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Who has the upper-hand in Yemen’s conflict?

More than three years into civil war, the Yemeni people are suffering from the fastest-spreading cholera epidemic in history, while millions are on the brink of famine -- a crisis worsened by a Saudi blockade. William Brangham reports and Judy Woodruff talks to former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche and former Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey about the complex situation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The war in the Middle Eastern country Yemen grinds on well into its third year. Houthi rebels control much of the country's northwest, including the capital, Sanaa, while a Saudi-backed government and al-Qaida hold sway elsewhere.

    William Brangham has the latest on the U.S. role in this conflict.

  • William Brangham:

    In December alone, according to the U.N., 136 civilians were killed in airstrikes by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition. One airstrike cost this man in Northwest Yemen dearly.

  • Megahed Gassar (through interpreter):

    They targeted my house while there were 18 to 20 guests. The whole family was inside, as well as all our cattle. Everything is gone. There's nothing left.

  • William Brangham:

    And on Tuesday, the Houthi rebels, whom the Saudis are fighting, fired another ballistic missile from Yemen towards the Saudi capital of Riyadh. The missile was intercepted by the kingdom's air defenses, and the Saudis claim it was manufactured by Iran, which is backing the Houthis.

    This was the second failed attack on Riyadh by the Houthis in as many months. The Trump administration has also repeatedly called out Iran about its involvement in the conflict, a point driven home dramatically by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley last week.

  • Nikki Haley:

    These are the recovered pieces of a missile fired by Houthi militants from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. The weapons might as well have had "Made in Iran" stickers all over.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, the Yemeni people continue to suffer. This week, according to the Red Cross, the country registered its one-millionth case of cholera. Health officials say it is the fastest spreading cholera epidemic in history.

    And at the same time, millions of Yemenis also live on the brink of famine, a crisis that's been worsened by the Saudi blockade of ports and border crossings, which has limited food and humanitarian supplies.

    On Wednesday, the Saudi-led coalition announced it would keep the Houthi-controlled port of Hudaydah open for a month to allow aid into the country. The port had been closed for most of November.

    Yesterday, Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State Tim Lenderking welcomed the news.

  • Tim Lenderking:

    The first thing we want to see is ships actually moving into Hudaydah port, off-loading, providing fuel, water, supplies for the Yemeni people, filling the hospitals with fuel, so that medical supplies can be dispensed. Four U.S. cranes will be on their way very shortly to Hudaydah.

    We want to see them installed. We want to see them playing a central role here in off-loading ships.

  • William Brangham:

    While the U.S. is the largest donor of aid to Yemen, U.S. arms manufacturers, with approval from the U.S. government, also supply the Saudi-led coalition with bombs, and U.S. military jets refuel those coalition bombers and fighter jets.

    On Thursday, U.S. Central Command announced that it had also carried out multiple ground operations and more than 120 airstrikes in Yemen this year, those attacks apparently against al-Qaida leaders. Last summer, the Trump administration announced the potential for billions of dollars of new arms sales to Saudi Arabia, arms that will no doubt add to the civilian death toll, which, according to the U.N., is over 5,000 and growing.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To help explain the complex situation in Yemen, I'm joined now by James Jeffrey. He served in several senior positions during his 35-year career as a diplomat, including U.S. ambassador to Turkey and to Iraq, and as President George W. Bush's deputy national security adviser. He's now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

    And Stephen Seche, he was deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, responsible for U.S. relations with the Gulf states and Yemen. He served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. He is now at the Arab Gulf States Institute here in Washington.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Ambassador Seche, I will start with you.

    Why has this war dragged on and on? What is driving it?

  • Stephen Seche:

    To a large extent, the reason why the war continued in this fashion is because it sits in a corner of the globe which has not produced the kind of migration into Europe which the war in Syria has.

    So, therefore, the alarm that is raised about the war in Yemen is far diminished from that that we see given the conflict in Syria. So, that being away from the public eye and not creating that sense of threat that is really prolonged and very protracted has worked to a disadvantage of all the people of Yemen who have suffered on the back pages of our newspapers, and not as much coverage on our television.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Jeffrey, is this a war between the factions inside Yemen, or is it a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

  • James Jeffrey:

    It's both.

    Only about five non-Yemenis, including, unfortunately, Ambassador Seche, understand what's going on in the many groups inside of Yemen, but rather like Syria, rather like Lebanon and Iraq, this is part of an overall conflict in the region between Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Israel and most of the rest of the region on the other.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what's the main grievance, Ambassador Seche? The Saudis are saying Iran is threatening the region. The Iranians are doing what they're trying to do through the Houthis, who are also Shia, the Shia militia there. Who has the upper hand in this argument?

  • Stephen Seche:

    Well, I think it's important to start with the fact that the Houthis, who are a part of Yemen's fabric of society, have serious, longstanding grievous with their government and with the Saudis, for that matter, too.

    So this is kind of where the Houthis are coming from. And they're trying to grab their part of Yemen and its power structure. Now, the Saudis feel very alarmed, and with reason, by the fact the Houthis have taken over a lot of the military weapons in Yemen, a lot of the territory, and now control basically — and exercise a real threat that Saudi Arabia finds intolerable. And I agree with them. It probably is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so it started as something more internal, Ambassador Jeffrey, but it has grown to be this more regional war.

  • James Jeffrey:

    Right, but, I mean, you have to point fingers.

    The main reason it's grown to be that is the Iranian strategy to infiltrate into failed states — and this is a good example of it — Lebanon was in the 1980s — find groups, typically, but not always, Shia groups, that it can support, and then create sub-governments and sub-militias within societies — and I saw that very personally in Iraq — that are more loyal to Tehran than they are to their own capitals of Beirut, of Damascus, or Baghdad or Sanaa.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Seche, are the Iranians, do they pose the threat that the Saudis and others say they do in the region?

  • Stephen Seche:

    I'm not as persuaded as Ambassador Jeffrey is that the Iranians are the ones that — engineers behind this.

    This is a homegrown revolt on the part of the Houthis. The Iranians no doubt have gotten more and more involved, as the Saudis have gotten more and more involved.

    So, now I think each of these two rivals are seeing Yemen as an arena in which their interests can be served. But I also think that a lot of what we see now, a lot of the humanitarian issue that's emerged, is a direct result of three years of protracted Saudi airstrikes.

    I saw data today from the Yemen Data Project 15,000 airstrikes have been conducted over Yemen, a country smaller than the state of Texas, over a three-year period.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why has this grown to be the humanitarian crisis that it is, Ambassador Jeffrey? It's one thing for two sides to be fighting each other, but the civilians are the ones who have taken the hit, for the most part.

  • James Jeffrey:

    In almost every conflict I have seen in the Middle East, the conflicts are actually fought out not in the desert, but in the populated areas.

    And all sides use unrestricted airstrikes to make up for typically a lack of infantry troops. The Saudis in these airstrikes have killed, according to the U.N. report in October, some 3,000 civilians. That's a big number, but it's not all that different than what we have killed in the conflict against ISIS in Iraq and Syria over the past three years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the U.S. is — not but — or the U.S. is part of this coalition with the Saudis that has helped lead to these civilian casualties.

  • James Jeffrey:

    Right, and the reason for that, though, is the Saudis and the U.S. fear — the two sides aren't equal, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

    Yemen borders on Saudi Arabia. It doesn't border on Iran. It is a long way from Iran. More importantly, the Saudis have been seen this movie before in Lebanon. The Shia group there, Hezbollah, had their own legitimate grievances against Israel and against their own governments, but they became a front for Iran.

    They have over 100,000 missiles right now aimed at Israel. It's an existential threat. The Saudis fear, for good reason, the same thing in Yemen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying that that fear is overblown?

  • Stephen Seche:

    I think the fear is genuine.

    I do think it is not quite the fact that Iran has come in here to try to become the archenemy — they are already — of Saudi Arabia, but the Houthis need to be dealt with as a nationalist movement on their own.

    The ironies are taking advantage of this. They're exploiting a situation which has been created to their benefit, very low investment and very high reward for the Iranians here.

    So, I think what the Saudis need to do is figure out what they can do to extract themselves, because they're getting dug deeper and deeper in the muck of this war. And they have a lot of other items on their agenda that need their attention and their resources.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you believe the Saudis will see a way to extract themselves?

  • Stephen Seche:

    They haven't demonstrated that interest as yet, nor have the Houthis for that matter.

    So, I think both sides, they need to realize at this point that the only way they Gates have any of their interests served is by sitting down and negotiating a way out of this. There is no military victory. The Saudis cannot win this war, certainly not the way they have been fighting it for three year . And the Houthis don't need to win it. They just need not to lose it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you agree the Saudis can't win this?

  • James Jeffrey:


    Steve has the right way forward. The only problem is, the Saudis can't do this if they're going to face a future with hundreds of thousands or at least tens of thousands of long-range missiles in the hands of the Houthis, and with Iran aiming at capital, Riyadh.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, where do you see this going then?

  • James Jeffrey:

    I see the United States finally coming up, which we haven't yet, with a real policy of trying to deal with Iran in the region.

    And that's the whole region, not just in Yemen or Syria. Then telling the Saudis, look, we have a program. We understand that any solution has to exclude keeping a lot of Iranian missiles, i.e., a repeat of what we have in Southern Lebanon today, but as a quid pro quo for that, you have got to deal with the Houthis, just as Ambassador Seche said.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But that would involve, Ambassador Seche, the U.S. coming down hard — harder on Iran.

  • Stephen Seche:

    On Iran and also on Saudi Arabia.

    And I think we have seen recently that the White House and the State Department have become a real strenuous campaign of putting some pressure on Riyadh, which has paid a lot. The Saudis just announced they're going to reopen the port or allow the port in Hudaydah to be reopened and they're going to let the cranes come in there.

    So, I think this demonstrates that if the U.S. does get aggressive, this will apply the pressure. The Saudis will respond. At the same time, Iran needs to be brought into this in some way, because they are playing a role in this. And I think we can't ignore that. We need to find a way to constructively engage all of the parties who have an interest in this, and bring them to the table together.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Stephen Seche, Ambassador James Jeffrey, it's good to have you both. Very tough subject. Thank you.

  • James Jeffrey:

    Thank you, Judy.

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