The Trump administration’s response to the war in Yemen is an early indicator of what its Middle East policy may look like. Unfortunately, the Jan. 29 raid on an al-Qaeda encampment in Yemen by U.S. Special Forces along with National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s Feb. 1 statement on Iran and Yemen’s Houthi rebels are not promising.
The raid, which cost the life of a U.S. serviceman and an as yet unknown number of Yemeni civilians, tells us that the Trump administration is likely to continue to play a deadly but ineffective game of whack a mole with al-Qaeda rather than addressing the root causes of extremism.
For nearly two years, Saudi Arabia and its partners — namely the United Arab Emirates —have been engaged in a brutal but largely futile war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
The Houthis, who are now allied with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and a significant percentage of the Yemeni Army, control most of northwest Yemen. The Houthis are a Zaydi Shi’a organization that is distinctly Yemeni and fiercely independent. Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as Iranian proxies and is backing Yemen’s unpopular--but internationally recognized government —in exile.
The war, which has received little coverage, has devastated Yemen, already the region’s poorest country. Most of Yemen’s limited infrastructure has been destroyed and more than 80 percent of its population of nearly 26 million are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. Whole sections of cities have been leveled by bombing and more than ten-thousand people have been killed.
The war’s only real beneficiary has been al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The war has exacerbated all of the conditions that favor the growth of militant organizations: namely grinding poverty and a weak or absent government. Much of southern Yemen, which is under the nominal control of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, is effectively a safe haven for AQAP. As a militant Salafi organization, AQAP is the mortal enemy of the Zaydi Shi’a Houthis.
In what is a dangerous parallel with Syria where al-Qaeda inserted itself into many anti-Assad forces, AQAP too has leveraged its fighting skills and capabilities and is enmeshing itself into many of the forces that are fighting the Houthis.
Yemen is an incredibly complex country where loyalties are often fluid and where lines between opponents are rarely demarcated. What is certain is that the Saudi led and US supported war in Yemen has greatly benefited AQAP and — ironically — Iran which can only be delighted by the fact that Saudi Arabia is immersed in a costly war that it cannot win.
If the Trump administration were to employ a nuanced and measured strategy to the war in Yemen, it could combat AQAP and check what is — at most — limited Iranian influence in Yemen.
The U.S. would regain some of its credibility among Yemenis on both sides of the conflict if it were to pressure Saudi Arabia to end its bombing campaign and its naval blockade. This along with a concerted effort by neutral countries like Oman could well re-start Yemen’s national dialogue and lead to some kind of power sharing agreement.
Ending the war, addressing Yemen’s acute humanitarian crisis, and backing negotiations will do far more than drone strikes and Special Forces raids to combat AQAP. Such a strategy will also go a long way to saving Saudi Arabia from itself and thereby ensuring a balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
However, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will pursue such a strategy. Instead, the Trump administration appears to be intent on escalating tensions with Iran while continuing to employ counter-terrorism strategies that have yielded little and cost far too much in terms of lives lost and resources wasted.
Michael Horton is a Senior Analyst for Arabian Affairs at the Jamestown Foundation, where he specializes in Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Yemen and Egypt. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications, including Islamic Affairs Analyst, the Economist and the Christian Science Monitor.
The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.