Even before Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states opened their air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the multisided civil war in Yemen was a hornet's nest of troubles. The internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was battling al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the south of the country. Forces attached to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who resigned under international pressure in 2012, were maneuvering for a return to power. Then successive victories by Houthi rebels from the northwest of the country provoked the Saudi intervention.
The Houthis are Zaydis, considered a moderate offshoot of Shiite Islam. They share Sunni ideas of Muslim law while also holding Shiite beliefs about Muhammad's successors (the imamate), and they draw their revivalist inspiration from Shiite sources. The Zaydis ruled north Yemen for more than 1,000 years and make up a quarter of Yemen's population.
The Houthi advances and the collapse of the Hadi government forced the United States to close its embassy in Sanaa, to withdraw its special forces from the country and to interrupt air attacks against AQAP, a jihadist group with international terrorist aspirations. AQAP was behind the failed attempts of "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in 2009 and was also the sponsor of the jihadist propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim assassinated by a drone strike in 2011.
The goal of U.S. policy in Yemen has been relatively straightforward: to prevent attacks on the U.S. homeland from Yemen-based terrorists. Since 2001, Yemen has been a key site of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. While Yemen has permitted U.S. drone strikes on its territory, U.S. officials regard its cooperation on intelligence and other counterterrorism efforts as inadequate.
Although the Houthis have used anti-U.S., anti-Israel slogans in their mobilization efforts, they are not thought to have the international terrorist aspirations of the AQAP. In fact, in al-Qaida's eyes, the Houthis are heretics. (Al-Qaida took credit for a bombing that killed more than 60 people at a Houthi rally in Sanaa in October 2014.)
Houthi antipathy toward the U.S. and Israel arises from the theory developed by their leader, Hussein al-Houthi, that the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. were planned and executed by the CIA in order to justify American military intervention in the Middle East for the benefit of both the U.S. and Israel. Al-Houthi also began explicitly linking Zaydi teachings of rebellion against unjust rulers to Yemeni politics, earning the enmity of then-Yemeni president Saleh, who was at the time focused on establishing himself as an ally of the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks while at the same time suppressing any domestic challenges to his rule.
The Yemeni government, fearing the spread of Houthi ideology, launched six wars against the Houthis in their north Yemen mountain strongholds beginning in 2004. Hussein al-Houthi was killed in the first war in 2004, and over the next decade, thousands more were killed and at least 314,000 displaced. In 2009, Saudi Arabia joined the Yemeni army in military operations against the Houthis.
The U.S. has its counterterrorist reasons to intervene with Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni civil war against the Houthis. Saudi Arabia, of course, would have its own strategic reasons to oppose chaos on its southern border. The problem, however, is that the Saudis have multiple motives for their campaign.
The Saudis see the Houthis as a growing threat that needs to be addressed so it will still manageable. Houthi leaders have publicly declared that they support the fall of the Saudi monarchy and that the Yemeni-Saudi border will not deter them from supporting "oppressed" Muslims all over the Arab and Muslim worlds. Most problematically, however, is the sectarian religious dimension, with increasing talk from the Saudis linking the Iranian (read Shiite) threat with the Houthi. Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir has even defined the conflict as one between good and evil.
While the Houthis receive aid from Iran, their goals seem to be indigenous. But the Saudis take them to be a proxy for Iran. While there may be a risk of that, the alliance Saudi Arabia has put together with the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco point to the Yemen intervention as part of a growing religious war between the Sunni Arab states and Shiite Iran.
For years, Sunnis and their American allies have anguished over the arc of growing Shiite influence that runs from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon. Saudi Arabia for a time actually considered the Islamic State group as part of the Sunni groups acting a counterweight to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite, a member of a Muslim sect allied to the Shiite. In Iraq after the U.S. departure, Shiite dominance over the Sunni minority had become a major source of instability. Worry over the growing strength of the Shiite revival has now become an obsession.
Of course, there is a regional rivalry between the Saudis and Iran over dominance in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. It is a strategic contest of power between two neighbors. It is a civilizational rivalry between Persian and Arab cultures. It is also a fight over who leads the Islamic world: the Shiite Iranian Revolution or the conservative Sunni Saudi monarchy. It is also a smoldering brushfire across the Muslim world, with Shiites repeatedly persecuted in country after country and now Sunnis suffering discrimination and persecution in Iraq.
The religious dimension of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has now come to the surface. While the U.S. has its own strategic reasons to be involved in Yemen and Iraq, it would be unwise for it to be drawn into a religious war. Typically, Iran has been regarded as a threat because of the 1979 revolution, its support of groups considered terrorist, and the risk of Iranian development of nuclear weapons. With a settlement of the nuclear question in prospect, the possibilities of positive, new relations are also in the offing. Many Iranians have a positive view of the United States.
Although Saudi Arabia is a key ally to the United States, it is important that the U.S. have honest conversations with the Saudis about issues that have been considered too sensitive to Saudi sensibilities, namely the long-term risk to the U.S. and the West from Saudi Arabia's missionary Wahhabism (a strict version of Sunni Islam). The worldwide network of madrassas (Quranic schools) and Wahhabi mosques funded by the Saudis have in many cases provided the theoretical and religious basis for militant and terrorist groups around the world who have turned theology into violence.
The conflicts across the Middle East have lately defied any coherent and meaningful U.S. policy. Getting embroiled in a religious war would be to step into a viper's tangle. Drone warfare against terrorists has moral complications all its own, and they need to be resolved. But the rationale for counterterrorism is clear.
Involvement in the Saudi-Sunni war vs. Iran-Shiite battle for regional power, by contrast, is a destination amply marked with signs: Danger ahead. Under these conditions, President Barack Obama's caution and deliberation are qualities the American public should welcome.
[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]