The War In Yemen Could Become Worse Under Trump

A member of the Saudi forces stands to attention during a visit by Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah at the Saudi-led coalition military base in Yemen’s southern embattled city of Aden. Photo by Ahmed Farwan via Flickr.

In the weeks following Republican Donald Trump’s shock victory his foreign policy and national security influences are becoming more clear. So far that’s included a number of very hawkish figures, as well as a number that have ties to controversial anti-Muslim groups and rhetoric in the United States. These figures, including his national security adviser Flynn, are hawkish on Iran and hostile towards Islamism, and have shown little concern with distinguishing between different strains of Islamism. These two beliefs will cause problems all over the Middle East, but they set up a uniquely poor situation regarding Yemen. The complexity of the war in Yemen, the actors and their goals, raises the possibility of ideological policy only worsening the already worrisome situation in Yemen.

To briefly recap, the war in Yemen pits the Houthi, a political party/movement that largely represents the Zaidi Shi’a of northern Yemen against the exiled government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Houthi have allied with their former adversary; the deposed Yemeni dictator Saleh and his military forces. The Hadi government is backed by forces from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and a number of militias in southern Yemen. The Houthi are based in northern Sa’adah province, and currently control most of Yemen’s major cities including the capital Sana’a. The Hadi government is based in the southern city of Aden, and despite air support from the Saudis has struggled to retake territory from the Houthi. The war has been locked in a stalemate for some time, but international pressure has been increasing for a negotiated solution as the civilian situation deteriorates. Concern over possible violations of international law, including a number ofquestionable airstrikes by Saudi or GCC forces have fueled international discontent as well. Today the Saudis have stated they will not renew a unilateral two day ceasefire that was apparently violated by both sides.

Yemen represents a dangerous situation because the ideological biases so far shown by Trump and his advisers will make them uniquely unqualified to grapple with the complexity of Yemen. The Houthi represent a largely Shi’ite minority of Yemenis. Iran has made overtures to the Houthi, and the Houthi have had rhetorical and political ties with Iran for years. The initial Houthi rebellion in 2004 borrowed rhetoric from Iran, particularly regarding the United States, though that rhetoric has been downplayed in recent years. US officials have alleged that Iran is sending weapons to the Houthi, though some analysts remain skeptical of any claims of large arms shipments or support. Nonetheless Iran has given rhetorical and at least some material support to the Houthi, which raises the concern that hawkish anti-Iranian US officials will view the Houthi as nothing more than an extension of Iran.

The reality of the situation is more difficult. The Houthi represent an investment for Iran, a low-risk but high-reward situation that could help build a strategically useful ally while also sticking a thumb in the eye of their Saudi rivals. They are not an Iranian proxy like Hezbollah, and Iran has no meaningful control over their political positions or actions. Instead they represent a Shi’ite group (though Zaidi Shi’ism is closer theologically to Sunni Islam than the Iranian Twelver Shi’ism) that occupy a strategically useful position on the border of Saudi Arabia that may have shared interests with Iran on some issues. The Houthi are a domestically focused group, with goals focused solely in Yemen and in changing the balance of power to better represent their Zaidi constituents. Iranian support is a simple exercise in reputation building. If the Houthi or their allies gain influence, Iran will have better ties within Yemen moving forward. Notably this includes Saleh loyalists as well as the Houthi, and it’s entirely possible that Iran is betting on the former regime rather than the Houthi themselves. In addition to those gains, the war in Yemen is an embarrassment for the Saudis and the GCC, rivals and opponents of Iran. Despite Saudi backing, the Hadi government remains militarily weak and unable to conquer the country. The international criticism of the Saudis over possible war crimes only sweetens the pot. The Saudis are burning diplomatic and military capital in Yemen, capital that can no longer be used against Iran.

In general this strategy by Iran presents few risks to the United States. The US accepts the Houthi as a legitimate actor in Yemen, contrary to the Saudi position, and moderate Iranian influence there is of minimal concern to the United States. US interests are best served by stabilizing Yemen before AQAP or the local affiliate of the Islamic State can entrench themselves and by preventing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. US interests in Yemen do not align with those of the Saudis and GCC, and despite both being military allies of the United States the peacemaker role more lately played by the US government is likely the best path forward. The question then becomes, would a Trump administration continue this role?

There is a path that could lead the US to play a negative role in Yemen after the change of power. A concerted lobbying effort by the Saudis, the GCC, and even other Sunni allies to act in Yemen. By painting the Houthi as a proxy of Iran, they can play on the biases of officials against Iran. While Yemen is in reality of very little importance in the struggle for influence between Iran and the Sunni bloc, it’s hard to know whether US policy makers will recognize that reality. A diplomatic effort could push the administration into acting, especially if they seek concessions on other unrelated regional issues. A Trump administration may be especially vulnerable to this sort of deal-making given the relative lack of diplomatic and foreign policy experience and a business-centric worldview. That some prominent Trump loyalists have in the past lobbied for Sunni bloc states also suggests they may have access to informal channels as well as formal ones through Congress or the State Dept. The relatively optimistic statements by Saudi officials after Trump’s victory certainly suggests they see him as more amenable to their worldview.

A White House that shares Saudi paranoia towards Iran would likely prolong the war in Yemen. The Saudi line, seemingly backed up by the Hadi government, is that the Houthi should not gain a national role in the government. That means only a military victory that forces the Houthi to withdraw from Yemeni cities will constitute victory. The coalition has not shown the ability to win a military victory against the Houthi despite total air superiority. As the war drags on, the risk for a humanitarian crisis will rise. Destruction of infrastructure, often done by airstrikes of questionable legality and using US munitions, are already pushing the situation. Over 80% of the Yemeni public is already in need of humanitarian assistance, but the situation could become far worse. A negotiated end to the war is the quickest and best path to mitigating the civilian needs, but will the Saudis even consider negotiating in the last months of the Obama administration if they think they can get a better deal under Trump?

It’s impossible to know exactly how a Trump administration will approach the war in Yemen. Trump himself is unpredictable, and whether the professional foreign policy and national security apparatus can rein in the ideology of his political appointees is an unknown. But the ideological positions he and his inner circle have displayed so far lead to a serious concern that the United States may begin playing a negative role in Yemen once again. Whether out of solidarity with the Saudis or out of anti-Iranian sentiment, the end result will be increasing suffering in Yemen among people who have already been pushed to the very edge. The insecurity that will result will only harm the United States’ interests and security.

Originally published at www.thecaravansarai.com on November 21, 2016.