Warning to the Trump administration: Be careful about Yemen

Katherine Zimmerman,

The Trump administration is apparently considering expansion of U.S. engagement in Yemen, with the idea of helping Saudi Arabia win a two-year proxy battle against Iran. Supporting the Saudis would allow them  to help the U.S. more in Syria while stripping Iran of a burgeoning Hezbollah-style proxy in Yemen, a strategic sliver of land along the Red Sea.

Or so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, it’s a bad idea based on Saudi hyperbole about the faction it is fighting in Yemen.

Giving more bullets and bombs to the Saudis will make things worse, rather than better, in Yemen, which is now facing  a mammoth humanitarian crisis a la Syria.

Moreover, it is likely to drive Yemeni rebel factions even further under Iranian control, and enable the Saudis to continue to ignore a growing threat in Yemen from ISIS and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

There are plenty of good reasons why the U.S. needs to reduce Iran’s toehold in Yemen. Iran is on the rise in the region, chipping away at the strength of America’s Sunni partners. Iranian-backed insurgents have already attacked U.S. naval vessels in the Red Sea from Yemen’s coast, and disrupted the vital Red Sea shipping route.

But Saudi  policies have not improved matters. The Saudis have  been trapped in Yemen’s civil war since they  began direct military operations there in March 2015. They back the internationally-recognized government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi against an odd coalition of supporters of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Iranian-backed insurgent movement known as al Houthis. 

The al Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), have been disturbingly  successful. They seized power in September 2014, triggering the current war while posing as defenders of the 2011 revolution that overthrew Saleh—thus making the current al Houthi-Saleh alliance fraught indeed.

The Saudis suddenly launched military operations against the al Houthis to prevent them from taking Aden, Yemen’s southern port city.  The Saudis aim to reinstate Hadi’s government, which fled Yemen before the al Houthi onslaught.

yemen_small Warning to the Trump administration: Be careful about Yemen Foreign Policy

The al Houthis, however, are not strong enough to become a Yemeni Hezbollah. They rely on Saleh to control areas outside their norther stronghold. The al Houthis do not control Saleh, who has a vast patronage network of loyalists in key positions of power. 

Splitting the al Houthis from Saleh is possible, and would dramatically reduce their strength.

Iranian influence in Yemen has unquestionably grown as a result of the al Houthi coup, and Tehran is probably behind the al Houthis’ aggressive behavior in the Red Sea.  Yet Iranian influence remains less than the Saudis claim.

Meantime, the influence of Sunni-inspired terrorism is growing. AQAP has expanded its support among Yemenis by helping local militias fighting al Houthi-Saleh forces.  It is even regaining control of territory in areas recently “cleared” by the Saudi coalition. ISIS established itself in Yemen in 2015 and retains its foothold.

As long as the Saudis cast the struggle in terms of a fight against Iranian proxies, al Qaeda and ISIS will have a strong base for recruitment, since they have presented themselves as protectors of the Sunni against Iran  and other Shi’a factions in the Middle East.

Saudi war-fighting methods are also part of the problem. A Saudi air campaign has devastated cities and infrastructure, but will not be able to bomb Yemenis into submission. The Saudi coalition now wants to start an offensive to regain control of the country’s Red Sea coastline, which would isolate the al Houthi-Saleh faction from external support. 

It would also effectively besiege nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s population of 24 million, which already faces mass starvation and humanitarian catastrophe.

Rather than give the Saudis a few high-profile military shipments, the U.S. should instead reshape the coalition’s strategy to engage the al Houthis directly.

American recognition of al Houthi grievances and support for an al Houthi role in a future Yemeni government would go a long way toward splitting the insurgents from Iran.

The U.S. should also refocus the Saudi coalition’s military operations to deprive AQAP of additional resources and limit the humanitarian toll that feeds AQAP’s narratives of grievance.

The smart U.S. choice is to shrink our problems in Yemen, not make them worse.

Katherine Zimmerman is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the research manager for AEI’s Critical Threats Project. She is the author of the September 2015 report, A New Model for Defeating al Qaeda in Yemen.