The civil war in Yemen will soon hit its 1,000-day milestone. Since clashes between the warring factions began three years ago, the interests and concerns for the United States in the Gulf nation have been building and changing, creating an increasingly complicated web through which policymakers and war planners now need to traverse.
America’s security interests in Yemen began in the early years of Bush’s global War on Terror. One of the first targets was Ali Qaed Sinan Al-Harethi, a key suspect in the USS Cole bombing, who was killed in a Predator drone strike in November 2002. Since then, America’s emphasis on Yemen has grown.
Over the next several years, Yemen became a center of Al-Qaeda operations under its regional branch, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), formed in 2009 by a merger between two offshoots of the Jihadist network in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. U.S. intelligence relentlessly chased down AQAP officers, mostly in the less populated eastern regions of the country, such as the Ma’rib province.
The commencement of the Yemen civil war in 2015 created a whole new arena for U.S. intelligence and defense to operate in. The outbreak of violence further undermined law and order in a country already hard-pressed to maintain government control. Al-Qaeda was able to further solidify its control over large swaths of territory in the country’s east.
First and foremost, the war has created fertile ground for the expansion of jihadist groups in the country. ISIS established its Yemen province in 2014, capitalizing on sectarian fractures, which were then exacerbated by the civil war, to rake in recruits. When the Islamic State came onto the scene, it opened up a new front for the American intelligence community.
While many observers were led to assess the group as an inconsequential factor in the country — primarily due its lack of territorial control — the recent beginning of drone strikes aimed at ISIS fighters in Yemen suggests that the group has also become an important threat in the eyes of U.S. policymakers.
As violence escalated, the U.S. was forced to close its embassy in the capital of Sana’a. The move drastically curtailed America’s ability to conduct counterterrorism operations in Yemen, as the CIA was running its operatives primarily under the guise of diplomatic workers in the embassy.
The second paradigm shift brought on by the civil war has been the opening of a proxy conflict between the Iran-led Shiite Axis and a coalition of regional nations headed by Saudi Arabia. While Iran began funneling weapons and funding to the anti-government Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia has been backing forces loyal to president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, while waging its own brutal air campaign in the country.
With all its flaws, the U.S. has a deep interest in backing its Saudi allies in Yemen. Saudi Arabia provides the U.S. with military installations and cooperates with the U.S. in intelligence gathering efforts, not to mention the business and energy interests that the U.S. has relating to the Saudi oil industry, a relationship that continues to grow to this day.
The escalating conflict in Yemen has shown a real need for America to protect its Saudi allies. Ballistic missiles provided by Iran have repeatedly been fired into Saudi Arabia over the past several years. The U.S. has thrown in substantial support for Saudi Arabia on this issue specifically. The U.S. provided the Saudis with Patriot anti-missile systems to defend its most sensitive locations, especially around the capital of Riyadh.
However, the U.S. has stopped short of becoming a full-fledged member of the Saudi coalition. The U.S. could not fully support the brutal tactics of the Saudi kingdom in putting down the Houthi faction. Assisting its allies in the region was limited to defensive assets like maintaining the Patriot batteries stationed in Saudi Arabia and other logistical support such as refueling Saudi war planes flying back and forth from bombing sorties. Even this minimal support has not been easy for the U.S. to maintain.
The involvement in the civil war has drawn tremendous criticism from both policymakers and the public. Furthermore, despite the public narrative depicting the Saudis as America’s sole concern in Yemen, American strategists see their interests in Yemen as not necessarily bound to the civil war. While it is important for the administration to track down and eliminate AQAP members, this is seen as having nothing to do with what is essentially a local conflict between opposing factions.
Over the recent period, however, signs have been popping up indicating that the U.S. is expanding its involvement in Yemen, perhaps indicating a broader commitment in the country all along.
Recently, US Central Command (CENTCOM) revealed that the military has conducted over 120 strikes in Yemen since the start of this year, in order to “disrupt” militant activity in the country. This number included “several ground operations” according to the official statement. In light of this CENTCOM report, the infamous Yemen raid approved by President Trump in January that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL team member and as many as 30 civilians was only the first of many ground operations that have taken place in 2017.
Drone strikes in Yemen have apparently been ramping up as well. While American drones have been conducting strikes in Yemen for years, the number of strikes has risen over the past several months. Most of these attacks have been targeting jihadist groups not necessarily connected to the civil war.
However, there are clear signs that the U.S. is targeting Houthi assets as well. In early October, an American Reaper drone was shot down by Houthi rebels with a surface-to-air missile near the capital of Sana’a. In response to the incident, a Pentagon spokesperson admitted that the drone was on a mission aimed at Houthi targets, and, more importantly, that such operations are regular occurrences.
Ironically, as America continues to escalate its military activity in Yemen, the government has also begun to signal its desire to immediately cease all hostilities in the country. State department officials announced late last week the position of the United States that the Yemen conflict cannot be resolved through conflict, only “aggressive diplomacy.” Furthermore, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tim Lenderking, there is “room for the Houthis in a political settlement” that the U.S. can live with. “We’re pushing everybody to move into a political process as quickly as we can,” Lenkering added.
These statements by American diplomats underscore the serious dilemma that the U.S. has to now deal with in Yemen.
On the one hand, the U.S. cannot stand idly by, watching the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a problem that has truly spiraled out of control. In what has become likely the largest current humanitarian crisis in the world, some 80 percent of the Yemeni population now lacks access to food, fuel and clean water, according to the Red Cross. Adding to this is the fact that at least 50 percent of Yemen’s health care facilities have been destroyed in the past two and a half years of fighting, leaving the diseased and weak population with no recourse.
This nationwide horror was brought about by the relentless coalition bombing and allowed to fester due to a three-week Saudi blockade of the country, lifted only earlier this month. Keeping Yemen from descending further into famine and rampant disease will require a massive internationally orchestrated effort, something obviously not possible as long as the two sides in the civil war continue to be at each other’s throats.
Lenderking alluded to this quandary that the U.S. finds itself in during his statement to the press. “We cannot welcome [the Houthis] when they rocket our allies like Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, and also not when the Houthis are menacing the border of Saudi Arabia, which is something that goes on very consistently,” he said.
Right now, America must pursue a delicate balance: protect its interests in the country, while not further conflagrating the already-desperate situation of the Yemeni people and effectively pushing for an end to the violence.
The U.S. has the leverage to push such a strategy forward. While America should not cease the purely defensive assistance it offers to Saudi Arabia and other coalition members, it can pull the plug on all other forms of logistical support. This includes the refueling and other maintenance support to coalition military assets. Ending all attack and reconnaissance drone operations in the conflict zones, especially in the regions around the capital of Sana’a, would send a strong message to all parties that the U.S. is serious about not supporting the continuation of violence.
In this way, the U.S. will be able to advance both of its interests in the Yemeni civil war: helping to keep its allies safe from attack, and pressuring coalition members to halt hostilities.
Further confirmation has arrived that U.S. President Donald Trump will make his long-expected visit to the UK in “early 2018,” according to U.S. ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson. Trump will come to the UK on a “working visit” to open the new U.S. embassy in Battersea. It has also been speculated that Trump’s visit will see him arrive on the remote and sparsely populated Isle of Lewes, the birthplace of his mother.
It is widely believed that the government now regrets its decision to offer the invitation of a state visit so early in Trump’s presidency, considering it is an honour usually (though not always) reserved for second-term presidents.
May’s visit to the White House in January, which made her the first foreign leader to do so, likely did not help her popularity in Britain, with many criticising the visit and a now-infamous photo of Trump and May hand-in-hand, gracing the front page of most newspapers.
Originally billed as a full state visit — including a meeting with the Queen — Donald Trump’s visit to the UK has already been downgraded, after an immediate and large public outcry, including a petition requesting his visit be downgraded that received 1.8 million signatures on the government’s official portal.
Events since then, right up to his retweeting of Britain First earlier this month and subsequent spat with Theresa May, have fuelled further opposition to any visit made by the president.
Thought to have been scheduled for 2017, the visit was postponed, reportedly due to concerns from Trump that any visit would be met with large-scale protests. After the announcement of Trump’s controversial so-called “Muslim-ban,” thousands took to the streets in cities all over the UK to protest the policy.
Later in June, amid speculation that Trump’s visit would be a “surprise one,” which would see him visit one of his golf courses in Scotland, protesters made clear that they would be able to mobilise quickly in the event of a such a visit. This, and the increasing disapproval for Donald Trump shown in opinion polls, would suggest that the President’s fears are more than justified.
Now, after the U.S. ambassador’s confirmation that a working visit will go ahead in early 2018, a group of 100 Labour MPs have signed a letter to Theresa May, urging her to cancel the visit entirely.
Though well-intentioned, and perhaps more political savvy than many realise, in that it will likely force the government to defend Trump to some extent, this request, if granted, seems more likely to gift the U.S. President an easier time, and cause more problems for Britain, than to allow his visit to go ahead.
Firstly, and as many in the UK government have been quick to point out, Britain’s political and economic relationships with the U.S. are arguably its most important, and are indeed likely to play an even larger role in shaping Britain’s position on the world stage post-Brexit.
A recent trade-row concerning Bombardier, a Canadian aeroplane manufacturer that provides thousands of jobs in Northern Ireland, gave cause to believe that, despite friendly rhetoric, Britain’s interests would be a secondary concern to Trump’s America First economic policy, but what little ability the UK government currently has to sway Trump seems highly unlikely to be increased in the event of his invitation to the UK being rescinded.
Therein lies the issue. Despite even the strongest ideological opposition to Donald Trump’s politics, it’s surely difficult to reconcile a course of action that might jeopardise in any way Britain’s future trading relationship with one of the world’s largest markets, considering that the consequence might well be a substantial loss of jobs here in the UK.
Admittedly, welcoming President Trump with an emphatic and determined display of civil protest, aimed not at his country, but at his ideas and his beliefs, seems unlikely to serve a much more useful purpose than rescinding his invitation.
However, if nothing else, it puts Donald Trump in an uncomfortable position and provides an opportunity for him to once again demonstrate his failings, without too much responsibility being placed on the UK government, which could be translated into unfavourable policy on trade, for example.
It’s said that Trump is at his least “presidential” when he is fighting petty battles, often relating to his popularity. The claims about attendance at his inauguration and the fact that he received fewer votes than his opponent still stick like a thorn in his paw and elicit particularly childish reactions when brought up. When he is faced with the categorically undeniable fact that he is, to a certain degree, disliked or unpopular, he regresses even further into this childishness, and it’s here where the insufficiencies of his temperament and manner are most apparent.
Conversely, where Trump thrives, and where he is able to most energise his base, is in causing uproar and outrage, and then mocking it. During the 2016 election, it was not uncommon to hear voters saying that, despite not liking Trump, they liked how he irritated the people they dislike even more.
This is emblematic of Trump; he thrives not on his own virtues, but on the often-imagined flaws of others. In the alternate reality he attempts to create for his supporters, the world is being taken over by the “Liberal Elite,” who enforce the dogmatic rule of “political correctness” with ruthless conviction. He alone is able to speak sense and say what needs to be said, in the face of the pearl-clutching “social justice warriors” and the biased “mainstream media,” who want nothing more than to silence him.
To play into this rhetoric by effectively announcing such strong revulsion to Trump’s opinion’s that we are unable to accommodate him in our country, would not only vindicate this worldview to his supporters, but would also let President Trump off the hook, considering his already-stated fear of public unrest in response to his visit.
Indeed, given this fear and considering his recent and unprecedented Twitter jibe directed at Theresa May, one does wonder if the President might secretly like to see his invitation rescinded to avoid personal embarrassment. Though of course only speculation, the possibility of this alone seems to be a good enough justification to allow the visit to go ahead.
To deny Trump entry to the UK on the basis of an undeterminable level of public disapproval would, at worst, harm diplomatic and economic relations with a long-standing and important ally and, at best, provide ammunition with which some could (perhaps partially rightly) berate us with tirades weighed down with such phrases as “snowflake” and “safe space.”
Receiving the President and offering up some form of protest will certainly not bring down his regime — and it will certainly not affect his policy or politics — but in stopping his visit, we would be awarding Trump an easy victory and denying ourselves the opportunity to clearly demonstrate our distaste in a way that he is unable to deny or ignore. This alone seems worth the cost of an invitation.