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.
Syrian army and its allies entered Islamic State’s last main stronghold in the country, the city of al-Mayadeen in Deir el-Zor province. The latest advances confined jihadists and rebels to less than 10 per cent of Syrian territory, according to Russian media. Damascus repeatedly expressed its optimism over winning the war – but what happens after?
“With support from Russian aviation, government forces entered Mayadin and took control of several buildings in the western flank of the town,” Iranian Press TV quoted Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), as saying on Friday.
Upon entering the city, Syrian army destroyed an arms depot, a communications headquarters, a command center and several vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns, Press TV reported.
Deir el-Zor was the last large ISIS-held territory in Syria – the group is currently losing it to separate offensives by the Syrian government and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
According to SOHR, intense clashes are currently taking place on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, where government forces and its allies carried out hundreds or airstrikes, reportedly killing numerous civilians attempting to flee the area.
Strong Offensive Against Rebels
At the same time, Syrian government is waging several offensives against rebel held enclaves around the city of Aleppo, in the provinces of Eastern Ghouta, Hama and Al-Quneitra.
Clashes were also reported near the Al-Dorriyeh town in the northern countryside of Idlib, along the Turkish – Syrian border, where Turkish border guards opened fire on rebels’ positions. Syrian army reopened fronts in rebel-held Idlib and Hama provinces in late September, in a response to Islamist hardline rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) offensive.
HTS, which rules much of the Idlib province, attempted to break down the ceasefire in the region agreed by Russia, Turkey and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan, mid-September. According to the agreement, Turkish army is currently gearing up to deploy troops inside Idlib, which has been under intense airstrikes for the past two weeks.
The latest developments spell trouble for Syrian rebels – while Turkey still nominally supports moderate faction Free Syrian Army, by signing ceasefire deal, Ankara broke away from its previously non-negotiable opposition to Bashar al-Assad and acknowledged his authority. Turkey is seeking to establish its political stronghold in Syria, and many believe that the new ceasefire agreement effectively mapped out zones of Russian, Iranian and Turkish influence in the country.
In practice, the agreement proved to render the concept of ceasefire meaningless, given that some of the most intense clashes are happening right inside the de-escalation zones, designed to pacify the rebel forces before retaking their territories.
De-escalation zones agreed in Astana include Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, northern countryside of Homs province, and the southern front stretching from Syrian-Jordanian border to the countryside of Suwaida in the Druze Mountains, including the town of Al Quneitra.
Save for some of the latest clashes, the southern front has been relatively quiet – mostly because rebels, financially and logistically dependent on Jordan, pulled out of it without much hassle.
Allies Abandoning Rebels
In August, Hezbolah’s media unit Al Manar reported the Syrian army and its allies seized all checkpoints and posts in the province of Suwaida bordering with Jordan.
The southwestern region in Syria bordering Jordan and Israel had been mainly under control of rebel groups backed by Western and Arab states, but one of them, Jaish al-Ashair, suddenly pulled back.
Soon, Arab news network, Elam al-Harbri, said that Ahmad Abdu and Jeish al-Soud al-Sharqiyeh groups had left southern province of Badia, withdrawing to Jordan.
This week, Reuters reported that Syrian rebels are under strong pressure from Jordan to hand control of Nasib border crossing to the government. Some rebel groups present in the area were weakened by previous pullouts, including Free Syrian Army, which categorically opposes giving legitimacy to Bashar al-Assad.
According to Reuters report, Jordan proposed that rebels secure the road to Nasib, while a civil administration from Damascus would run the crossing, giving the rebels a portion of the customs fees as part of the deal.
While it may sound good, rebels are concerned that compromises with Damascus would lead to losing of local support. “The presence of any regime employee is like restoring legitimacy to a worn-out regime against which the Syrian people rose up,” Adham al Karad, FSA rebel commander told the news agency.
Jordan could simply open other land crossings into government-held territories, strangling rebels’ economy, but for now, it is refraining from it. While the closure of Nasib crossing seriously harmed Jordanian economy, large number of refugees additionally strained its infrastructural and financial capacities.
Rebels’ opposition to cooperation with Damascus may also be a lesson learned from other rebels’ experiences in de-escalation zones. Ultimately, Assad’s government has made it repeatedly clear that it intends to reassert its authority in the entire Syria.
For now, the status quo is rebels’ chosen option, but Jordan, as one of their strongest allies, is growing weary of increasing foreign influence in its neighborhood.
Saudi Arabia also came quickly to terms with the new situation. In early September, Russian Foreign Ministaer Sergei Lavrov visited Jeddah – signaling that Riyadh saw Moscow as its ticket to influential future role in Syria, and relationship further soared with a set of deals signed on Thursday in Moscow.
Saudi Arabia is currently spearheading the efforts to unite opposition which would take part in both Astana and Geneva peace process, as it seems it is swiftly backtracking from the battlefield.
Trouble on the Horizon
Despite the situation tipping in favor of Bashar al-Assad, and Russian reports that government forces control more than 90% of Syrian territory, some analysts warn that Damascus should be more cautious in its optimism.
Past Friday, ISIS forces managed to cut their way through regime troops and stormed government-held town of Qaryatayn in the Homs province, Syria Direct reported.
The report notes that this scenario doesn’t seem impossible if one takes into account that large swaths of liberated territory are “sparsely populated, difficult-to-police stretches of land in central and eastern Syria”.
“Control isn’t just simply occupying an area. You have to be able to re-establish your governance. That is the real challenge for them,” Scott Lucas, professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham, told Syria Direct.
This spells trouble for Syrian regime – despite the tentative acceptance it received even in the Western political circles which once fiercely rejected it.
Syrian regime lost its legitimacy in the eyes of Syrian citizens, and Bashar al-Assad will hardly ever have peace as long as he is in Damascus. He may have counted on fragmented opposition and rebels to lose their battle before it began, and this is what won him a war, among other things.
But this deep division and scattered insurgencies all over the ruins of Syria might turn out to be Assad’s kryptonite once he thinks he is finally safe in the dynastic presidential seat.
Donald Trump’s Middle Eastern tour lived up to his entrepreneur, celebrity persona —packed with action and marked by plenty of hystorical and symbolic firsts — kickstarting the trip in Saudi Arabia and being the first sitting U.S. president to pay a visit to the Western Wall, in the heart of disputed city of Jerusalem. Turning his meandering rhetoric into something Middle Eastern leaders can hold onto was another expectation Trump lived up to, but after his helicopter took off from Ben Gurion Airport, Palestinians and Israelis can safely conclude that they were not on the list of those leaders.
Israelis have a reason to feel emboldened and encouraged after Trump’s visit to the Western Wall. Up until this point, U.S. presidents paid these visits after the mandate or during political campaigns in order to uphold the official, bi-partisan U.S. position that the status of Jerusalem is disputed and distance themselves from possible diplomatic repercussions.
Trump’s visit adds a layer of legitimization and assurance for Israel, which is exactly what it needs after a rocky eight-year relationship with Barak Obama’s administration. However, it is important to point out that Trump was not accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which leaves the U.S. president with plenty of maneuvering space for ambiguity — again, he did something that both Israel and Palestinians can interpret in a way they deem fit.
Ambiguosity and vagueness regarding Israel seemed to be the staple of Trump’s speech delivered at the Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, where the American tour in the Middle East took off. As Raphael Ahren, diplomatic correspondent for the Times of Israel noted, it constituted only three references to Israel — one was about his tour plans, the second was an open call for the “three Abrahamic faiths” to join and cooperate in delivering, among other things, peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the third was an attack on Iran for “vowing the destruction of Israel.”
“In making this choice, he starkly differed from his predecessor. Barack Obama, in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, mentioned Israel 23 times…While Obama made an effort to appear balanced and fair to all sides, he left no doubt about American support for the Jewish state, and even called on the Arab world to consider adapting some of his views, ” Ahren wrote, pointing out that Trump missed an opportunity to press for Israel “where it counts.”
This should not be referred to as missing opportunity — passing it by is a more fitting description. In his quest to seal the deal with the Gulf states to counter Iran, Trump made sure not to upset Arab leaders. After all, rejectionism towards Israel is still an overwhelming feeling in the Arab world, and the United States isn’t winning any popularity awards in the Middle East either. Avoiding association with Israel was of prime importance for signees, and Trump gladly obliged.
The Jerusalem Question
What is definite is that Trump did not oblige the campaign promise that Israelis kept closest to their heart — the status of Jerusalem. The Israeli public seemed consumed by the “will he?“ question ahead of the president’s carefully crafted visit. The answer “no” seemed to be spelled out early on.
Working out the POTUS’s itinerary took off as passionately and gloriously as one would expect from the tour, which had elements of a reality show. A shouting match between Israeli officials and counselors at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, stating that the Western Wall, the holiest place for Jews to pray, “is not part of Israel and not Israel’s responsibility” made its way from the hallways to primetime news on Israeli Channel 2. The White House quickly disassociated itself from officials’ statements. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, also expressed her belief that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital.
In the end, the most Israel got out of the promise was an announcement of Trump’s and Netanyahu’s statements on the White House website, showing the location as “Jerusalem, Israel,” which was quickly changed to simply “Jerusalem, ” without any additional comments. So, while Trump knows the value of symbolic gestures and felt that the Western Wall visit was more than enough, it seems that all of the ink for signing bold moves ran out in Riyadh. Does it spell disaster? Definitely not. Jerusalem is under effective Israeli rule, and nobody can contest that reality on the ground. Boycotts or lack of recognition, as painful they are for Israelis, are things that the country knows how to live with.
As seen in Riyadh, Trump is (hopelessly) looking to groom Sunni Arab allies as the main line of defense against Iranian expansion, and rocking the boat with bold gestures simply will not keep them on board. No hard feelings in business — at least not for Trump.
What invoked some hard feelings among Israelis was Saudi Arabia’s uncontested success stemming from Trump’s visit, thanks to the series of agreements at a total value of more than $380 billion of investments. Saudi Arabia’s money will be mainly directed at American infrastructure, and the U.S. is investing in the kingdom’s defense industry. On Sunday, Trump signed a memorandum with leaders of the Gulf monarchies in order to cut funding for terrorism. The signees included Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The entire ordeal raised concerns about whether Israel would maintain its qualitative edge after this boost for Saudis, and many officials expressed disappointment that the deal was concluded without any consultation with Israel. This might prove to be worrisome for the U.S. as well, since Trump obviously decided to fight fire with fire, thus continuing a multi-decade American tradition of futile foreign policy that comes down to solving one problem only to create 99 new ones.
While Iranian expansion is a legitimate concern, so is a renewed relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which has been steadily deteriorating since the end of Cold War. Moreover, pontificating about Iranian terrorism while sitting next to the monarch whose country’s chief exports are Salafi jihadism and Wahhabism hardly creates a clear vision of a stable future in the Middle East. Trump’s business approach to the region, thinking that money and soft talk can keep everything in check, made even Israeli politicians flinch. This approach might spell doom for the most overused words of the visit: “the peace.”
The Peace Process and Settlements
“It is something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” Trump said about the peace agreement during a meeting with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Washington. Truthfully, Trump also thought that delivering a new health care act, making Mexicans pay for the wall, banning Muslims from entering the U.S. and ripping up the Nuclear Deal would be easy — resulting in the recent exasperated realization that he voiced in an interview with AP. “This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world…So you know, I really just see the bigness of it all, but also the responsibility.”
The president’s belief that governing is much like running the company might shed some light on the way he (mis)understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he often frames in the context of “making a deal.” Although Israeli media praised Trump for injecting religious discourse into his speech on the subject, his actions consistently follow different reasoning — from his approach to both sides to the choice of his representatives.
The meeting with Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem constituted a light slap on the wrist regarding the PA’s practice of financing jailed Palestinian terrorists and the families of killed attackers. “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded and even rewarded,” Trump said in a speech that carefully omitted any mention of Palestinians’ right to their state.
Conservatives in Israel already see that as an encouragement to continue with their prized policies. “After this speech and this visit, there is no excuse not to restart building in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It’s clear that even if the U.S. opposes building, they won’t fight against it,” said Yossi Dagan, head of the Shomron Regional Council in the northern West Bank.
He has every reason to believe that, if we take into account the United States’ new ambassador to Israel, bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, a longtime friend of Trump who has contributed financially towards Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Even from his diplomatic position, he made no attempts at being even remotely neutral on the subject, which is identified by the Palestinians as a burning problem in the stalled peace process.
In an interview with Israel Hayom, Friedman implied that Palestine’s “unnegotiable” position on settlements relies solely on the lines drawn by the U.S. administration, pointing out that a settlement freeze was a precondition to negotiations in 2009, but now there is “no demand for a settlement freeze, and Abbas is prepared to meet with the prime minister of Israel without any preconditions.”
Again, demands for a settlement freeze are a staple of the PA’s policy, and Netanyahu and Abbas still aren’t sitting in the same room, so Palestinians are not doing anything out of character. It is safe to assume that they are ready to put up with a few symbolic moves while they are still in the woods with the president who clearly favors the Israeli side until they figure out just how much they can get out of Trump.
Additionally, while Trump claims that Gulf states are ready for peace with Israel, the very same Arab leaders made it perfectly clear that it won’t happen without substantial moves on the Israeli side, and that it won’t happen unless it’s framed as a regional Arab-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Sidelined Palestinians may not have much to offer in the grand scheme of Trump’s Middle Eastern business, but after Arab leaders spent decades grooming them into a popular rallying cry, now they have to pay dues to their propaganda trope. As much as they would like to do business with Israel without getting into the hassle of solving the conflict, their credibility and popularity at home depend on it.
The Ultimate Deal
Trump’s tacit compliance with new settlements, keeping Palestinians’ statehood ambitions at bay and toying with Jerusalem’s status seem to be the refreshing post-Obama breeze that Netanyahu‘s conservative government has been waiting for. Both leaders used this visit to shake off controversies at home, appearing accepted and leaderlike.
However, long-term, the perpetual ambiguity will bring no change for the Israelis, and certainly won’t boost their position in the region. The ultimate deal is hardly about them — it is about the U.S. and its Arab allies, and if Israel slips into it through the cracks, good. If it doesn’t, Trump can live with that. Solving the conflict — making peace — is simply a side trophy.
Basically, the news is that there is no news. Israel and Palestine want the same things that they wanted a year ago, and they have been uncompromising on the same issues for more than two decades. Trump is talking about a peace agreement, with a tougher stance on the Palestinians, without coming forward with any concrete moves because all of the formulas are well-known, and the question remains only whether they are going to be implemented.
While it is good that Palestinians seem to have the impression that they are going to have to compromise, it is bad that Trump perpetuates Netanyahu’s belief that he can have his cake and eat it, too.
Since this visit, at least for Israelis and Palestinians, came down to symbolic gestures, let’s not forget the one that didn‘t happen. Trump reportedly canceled a visit to the historic Masada desert fortress after the Israel Air Force informed him that he would not be allowed to land his helicopter at the UNESCO-listed archaeological site.
It is known that one great and glorious army struggled to conquer Masada millenniae ago, only to settle for a Pyrrhic vcitory, and today, for an ordinary tourist, even those remaining stairs aren’t the easiest feat. Thus, the act of quitting might be an omen of Trump’s inevitable realization of the “bigness” and depth of the century-old grievances, which, a little bit like Masada itself, serves as a monument to all of the American leaders whose great plans crashed against the stone walls of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.