Many of the thousands of refugees now crossing from Greece and Hungary on their way to more welcoming countries such as Germany are Syrians and Kurds, fleeing the wars and political repression in the Levant. Another large refugee problem may now loom, which is unlikely to leave Europe unaffected. The war in Yemen, already highly destructive, may be getting hotter as it reaches an endgame, with the potential for putting a large proportion of its 24 million people—a slightly larger population than pre-war Syria—on the road (or, more likely, the seas).
On Friday, the Saudi-led coalition taking one side in Yemen’s civil war faced a potential disaster for morale. A rocket hit a weapons depot on a base where United Arab Emirates and Bahrain troops were stationed, killing 45 from the UAE and five from Bahrain, in addition to producing an unstated number of casualties. It was the biggest troop loss for the coalition of Gulf Cooperation Council states since they launched the war in late March out of a fear of the Houthi brand of popular politics. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, the GCC countries have small populations and even smaller citizen populations. The UAE has about 9 million people, but only a little over a million of them are thought to be Arab, UAE citizens. The troop deaths were thus taken very hard in the UAE (a popular soccer player was among the dead); proportionally, this toll was like 13,500 American troops killed in one engagement.
The base hit by the rocket, in Maarib Province, was set up by the anti-Houthi coalition after the Houthis were largely expelled from it. It is intended as a launching pad for an eventual invasion of the capital, Sana, a Houthi, Zaydi Shiite power base. After the depot was hit, the Saudis and their allies launched a massive campaign of bombing raids on the capital that continued for days.
The Houthis, mainly a northern, Shiite tribal force allied with deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh and a rump of government troops still loyal to him, extended their sway down to Sunni Aden from last April. They’d hoped to block the GCC from using it to offload arms and goods for the southern forces opposing them. At the beginning of August, an undisclosed number of troops from the UAE landed at Aden after a successful effort by southern forces loyal to elected President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to oust the Houthi rebels from the Arabian Sea port. As long as the Houthis held it, it would have been difficult for the six-nation GCC effort to make real headway in Yemen.
The dispatch of ground troops, however, changed the character of the war, since up until that time the Saudi-led coalition had mainly intervened from the air. Moreover, analysts have raised fears that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is taking advantage of the chaos to infiltrate the port; AQAP is the Qaeda affiliate most determined to inflict damage on the West. The Saudis and their allies allege that the Houthis are backed by Iran and that their attempted tribal takeover of Yemen was plotted in Tehran, which is a vast exaggeration, as President Obama has admitted. In reality, although Iran has given the Houthis verbal support, there is no reason to think they are a mainly foreign phenomenon, as opposed to being an indigenous tribal movement.