Like the Saudi leadership, US President Donald Trump sees the Yemen conflict as a case of Iranian adventurism that needs to be rolled back and defeated. His uncritical view of the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels and their allies is based on a rather simplistic view of conflicts in the Middle East, pitting friends like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against adversaries like Iran and its proxies. That the current leadership in Riyadh, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seems to be pursuing an aggressive posture against Iran’s proxies not only in Yemen but also in other countries deepens Trump’s admiration for the way the crown prince is handling Iranian matters.
However, Trump’s top advisors on foreign and security affairs, namely Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while also holding anti-Iran views, see some danger in being in lockstep with Riyadh on Yemen. Both seem to understand that the conflict there is essentially a stalemate that has resulted in a terrible humanitarian crisis that is redounding against the United States. Moreover, they seem to believe that Mohammed bin Salman’s eagerness to intervene in Lebanese politics—which has a connection to Yemen because of Hezbollah’s role in providing some assistance to the Houthis—could backfire. Although it is unclear how much influence Tillerson and Mattis have over Trump, the fact that the president has avoided using his Twitter account to speak on Yemeni matters in recent weeks suggests that perhaps cooler heads may be prevailing.
Trump and His Love Affair with the Saudis
The Saudis were very pleased that Trump took his first foreign trip as president to their kingdom. The May 2017 visit not only underscored Saudi Arabia’s prominence as the leading country in the Arab world at this time but also put Trump squarely on the side of the Saudis in their conflict with Iran over regional dominance. The trip also put the nail in the coffin of President Obama’s admonition in 2015, around the time of the Iranian nuclear deal, that the Saudis and the Iranians needed to find a way to “share the neighborhood.” During his speech to Saudi and other Muslim heads of state in Riyadh, Trump stated that, “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.”
Trump has been consistent in his denunciation of Iran, thus conforming to Saudi policy as articulated by Mohammed bin Salman. The president not only sees Iran as a strategic threat but continues to assist the Saudis in their military effort to defeat the Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam (a version different from the one practiced in Iran) and have received some assistance from Tehran. Although the US policy to support the Saudi-led coalition on Yemen was started under the Obama Administration, which provided the Saudis with intelligence, logistics, and air refueling for their warplanes, President Obama later came to see the Yemen war as a liability because of the large number of civilian casualties that the human rights community, some members of the US Congress, and the United Nations had all condemned. By the latter half of 2016, the Obama Administration started to distance itself from the Saudi-led campaign. It removed a US planning team from Saudi Arabia that was helping to coordinate the Saudi-led coalition air campaign and put a hold on precision-guided munitions to the Saudi air force because errant Saudi air strikes had caused thousands of Yemeni civilian deaths.
Obama’s concerns do not seem to bother Trump, who lifted the hold on the precision-guided munitions in June 2017 to underscore the US military commitment to the Saudis. Trump also has reportedly ramped up the US military support role in Yemen, the details of which have not been revealed publicly except for the above-mentioned sale. Although some of Trump’s advisors came to understand that a negotiated solution to the Yemen conflict was desirable, they also believed that a more robust US military support role for Saudis and their Emirati partners in this conflict would be needed to arrive at a settlement.
Trump has even weighed in on Saudi domestic politics, stating (after reports surfaced about several high-ranking officials being relieved of their posts and many others arrested for alleged corruption) he has “great confidence” in King Salman and his son the crown prince, adding that they “know exactly what they are doing.”
Not surprisingly, then, Trump seemed to believe the Saudi charge that Iran was behind the Houthis’ launch of a missile attack toward Riyadh, which the Saudis intercepted.
Trump tweeted: “A shot was just taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia,” and then went on to boast that the system that “knocked it down” was built in the United States.
The latter tweet may also be indicative of Trump’s calculation. As a large purchaser of US military hardware and defense systems, Saudi Arabia represents a boon for the president in his quest to show the American people that his foreign policy can generate manufacturing jobs in the United States.
More Cautious Advisors
Although both Tillerson and Mattis hold negative views toward Iran—the former said in September that Iran continues to engage in “malicious activities in the region” while the latter is on record stating that the Iranian regime “is the single most enduring threat to stability in the Middle East”—they appear not to hold the same view of the Yemen crisis as Trump and the Saudis.
Mattis, as a former Marine Corps commander, has sized up the military situation in Yemen and has concluded that the conflict there needs a political solution—a comment that he made publicly in Riyadh in April 2017. Tillerson has also spoken about the need for a political solution in Yemen, and his reluctance to fully endorse the Saudi position may be a reflection of his belief that the Saudis are engaging in policies in the region that could lead to even more instability. Earlier this year, he prevailed upon Trump to temper his initial enthusiasm for the Saudi blockade of Qatar and allow him to try to
mediate the dispute, understanding that the United States has equities in both countries (including the important Al Udeid forward operating base for US CENTCOM in Qatar) and that it would be foolhardy to side with the Saudis in this dispute.
More recently, Tillerson has spoken out against discrimination against the Shia community in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (where a Sunni royal family rules over a Shia majority)—in contrast to Trump’s warm embrace of the Bahraini king in May as well as the Saudi view of the situation there. When Trump tweeted about the Houthi launch of the missile toward Riyadh, placing blame squarely on Iran, the State Department spokesperson stated that, “We don’t have a full assessment of who is responsible” for the missile attacks, and, “We haven’t made that determination.”
In addition, the severe humanitarian crisis in Yemen also appears to have given officials like Tillerson and Mattis some pause in fully supporting the Saudi effort. The United Nations estimates that at least 10,000 civilians have been killed and wounded in Yemen, many by errant Saudi and coalition air strikes. Although Tillerson supported the lifting of the hold of the precision-guided munitions to the Saudi air force, partly in the hope of making such air strikes more accurate against legitimate military targets, they do not appear to have made much difference. On November 1, for example, a Saudi-led coalition airstrike reportedly killed 29 civilians who were in and near a hotel and market in Yemen’s northern province of Saada.
The United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have also reported hundreds of thousands of cases of cholera in the country, with an estimated 2,000 people having already died from the disease. Even more alarmingly, about seven million people out of a population of 22 million are facing famine, and the NGO Save the Children estimates that 130 children are dying every day in Yemen because of disease and “extreme hunger.”
Much of the problem has been due to the Saudi-led coalition closing off ports to the Houthis and their allies (forces loyal to former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh). This was done ostensibly to stop the flow of Iranian weapons to the Houthis but it has had the effect of preventing food and medicine from reaching the hard-pressed civilian population. In the aftermath of the Houthi missile launch in early November, the Saudis
closed down all Yemeni ports in rebel areas as well as the airspace over Sanaa’s airport. Faced with an international outcry over such policies, which has only exacerbated the humanitarian situation, the Saudis initially eased the blockade, but then lifted it off the Hudeidah seaport on the Red Sea, which is under Houthi control, and the Sanaa airport. Currently, there are many ships with humanitarian supplies of food, fuel, and medicine languishing off the western Yemeni coast because of this blockade, according the United Nations.
The problem for the United States is that siding with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in this conflict not only poses a moral hazard for Washington but causes Yemenis to believe that the United States is to blame for their plight. One Yemeni civilian, for example, characterized the Saudi airstrike on civilians in early November as “an act of aggression by the Americans, the Saudis and the Zionists, and by God’s will, we will take revenge one day.” He added ominously, “And even if we don’t get revenge, our children will.”
The Lebanon Factor and the Yemen Conflict
The rather strange episode of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigning his position after traveling to Saudi Arabia generated rumors that he was being held in the kingdom against his will and that the Saudis were trying to foment a crisis in Lebanon so Hezbollah would be weakened. The Saudis are unhappy that Hezbollah, a major coalition partner within the Lebanese government, was not being reined in by Hariri; hence, they may have compelled him to resign in order to support what they would see as a stronger prime minister from the Sunni community (under Lebanon’s consociational political system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim). Because this episode occurred shortly after the attempted Houthi missile attack on Riyadh, some analysts believe that the Hariri resignation episode was directed not only at Hezbollah for their activities in Lebanon and Syria but also in Yemen because, reportedly, some Hezbollah operatives have been aiding the Houthis at Iran’s behest.
Whatever the reason behind this episode, Tillerson believed that the Saudis were overplaying their hand. He called on “all parties” inside and outside Lebanon to desist from attempts to threaten Lebanese stability. His use of the term “all parties” was meant to include Saudi Arabia in addition to Iran. This is all the more significant because Trump tweeted his support for King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman’s purge and arrest of Saudi officials and businessmen, which some analysts believe may have given the Saudis a green light to try to foment a crisis with Hezbollah.
Although Hariri was able to travel to Paris after French President Emmanuel Macron personally intervened in his case with the Saudis and later returned to Lebanon, where he said he would “clarify” his position in the government, his alleged detention in Saudi Arabia generated widespread sympathy for him among Lebanese of all religious backgrounds. The Saudi strategy seems to have backfired, though one prominent American columnist has suggested if Hariri remains prime minister under a strengthened mandate, he may be able to persuade Hezbollah to withdraw its operatives from Yemen. This all remains to be seen, but it underscores the interconnectedness of the Yemen conflict with other sectarian crises in the region.
Recommendations for US Policy
Washington seems to be in a quandary over the Yemen conflict. It does not want to withdraw its support for the Saudi-led coalition because that could be interpreted by Tehran as a sign of US weakness. On the other hand, by continuing its military support, the United States sullies its reputation by contributing to a horrendous humanitarian disaster and angers millions of Yemeni civilians because they see the United States as complicit in the Saudi-led attacks.
With the military conflict essentially a stalemate, US policymakers should press for a negotiated settlement in Yemen soon. They should try to convince the Saudi leadership that a prolongation of the war is doing more harm than good, and that Iranian and Hezbollah influence among the Houthis might actually decrease if the conflict is ended, as the Houthis and their allies would then no longer need to rely on such outside military assistance.
The views of Tillerson and Mattis, while influential on Trump to some degree, may not be sufficient to convince him to back down from his uncritical support of the Saudi-led coalition and to support a ceasefire. Hence, it may be an opportune time for Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, to get involved in the dispute. Kushner, who has a varied government portfolio including Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, has reportedly developed close ties to Mohammed bin Salman and may be able to influence him as well as his own father-in-law to support a negotiated settlement. As a father, Trump is moved by the suffering of children, which was illustrated by his comments justifying the US missile attack on a Syrian air base in April 2017 that employed chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. It would behoove Kushner to make a compelling case to Trump that the plight of Yemeni children dying of famine and disease necessitates an urgent change in US policy toward Yemen.