President Donald Trump’s embrace of the Saudi leadership and antipathy toward Iran have led him to bolster military support for the Saudi-led campaign against the alliance between former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis, the latter of whom both Trump and the Saudis see as proxies of Tehran. Trump’s pro-Saudi position in this conflict, however, has earned him sharp criticism in the international arena as well as from an increasing number of members of the US Congress, who see it as contributing to a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.
More moderate and pragmatic figures in the Trump Administration, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, hope that increased military pressure on the Houthi and Saleh forces will compel them to come to the negotiating table so that a political solution can eventually be realized. However, this strategy contains a great deal of wishful thinking and presumes, for example, that the Yemeni rebels are going to weaken and the Saudi-supported forces are going to make significant battlefield gains. In the meantime, the dire humanitarian crisis facing millions of Yemeni civilians continues unabated.
Trump’s View on the Yemen Crisis and the Saudi Connection
President Trump’s Yemen strategy is based on several factors. First, seeing Iran as a source of destabilizing mischief in the region, he wants to send a strong signal to Tehran that its activities in the Arab world are unacceptable and will be confronted. Reports of Iranian assistance to the Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam (a version different from the one practiced in Iran) are often exaggerated by Riyadh, though Tehran has probably increased assistance to the Houthis over the past couple of years as a way of keeping the Saudis busy in their own backyard.
Second, a large part of Trump’s Middle East regional policy is based on a close embrace of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries. Trump hopes that this policy will help contain Iran, prompt these countries to do more against the so-called Islamic State (IS) and like-minded extremist groups and their ideologies, and persuade them to pressure the Palestinians eventually to accept a peace deal with Israel—one that may not be in the Palestinians’ national interest. Hence, adopting the Saudi narrative on the Yemen conflict, which Trump seems to endorse in any case, helps to engage Saudi Arabia on these other issues. During his major speech in Riyadh in May 2017 in front of Arab and Muslim heads of state, Trump said: “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.” That sentence must have pleased his Saudi hosts.
Third, Trump, for some psychological reason, still wants to be seen as the “anti-Obama,” even though the 2016 presidential election is now many months in the past. He eschews nuance in foreign affairs, which President Barack Obama often pursued, and he seems determined to reverse some of Obama’s policies, like the latter’s decision in December 2016 to hold up precision-guided munitions to the Saudi Air Force because of the large number of Yemeni civilians who had been killed in Saudi air strikes. This concern about large civilian casualties had also prompted the Obama Administration in August 2016 to withdraw a US planning team from Saudi Arabia that was coordinating the Saudi-led coalition air campaign. In June 2017, the State Department announced that the Trump Administration had lifted the hold on the munitions. This decision, plus Trump’s announcement in Riyadh in May 2017 that the Saudis had agreed to $110 billion in US arms sales, appear to have given the Saudis and their allies a green light to continue to pursue their military campaign in Yemen regardless of humanitarian consequences. Hence, by these actions, Trump underscored there would be no nuance to his stance on Yemen.
Trump’s Advisors: Apply Pressure to Push for a Political Solution
Several of Trump’s closest advisors on foreign and security matters share his antipathy toward Iran, yet they see the Yemen conflict in much more complex terms. Defense Secretary Mattis holds negative views toward Tehran since at least the time when he was a combat commander in Iraq where hundreds of his fellow Marines were killed and injured by pro-Iranian militias using explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) supplied by Iran. He reportedly stated: “Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran.”
On the other hand, during his own trip to Riyadh in April 2017, Mattis stated publicly that while Washington was going to supply Saudi Arabia with more weapons, Yemen “needs a political solution.” Mattis and his military aides at the Pentagon have probably sized up the military conflict in Yemen and have determined that the Saudi-led coalition—designed to defeat the Houthi-Saleh forces and bring Yemen’s current president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, back to the capital, Sanaa—is not working well. Although the Saudi-led coalition has made some territorial gains, the insurgents have proven to be tough fighters and still hold major cities in northern and central Yemen.
In addition, and having had experience in dealing with terrorist insurgencies, Mattis knows that terrorist groups like IS and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) prefer failed or failing states because that gives them the ability to operate unhindered and even to hold territory. Although some US Special Forces have reportedly returned to Yemen, after having left in 2015, and have conducted some anti-terrorist operations in southern Yemen under the Trump Administration, Mattis seems to understand that the longer the Yemen conflict drags on, the more difficult it will be to rid Yemen of IS and AQAP operatives.
As for Secretary of State Tillerson, he appears to have supported Trump’s decision to lift the hold on the precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia as well as new arms sales to Riyadh as a way of pressuring the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Tillerson stated in May 2017 that he supports a political solution to the Yemen conflict, but underscored that the rebels “have to know that they cannot sustain this fight [and] will never prevail militarily. But they’re only going to feel that when they feel the resistance militarily, so it’s important that we keep the pressure on them.”
Hence, the strategy from Trump’s top national security advisors is to increase support for the Saudi-led military campaign in the hope that the rebels, even though they are unlikely to be defeated, will weaken militarily and then be forced to the negotiating table where a political solution can be hammered out, preferably one in favor of the Hadi government. Reports of recent clashes between the Houthis and Saleh’s forces have given the Saudis and some US officials hope that this rebel alliance will fracture and allow Hadi’s forces, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, to gain much more territory than they control now.
The Dangers of Wishful Thinking
If the current problems between the Houthis and Saleh (a relationship that has always been a marriage of convenience) do indeed lead to a breakup, that would certainly be a boon to the coalition opposing them—but the latter should not count on it happening. Both the Houthis and Saleh are strongly opposed to Saudi Arabia, even though Saleh has reportedly been making overtures to the UAE, which is Saudi Arabia’s main Arab partner in this conflict, to keep his options open. In addition, neither the Houthis nor Saleh want the Saudis to dictate terms to them on the future of Yemen, and they would not be comfortable with a return of Hadi to Sanaa, seeing him as now strongly beholden to Riyadh and its interests. Hence, while they may not like or trust each other, the Houthis and Saleh have more to lose than to gain by breaking apart, which helps to sustain their alliance.
In addition, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the Saudis have spent on their military in the past decade, their air campaign has been a disaster on many levels. Much of the civilian death toll (the UN estimates that about 10,000 civilians have been killed since 2015) has been as a result of errant Saudi and coalition air strikes that have missed their targets or have targeted sites that were believed to contain rebels but which only contained civilians. Schools, hospitals, markets, and funeral sites have been hit. It is unlikely over the next several months that the Saudis will be any more careful or precise in their targeting. The thousands of sorties flown by the Saudis and coalition partners this year alone (estimated by the UN at over 5,700 for the first six months of 2017) have only led to marginal gains on the ground. And the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to blockade air and sea ports controlled by the Houthis have led to a severe shortage of food and medicine for millions of civilians and have exacerbated the cholera epidemic in the country, which has already taken hundreds of lives.
Furthermore, it is not clear if Saudi Defense Minister (and Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman, who has been in charge of running this war, actually wants a political solution. The war has bogged down into a quagmire, but it is unknown whether he believes it can still be won militarily or if he now realizes that a political solution is the only way out of this conflict. In an extensive interview in early May 2017, he lambasted Iran for what he said was its desire to take over Saudi Arabia and claimed with a great deal of bravado that Saudi forces, if fully unleashed, could easily defeat the rebels in a matter of days—but that he had not pursued this option out of concern for casualties that would accrue to Yemeni civilians and Saudi troops. There was no indication in the interview that he was ready to entertain a political solution to the Yemen conflict, and he ruled out dialogue with Iran.
Voices of Dissent, but Not Enough to Dissuade Trump
Sharp criticism of the Saudi-led effort—and by extension US military assistance in air refueling, intelligence, and logistics—in this conflict has come from the United Nations, international human rights groups, American foreign policy specialists, and members of the US Congress. Former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan, for example, stated in May that if the humanitarian crisis is ignored it will have bad reverberations for the United States “because we’re the ones providing the bombs and the bullets.”
In April 2017, 55 members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to Trump demanding that he end logistical support for the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen. A month later, 16 members of the House wrote a letter to Mattis in which they quoted UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s warning that the conflict in Yemen was “starving and crippling” an entire generation in that country. Some members of the US Senate, like Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), have accused the Saudis of starving “Yemenis to death” and added that they could not do this “without the weapons we are selling them.”
On the other hand, because many members of Congress hold strong anti-Iran views and see the conflict as Iran’s way of trying to extend its influence in Yemen, there is also support for Trump’s policies in the conflict. Even Trump’s Republican Party nemesis in the Senate, John McCain of Arizona, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated in late March 2017: “We cannot allow Iran to dominate” Yemen, adding that Iran’s role there is a “direct threat to the United States national security.” And some other members of Congress have heeded the warning of the US CENTCOM commander, General Joseph Votel, who has raised the specter of Iran interfering with shipping in the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait off Yemen (connecting the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea) by creating a “chokepoint” there, similar to Iran’s behavior in the Strait of Hormuz.
Recommendations for US Policy
While there is some outside political pressure on President Trump to change course on Yemen, it is not strong enough to compel him to do so. Criticism from human rights groups and the United Nations are not going to move him, and Congress is divided on the issue. The only way Trump might desist from wholeheartedly supporting the Saudi-led military campaign and support a political solution for Yemen is for advisors like Mattis and Tillerson, backed by White House chief of staff John Kelly, to come to the realization that the hoped-for military gains against the Yemeni rebels are not going to materialize anytime soon, and that the Saudis are unlikely to become more competent militarily. They would then need to push Trump (and have Trump push the Saudi leadership and Yemen’s president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi) to accept negotiations that would include the Houthis and Saleh and seek a political solution to the conflict.
Although the Saudis might have to bite the bullet and countenance a Houthi-Saleh role in a new Yemen government, such a role might actually lessen Iran’s involvement in Yemen because the Houthis might no longer need Iranian military assistance. As for Saleh, he has been an unpredictable figure since the 2011 political upheaval in Yemen when he agreed to step down from power, only to renege on this promise several times; but Washington has dealt with him for many years during his long presidency and presumably could do so again. These may not be attractive options for US policymakers, but the alternative—prolonging the Yemeni conflict with unending military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign—has been a disaster, and the long-suffering Yemeni people deserve a chance to see this terrible war ended sooner rather than later.