Blood continues to stain the sands of the Middle East. There are the well-known civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya, along with terror incidents in Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and elsewhere. Less attention is paid to the creeping conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war that threatens to descend into full-scale war and suck in other countries, including the United States. A three-day ceasefire was attempted last week but it expired without halting the fighting. Reinvigorated diplomacy that will culminate in a power-sharing agreement is needed to halt the slide to civil war and avert a humanitarian catastrophe.
Yemen is a relatively young state, formed in 1992 when the Yemen Arab Republic of the north and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south unified. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out in 2011 as the political situation deteriorated and he handed over power to Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The transition did not quell the violence and Saleh, backed by Houthi rebels that enjoyed support from Iran, decided that his abdication was a mistake. He and his allies won back the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. Hadi did not give up, however; with backing from the government of Saudi Arabia, his forces took control of the key commercial port of Aden and territory in southern Yemen. It is estimated that nearly 10,000 people have died in the fighting, almost half civilians.
The domestic struggle is now a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which means that the U.S. is also involved as an ally of Riyadh. While Washington is concerned about the spread of Iranian influence in the region, it is not as worried as Saudi Arabia, which sees its struggle with Iran as a zero-sum contest. Nevertheless, the U.S. backs the Saudi government to reduce concern in Riyadh about a tilt in American thinking in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal, which the Saudis opposed, as well as to secure Saudi support for the fight against Islamic State radicals in Iraq and Syria.