Ansar Allah has the same role in Yemen as Hezbollah has in eradicating the terrorists in Lebanon.” There is evidence that Iran has been providing small weapons shipments to the Houthis starting in 2009 (reported by the UN Security Council in 2015). The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—an elite Iranian military division—has likely been running a “train and equip” program with the Houthis since 2014.
But as Thomas Juneau points out in the Washington Post, Iran’s assistance is “far from sufficient to make more than a marginal difference to the balance of forces in Yemen, a country awash with weapons.” A stunning variety and quantity of weapons are available on the Yemeni black market. These arms have, in many cases, been falsely linked to Iran.
Critically, there is significant evidence to debunk the claim that Houthis are an Iranian proxy. In 2015, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council said that “Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen.” Indeed, Ansar Allah’s seizure of Sana‘a in 2015 was in contradiction with Iran’s wishes at the time.
As anti-imperialists, we must always be wary of false claims by the U.S. security apparatus that are picked up in the mainstream press. Notably, in 2017 the U.S. claimed without any evidence that Iran had violated a UN Security Council resolution by transferring missiles to the Houthis. The U.S. State Department has dredged up the same dubious rationale that it used to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in its current effort to establish the same designation for the Houthis.
What has been tried before? The fight for the War Powers Resolution
The cornerstone of legislative efforts to withdraw U.S. support from the war has been the War Powers Resolution of 1973, also known as the War Powers Act. Originally a response to President Nixon’s undeclared wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, and passed over his veto, the War Powers Resolution (WPR) requires the President to notify and request authorization from Congress whenever U.S. Armed Forces are introduced “into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances.” It is not limited to prolonged or war-like conflicts, and “hostilities” can be interpreted more or less broadly.
In 2017, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA-17) introduced H.Con.Res.81, invoking the War Powers Resolution and stating that:
- Congress had not authorized the use of U.S. forces in Yemen, and
- U.S. forces had become “involved in hostilities between Saudi-led forces and the Houthi-Saleh alliance” by providing targeting assistance and midair refueling services for Saudi Arabia’s bombing runs.
The resolution therefore directed the president to withdraw U.S. forces from Yemen, but with one major exception: any forces employed against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would remain, since these “hostilities” are generally considered to have been authorized by Congress under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).
Khanna’s bill and its subsequent iterations (H.Con.Res.138, H.Con.Res.142, H.J.Res.37, and, in the Senate, S.J.Res.54 and S.J.Res.7) were the primary legislative tools used by opponents of the war on Yemen from 2017 to 2019. A major advantage of the WPR is that any bill invoking it has a privileged status, and must be voted on within 14 days after being introduced (though procedural votes can extend this period). Congress is notoriously shy about voting on war, and other foreign policy bills, like those halting arms sales, can sit in committee for months. The WPR allowed advocates to force Congress to vote on U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, creating an opportunity for lobbying and pressure campaigns, and forcing legislators to make public their position on the war on Yemen.
In practice, however, this process took much longer than 14 days. The original resolution faced strong opposition from Democratic leadership, and was eventually dropped in favor of a toothless alternative. When finally reintroduced one year later, the new bill featured nearly-identical language, with one notable addition: a finding that Barack Obama had notified Congress of a U.S. strike against the Houthis in 2016. This small caveat may have been the result of Democratic leadership’s original opposition. The resolution otherwise implicates the Obama administration—which did not seek Congressional authorization when it began supporting the Saudi coalition in 2015—in a conflict that many members of that administration have fought hard to forget.
WPR advocacy stalled following the failure of a similar Senate measure, backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT).
In August 2018, a Saudi warplane dropped a laser-guided bomb on a school bus in Yemen, killing 44 children and 10 adults. The bomb was manufactured by American company Lockheed Martin and supplied by the U.S. through a State Department-sanctioned arms deal. The event garnered significant coverage from the mainstream media, marking, for example, the first time MSNBC had covered the conflict in almost two years. Human Rights Watch deemed the attack a war crime, and even the coalition eventually admitted that there were no military targets in the area at the time.
As far as turning points in the fight to end support for the war in Yemen, this event often gets overshadowed by the infamous murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, which occured barely two months later, on October 2nd. Yet the school bus bombing and subsequent backlash prompted the introduction of a new set of War Powers Resolutions, with support centrist Democratic leaders like Reps. Engel and Nadler from New York, who resisted the WPR in 2017. This happened on September 26th, one week before Khashogi’s murder, and helped establish support for the War Powers Resolution as a mainstream Democratic position.
This process culminated in the successful passage of the Senate WPR in December, 56-41, and the House WPR in February 2019, 248-177. Their passage, with significant bipartisan support, is a testament to more than a year of grassroots advocacy by Yemeni Americans and a loose coalition of allied groups, including Action Corps, Peace Action, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Mainstream “progressive” D.C. institutions, on the other hand, like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for American Progress, refused to support the Yemen War Powers Resolution even after Khashoggi’s murder.
We know now, however, that the passage of the Yemen War Powers resolutions did not, in fact, end the Saudi coalition’s war on Yemen, nor even U.S. support for that war. Donald Trump vetoed the joint resolution in April 2019, claiming that U.S. logistical and material support for the coalition did not qualify as introducing U.S. forces into hostilities. Without legal recourse against a WPR veto, and without the capacity to obtain a supermajority in the Senate to overturn it, this set back any hopes of a rapid withdrawal from the war.
The fight to pass the Yemen WPRs may have forced some concessions from the Saudi coalition during peace talks with the Houthis, which were taking place in 2018. It may have also prompted the Trump administration to stop its midair refueling operations for Saudi bombing runs in November 2018. It remains an important piece of anti-war history and a testament to coordinated grassroots organizing efforts, though it ultimately failed.
- Al-Adeimi, Shireen. “As War on Yemen Hits the 4-Year Mark, Here’s a Brief History of U.S. Involvement,” In These Times, March 25, 2019. https://inthesetimes.com/article/yemen-war-saudi-arabia-uae-trump-obama-famine-power-khanna-sanders
- Amnesty International. 2019. “Yemen War: No End in Sight.” https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/09/yemen-the-forgotten-war/
- Benjamin, Medea. 2016. The Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. New York: OR Books.
- Blumi, Isa. 2018. Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World. Destroying Yemen. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
- Bonnefoy, Laurent. 2018. Yemen and the World: Beyond Insecurity. Yemen and the World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Borger, Julian. 2018. “US Supplied Bomb That Killed 40 Children on Yemen School Bus.” The Guardian. 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/19/us-supplied-bomb-that-killed-40-children-school-bus-yemen
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- Emmons, Alex “Secret Report Reveals Saudi Incompetence and Widespread Use of U.S. Weapons in Yemen,” The Intercept, 15 April 2019. https://theintercept.com/2019/04/15/saudi-weapons-yemen-us-france/
- Ismay, John and Helene Cooper. “U.S. Accuses Iran of U.N. Violation, but Evidence Falls Short,” New York Times, December 14, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/world/middleeast/nikki-haley-iran-weapons-yemen.html
- Juneau, Thomas. “No, Yemen’s Houthis actually aren’t Iranian puppets,” Washington Post, May 16, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/16/contrary-to-popular-belief-houthis-arent-iranian-proxies/
- Macleod, Alan. “Shocking New Figures Show How Just Much the US is Fueling the Violence in Yemen,” Mint Press News, November 20th, 2020. https://www.mintpressnews.com/how-much-us-arms-sales-saudi-arabia-fueling-violence-yemen/273181/
- Norton, Ben. “How Media Spread CIA’s Sectarian, Anti-Iran ‘Mideast Cold War’ Narrative,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, July 25, 2017. https://fair.org/home/vox-cia-iran-saudi-arabia-middle-east-cold-war/
- Norton, Ben. “Understanding the US-Saudi-UAE war on Yemen” (Left Forum video). June 15, 2018. https://bennorton.com/us-saudi-uae-yemen-war-left-forum-video/
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- Sharp, Jeremy M. 2019. “Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention.” Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service.
- Salmoni, Barak A., et al. Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon. RAND Corporation, 2010. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mg962dia