Trump, avoid the urge for US military intervention in Yemen

Trump, avoid the urge for US military intervention in Yemen
© Getty

On November 30, for the second time in a month, Saudi Arabia intercepted and destroyed a ballistic missile launched from Yemen. Following the last missile attack on November 4, Saudi Arabia closed all of Yemen’s air and sea ports for a week, cutting off all humanitarian relief supplies flowing into the country before allowing the port of Hudaydah and the Sana’a airport to reopen in response to international urging.

In recent weeks, with the winding down of anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria, the Trump administration has increasingly focused its attention — and rhetoric — on Yemen, emphasizing Iran’s arms shipments to the Houthi faction in Yemen’s civil war.

Despite these concerns about Iranian meddling in Yemen, it would be extremely unwise for the United States to take on any new military commitments in the region, given that America’s longest war — Afghanistan — remains unresolved, and by some measures is deteriorating; Iraq’s future remains uncertain, as do Kurdish ambitions for an autonomous state; and Syria remains embroiled in a civil war that will not end anytime soon, not to mention the ongoing geopolitical crisis with North Korea.

The Trump administration must recall past failures at at nation-building in the Middle East and avoid deeper military entanglements in Yemen.

Yemen has collapsed into a civil war that has torn the country apart, resulting in a famine that affects more than 7 million people, a cholera epidemic, and at least 14,000 civilian deaths. Saudi Arabia and Iran have both intervened supporting rival factions — Saudi Arabia openly and Iran clandestinely — and a branch of the Islamic State and an Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have established territorial strongholds in Yemen. Further, Yemen’s history of tribalism continues to inhibit the establishment of a strong, popularly supported, central government.

Yemen is, and will likely remain for the foreseeable future, a humanitarian disaster. There are no easy answers to transform war-torn Yemen into a functioning society. This is a conflict that cannot be “won” by either internal factions or intervening powers — including the United States — without a massive degree of nation-building for which the United States has little capacity or interest. Only the Yemenis themselves can resolve their internal differences and attempt to build a cohesive nation-state, though their conflicts are long-running and likely intractable.

Further, nation-building failures in much of the Middle East have made it an increasingly unappealing option for the international community; this is a prospect well beyond the capacity of the United States, the Saudi coalition, or the United Nations. Regardless of how the current conflict ends — and to be clear, no end is in sight or easily conceivable — mere conflict termination without a concerted and long-lasting stabilization effort would only extend the current humanitarian crisis.

There are virtually no good options for further U.S. intervention in Yemen, as the United States has no significant interests in Yemen and no prospects for successfully bringing about a peaceful resolution to the current conflicts or creating a stable, post-conflict civil society. While the United States could increase its military support for Saudi Arabia, leveraging U.S. airpower, special operations, and intelligence capabilities to force the Houthis to agree to a ceasefire, this would likely produce only a temporary cessation of hostilities or give AQAP and ISIS time to build their strength unchallenged while continuing their attacks and destabilization efforts.

Some sort of power-sharing arrangement that brings deposed President Hadi, the Houthis, and the major tribal leaders into a coalition government is needed to produce a stable, long-lasting central government for Yemen, but is extremely unlikely.

Given the lack of politically prudent or advantageous policy options for the United States, it should strenuously avoid military intervention in Yemen. There is little that can be done to bring about an end to Yemen’s civil war or to prevent Saudi and Iranian competition for influence there and direct intervention would prove both disastrous and ineffective.

But the United States can still do some good in Yemen by encouraging the international community to ease the suffering of Yemeni civilians. This would help the most vulnerable members of Yemen’s population and curb opportunities for radicalization and jihadist recruitment among Yemeni displaced persons. Sadly, this is perhaps the only good that the United States can currently do in Yemen.

Andrew Byers is a military historian who has taught at Duke University and who served as an intelligence and counterterrorism analyst. He is the co-founder of the Counter Extremism Network.

Faith Stewart is a Middle East analyst with the Counter Extremism Network.