Yemen in Washington: A Round-Up of Recent Expert Events
By Finn Quigley
For more than two years, civil war has devastated Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country and a focus of Washington’s counterterrorism strategy. Three events held in Washington in February and March 2017 examined obstacles to peace, the role of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the conflict, and U.S. policy toward Yemen under the Trump administration.
In 2011, following mass demonstrations, Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down after 33 years in power. The post-Saleh transition process failed, however, and war broke out in September 2014 when Houthi rebels, allied with their former adversary Saleh and parts of the army still loyal to him, took over the capital Sana’a and ousted the weak transition government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
The conflict escalated dramatically in March 2015 when a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia entered the war to restore the Hadi government to power and crush the Houthis, a group borne out of local grievances that receives limited support from Iran. Yemen has since become a Saudi-Iranian battleground for regional dominance with Hadi and Houthi-Saleh forces used to advance their agendas. Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign has been condemned internationally for hitting civilian targets, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. The Houthi-Saleh forces have also been criticized for atrocities of their own. Thus far, the conflict has killed more than 10,000 civilians, displaced over 3 million people, and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. United Nations experts recently warned that more than 17 million people in Yemen are at risk of famine.
Since September 2014, U.N.-led peace talks have attempted to broker a solution between the Houthis and Hadi’s government based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216. The resolution supports Hadi’s “legitimate government,” backs the unity of the country, and calls for an end to the conflict and the “resumption of a peaceful, inclusive, orderly and Yemeni-led political transition process.” The talks have made little progress, however, and negotiations are stalled.
The Trump administration is pursuing an aggressive counterterrorism strategy in Yemen focused on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On January 29, U.S. special operations forces with support from the United Arab Emirates carried out the first ground raid against AQAP since 2014. A U.S. Navy SEAL and dozens of people were killed in the operation, including nine children. Since the raid, the United States has conducted more than 40 airstrikes against AQAP, more than in any single year during the Obama administration.
Washington is also increasing support for the Saudi-led military campaign. Trump administration officials have described Yemen as an “important battleground to signal U.S. resolve against Iran.” The U.S. Department of State recently approved the sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, after the Obama administration halted the transaction last fall over concerns of indiscriminate targeting and civilian deaths. Other forms of support reportedly include drone strikes and sending U.S. military advisers to train and assist coalition and Yemeni forces on the ground.
This February 13 panel highlighted obstacles to a political settlement in Yemen. Speaker Nadwa Al-Dawsari, POMED Nonresident Senior Fellow, described the distrust that many Yemeni civilians feel toward the U.N.-led negotiations. She cited 150 in-depth interviews she conducted with Yemenis in the provinces of Aden, Hadramout, Mareb, Sana’a, and Taiz last year. Her research, she stated, revealed a widespread belief that the elite Yemeni politicians taking part in the negotiations do not represent most civilians, that many crucial issues are not being discussed, and that the Yemeni political leaders involved in the U.N. talks are more interested in keeping their positions of influence than in ending the conflict. Without support from citizens across the country and without addressing the core grievances driving the conflict, the peace talks cannot forge a lasting settlement. Al-Dawsari believes that internal conflict resolution can do a better job than international diplomacy. If outside actors such as Saudi Arabia stepped back, Yemeni tribal leaders would be able to resolve the country’s schisms.
H.E. Khaled Alyemany, Permanent Representative of Yemen to the United Nations, contended that the U.N. talks are indeed inclusive and that implementing UNSCR 2216 is the best hope for peace. Alyemany argued that Iran represents a significant threat to Yemen and to the peace process. He stated that if the Houthis were to be designated as a terrorist organization, the Yemeni government and its allies would have more options to defeat them. Alyemany spoke positively about the Trump administration, predicting that it will take a more assertive role in the war to counter Iran.
Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, argued that while Saudi Arabia does not want a “puppet regime” in Sana’a, it needs to ensure security in its backyard. Saudi Arabia has a “Yemen first” policy: Riyadh wants a stable and prosperous Yemen that doesn’t pose a threat to its neighbors. Alyahya contended that Iranian support for the Houthis includes weapons, training, and media support. He said that Saudi Arabia was frustrated with Obama’s rollback of U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. The Saudi government expects a “step up” in logistical, intelligence, and military support from Trump to combat the Houthis and Iran.
The final speaker, Dr. Nabeel Khoury, Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, agreed with Al-Dawsari that the peace process should focus on local actors and take advantage of Yemen’s centuries-old tradition of tribal mediation. The war is best understood not as a regional conflict but as a local one, as Saleh’s departure from the presidency created a power void that the Yemenis have tried to fill. Saudi Arabia’s attempt to control and organize power in Yemen has exacerbated the conflict. Khoury stated that since 2010, Saudi Arabia has concentrated more on countering Iran’s influence than on supporting policies that are good for Yemen. Khoury argued that U.S. goals in Yemen revolve around its counterterrorism interests and support for allies like Saudi Arabia, with little consideration for Yemen’s stability and prosperity.
“Is Yemen the First Battleground in the Trump Administration’s Confrontation with Iran?” – Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
The February 23 event focused on Iran’s role in Yemen and how the Trump administration and Gulf countries may respond. Dr. Sanam Vakil, Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University SAIS-Bologna, argued that Iran’s investment in the conflict is limited compared to its role in other spheres of influence, such as Syria and Iraq. Yemen represents more of a low-cost opportunity for Iran than an attempt to gain a serious foothold. She asserted that Iran is not trying to confront the United States directly in Yemen but to provoke Saudi Arabia. Yemenis are suffering the most in the conflict, and they will continue to pay a high price during post-war reconstruction, which Vakil expects will simply enrich countries like Saudi Arabia. She criticized both Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s actions in the Middle East, saying that the two states are emulating each other as they vie for influence.
Peter Salisbury, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, also expressed skepticism about the extent of Iran’s role in the Yemeni conflict. Yemen had been a stronghold for arms smuggling prior to the war, he pointed out, so it is difficult to say with certainty whether Iran is providing as much military support to the Houthis as some argue, or if the Houthis are also receiving support from other sources. Salisbury opposed an expanded U.S. role in the conflict. The Trump administration may view Yemen as a useful place to challenge Iran, Salisbury said, but the direct involvement of a major Western power would lend legitimacy to Houthi rhetoric against U.S. imperialism and ultimately help the Houthis. Salisbury emphasized the need for the international community to address local grievances and help Yemeni civilians on the ground. Yemen faces a massive humanitarian crisis, with millions of people needing international assistance every day simply to eat.
Fahad Nazer, International Affairs Fellow at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, highlighted Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) concern over Iranian support for the Houthis. He contended that Saudi Arabia wants to end the conflict, but the Houthis and their allies are unlikely to make political compromises for peace. Yemen was not a war of choice for Saudi Arabia, Nazer argued, but one of necessity, as the Houthis directly harmed Saudi security by engaging in deadly clashes across the border. Nazer described Saudi Arabia as hopeful that Trump will be more active in the region.
“Resolving the Conflict in Yemen: U.S. Interests, Risks, and Policy” – Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing
This March 9 full committee hearing focused on U.S. policy toward Yemen. The first witness, Thomas Jocelyn, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, testified on U.S. counterterrorism policy. He views AQAP as a greater threat to U.S. security than ISIS. The Houthi takeover of Sana’a and other parts of Yemen has severely undermined U.S. efforts against AQAP, as the ousted Yemeni government was a U.S. counterterrorism partner. Jocelyn stated that AQAP has enjoyed a resurgence during the chaos of the war by allying itself with tribal leaders in its areas of influence. U.S. efforts to kill AQAP leaders have proved ineffective in weakening the group, as AQAP reacts by promoting new ones. In addition, AQAP’s deep roots in Yemen make it extremely difficult to remove. If the group continues to forge bonds with tribal leaders, it will be more difficult for the United States to differentiate between actual AQAP members and tribal leaders. Looking at the conflict more broadly, Jocelyn argued that the Houthi-Saleh alliance is harming progress toward a political solution to end the war. Saleh wants power and knows there is no place for him in any negotiated settlement. If Saleh’s connection to the Houthis can be severed, peace will be more likely.
Next, Dr. Dafna Rand, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified that ending the war is necessary to achieve the top U.S. interest in Yemen: ending the threat from AQAP and other terrorist groups. The United States should pursue a multi-track policy that supports the Saudi-led coalition, backs a negotiated settlement between the Houthis and the Hadi government, and continues the counterterrorism mission. Rand opposed U.S. support for a military escalation by the Hadi-Saudi alliance, stating that it would lead to greater instability and more lost lives. Instead, the United States should concentrate on diplomacy in support of a negotiated settlement. Rand also called for a critical evaluation of foreign military support to all U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, by holding them accountable for how such support is used. Although the United States has sold billions of dollars of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia and has trained Saudi officials in their use, the Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly attacked civilian targets in Yemen and exercised restraint only after public protests by the U.S. government. Rand contended that Saudi Arabia should be required to adhere completely to the no-strike list provided by the U.S. Department of Defense and to conduct better after-action reports in order to qualify for any arms sale. Such steps would put the United States and its partners in a better position to end the conflict, and would allow the United States to focus on its counterterrorism mission.
Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein, Director of the Center for Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute and former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, called for the United States to increase military advising and to provide Saudi Arabia with the precision-guided weapons held up by the Obama administration in order to help bring the conflict to a successful conclusion. He asserted that the “reputational damage to Saudi Arabia” after the Obama administration publicly protested Saudi attacks on civilian targets “should not be underestimated.” These protests could “inflict long-lasting damage” to U.S. alliances, Feierstein argued, and ultimately could strengthen Iran’s position in the region. He recommended that the United States should back any efforts by the Arab coalition to capture the port of Hudaydah from the Houthis, who seized it in March 2015. Feierstein argued that this would facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to northern Yemen, as Hudaydah is the principal port supplying that region, but stated that the offensive should be part of a broader U.S. strategy in Yemen.
These three events highlighted the importance of Yemen in U.S. foreign policy and the complex dynamics of the conflict. As the Trump administration looks to be ramping up U.S. involvement, the impact of such an escalation on prospects for a negotiated settlement and on the current humanitarian crisis remains uncertain. Understanding the challenges to ending the Yemeni conflict is crucial to achieving a lasting peace and to securing U.S. interests in the region.