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.