Warnings of a potential large-scale famine in Yemen following a Saudi naval and air blockade that the Saudis have agreed to ease have brought that country’s dire humanitarian situation to the forefront of media attention. Implicated in the controversy is U.S. policy in Yemen, since the U.S. has been providing important support to the military campaign of a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states intervening in the country, such as through refueling aircraft and providing intelligence assistance for airstrikes.
At this stage, a withdrawal of that support in its current form is overdue.
To be sure, there were sound reasons behind the initial intervention in Yemen and supporting it. Though it is common to think of various conflicts in the region as mere “proxy wars” waged by foreign powers, the conflict in Yemen fundamentally boils down to a civil war driven by domestic factors: on one side stands an alliance of the Zaydi Shia Houthi movement and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthi movement had long battled the central government and felt marginalized by post-Arab Spring transition proposals for Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh had previously fought the Houthis and officially resigned in 2012 but retained a network of loyalists in parts of the Yemeni army. On the other side of the Yemeni civil war is a diverse array of elements that reject being ruled by this alliance.
The Houthi-Saleh alliance had already deposed the recognized government under Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (who succeeded Saleh in 2012) from its seat in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and was threatening to overrun much of the southern coastline, including the important port city of Aden, in addition to reaching the Mandeb Strait through which a notable portion of the global oil supply flows.
The Houthi-Saleh alliance’s takeover of the south would certainly not have brought any stability to the country. There have also been some reasonable concerns about the expansion being opportunistically supported by Iran, even though the extent of Iranian intervention still seems much more limited than the Iranian involvement in Syria and Iraq.
Insofar as the intervention by the Saudi-led coalition amounted to a limitation of the Houthi-Saleh expansionism, it made sense to support that intervention. This objective was accomplished with the successful defense of Aden in 2015, and preventing the Houthi-Saleh alliance from seizing the large southern city of Taiz and its environs has also fallen within that framework.
Yet there is little sense of what the end-game looks like beyond those goals. Once an observer begins to delve into more granular details, an immediate problem that emerges is a divergence in the approaches on the ground adopted by different members of the coalition of Arab states intervening in Yemen. Whereas Saudi Arabia supports the Hadi government and the so-called “legitimate forces” associated with it (e.g. Yemeni army elements loyal to that government and some Salafi militias involved in the fight for the Taiz area against the Houthi-Saleh alliance), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has trained and organized some militias that do not answer to the Hadi government.
The forces trained and organized by the UAE, known principally as the Security Belt forces and the al-Nukhba Forces, are now present in many parts of Yemen’s southern and eastern provinces. Evidence suggests that elements of these forces (e.g. in the province of Shabwa especially) have sympathies with South Yemen separatism and ties to the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a body set up in May 2017 and led by the former governor of Aden. The STC aims to revive the old South Yemen republic (forcibly united with the north in a civil war in 1994), something obviously rejected by the Hadi government. The UAE’s motives for supporting a separate structure of forces partly lie in its anti-Islamist foreign policy, including rejection of cooperation with groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Islah party in Yemen that is aligned with the Hadi government. The UAE hopes the forces it has raised can serve as effective local counter-terrorism tools against al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in Yemen.
Is it really in the U.S. interest to try to restore the Hadi government by force to Sanaa in the hopes it can rule over a strong central Yemeni state? Such an objective would amount to a monumentally difficult undertaking, and hardly seems to be a recipe to address the political problems that have given rise to so much instability and created vacuums in which terrorist groups can operate. In the event the Hadi government could be restored to Sanaa, whose side should the U.S. take in the inevitable disputes that would follow with the STC/southern separatists and forces linked to them that have now become a reality on the ground?
Thus, the U.S. faces strategic problems combined with the moral opprobrium deriving from the brutal tactics of indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes and restrictions on aid entering into Yemen that have already made malnutrition and disease a major issue facing the country. In these circumstances, withdrawing support in its current form for the military campaign is the most sensible option, instead limiting the focus to protecting shipping and Saudi cities from Houthi missile attacks as well as counter-terrorism operations against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
At the same time, the U.S. should encourage the need to recognize there must be a political solution that takes into account the concerns of all sides. Though this point might sound like a trope, there is no real alternative as no side can achieve an outright victory. Further, insofar as a military campaign against the Houthis continues in the belief that they can ultimately be crushed militarily, Iranian ties with the Houthi movement are only likely to become more and more extensive. Containment and a level-headed political process are the way forward to minimize Iranian influence in the area.