The Trump administration has been escalating the US presence in Yemen’s civil war and hinting at even further involvement. Though multiple national interests are driving the new policy, Washington is being drawn into a conflict it cannot win.
A LOSING BATTLE: FIGHTING AL-QAEDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA
The Trump administration authorised its first operation in Yemen in early February. The raid resulted in the death of 30 civilians – one of which was an eight-year-old US citizen – and a Navy SEAL. The target of the raid escaped. Despite this failure, the Trump administration authorised more operations and over 30 airstrikes in the first week of March alone.
Confronting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is no easy task, and one made only harder by Yemen’s multisided war. The US has been in perpetual conflict with the al-Qaeda offshoot since its creation in 2009. Yet its most successful period weakening AQAP was from 2009-2011, when Yemen was relatively stable. After the ousting of the Saleh regime in 2011 and the following years of political stagnation, AQAP has re-established its presence in South Yemen.
As the country continues to collapse, the terror group has been exploiting the chaos. Currently it is thriving in Yemen’s destabilised and militarised environment, with their traditional enemies distracted by a separate conflict in the north. Further destabilisation of Yemen through US military interventions will only weaken AQAP’s enemies and embolden the group.
Under the Obama administration, US strikes focused on containing AQAP’s spread. Washington will continue to play a key role in combating AQAP, particularly because of Trump’s campaign promise to confront Islamic terrorism. But al-Qaeda is not the Trump administration’s only enemy in Yemen, and an expansion of US operations is likely.
TRUMP’S POLICY IN YEMEN
On March 17, President Trump met with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman to discuss strategic areas in which Saudi Arabia and the US can closely cooperate. One topic on which both sides agreed was confronting Iran. The Saudis claim they have already been battling Iranian influence through their targeting of Houthi rebels in the Yemeni conflict. The Trump administration has supported this campaign and promised to become more involved by establishing undefined ‘safe zones.’
Since the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in 2015, there has been some evidence of collusion between the rebel movement and their Shi’ite brethren in Iran. Iranian vessels have been intercepted in the Persian Gulf with shipments of small arms apparently destined for the conflict zone. Following a meeting of top Iranian military officials in March 2017, there have also been reports of Iran providing advanced weapons and military advisers to the Houthis.
The new US administration is staunchly anti-Iranian. Trump has threatened to impose sanctions on Iran and Defence Secretary James Mattis said Tehran is the biggest sponsor of “terrorism” in the world. Furthermore, before his resignation, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said that the administration was ‘putting Iran on notice.’ This anti-Iranian stance has apparently been extended to the Houthis.
The White House has been conflating the Houthis with Iran since the Trump administration came into office. For instance, Flynn’s statement came in response to a Houthi bombing of a Saudi vessel in the Red Sea. The US has also shown its willingness to begin attacking the Houthis directly; on March 26, Mattis asked the White House to lift Obama-era sanctions on US military support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen.
Washington’s more confrontational stance towards Iran, combined with the belief that the Houthis are Iranian proxies and the administration’s call for continuing military activity in Yemen, all point towards the likelihood of US escalation in the Yemen conflict.
IRAN IN THE CLEAR
Expanding US policy to incorporate attacking the Houthis may also cause blowback. While Iran has been supplying small arms to the rebels, particularly following the seizure of Sana’a in March 2015, these supplies are unlikely to make much impact; a 2007 Small Arms Survey said there was already one weapon for every two citizens in Yemen. Moreover, the Houthis are not Twelver Shia like the Iranians – they are Zaydi Shi’ites and will often pray with Sunnis. The Houthis are also a tribe: not all Yemini Shi’ites are Houthi, nor are all supporters of the Houthi Shi’ites. While the Houthis have connections to Iran, they do not appear to be a proxy.
This is not to say that Iran won’t increase its support of the Houthis. Tehran can still benefit from assisting them. The war in Yemen is draining Riyadh’s budget at a time when Saudi Arabia’s national deficit is at $87 billion and growing fast. Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes as it pushes its neighbour into famine. Furthermore, the destabilisation of Yemen has also led to violence on the Saudi border, and there have been cases of Houthi’s attacking oil infrastructure within Saudi Arabia.
The situation benefits Tehran’s interests. At a relatively low cost to itself, Iran can cause significant harm to Saudi Arabia’s border and economic security, national finances and international reputation. Should the US increase its presence, these calculations would remain the same.
Expanded US involvement in Yemen will be met with opposition. The two-year war in Yemen has already had devastating consequences. According to the UN, two-thirds of the population now face severe food deprivation and over 85 per cent of the population are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Saudi-led airstrikes targeting hospitals, ports and markets have contributed to the drastic reduction in the availability of food and medicine. This has led multiple NGOs and the UN to accuse the Saudi coalition of war crimes and the US of facilitating said war crimes.
Washington has also experienced domestic opposition to Saudi actions in Yemen. Under pressure from a bipartisan group of senators concerned about Riyadh’s actions in Yemen, the Obama administration blocked a $1.15 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration is likely to face similar pressures, reducing any benefits derived from reaffirming the Saudi alliance.
Despite these risks, the Trump administration has stated it will increase ‘support’ for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, and it has continued to escalated its strikes against AQAP. Yet further US military activity, be it to combat AQAP or the Houthis, will almost certainly ultimately fail. Fringe benefits, such as keeping political promises and reaffirming the Saudi alliance, will be neutralised by blow-back expected in the national and international arenas.