Followers of the Houthi movement raise Yemeni flags and their weapons during a rally against the Saudi-led coalition, in Yemen's capital Sanaa, February 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

February 24, 2017

How the U.S. Should Re-Engage in Yemen

Policy recommendations
  • Lead efforts to broker a political resolution to the civil war and resolutions to the local conflicts that would otherwise collapse a national-level settlement and that fuel insurgencies.
    • Support the establishment of forums to air and begin to address local grievances.
    • Support a resolution to the civil war that preserves the al Houthis’ role in a future Yemeni government and that promises to begin to address popular grievances against the central government.
    • Remove requirements under UNSCR 2216 as preconditions for peace talks.
  • Support and shape the Saudi-led coalition’s operations in Yemen in order to pressure the al Houthi-Saleh faction militarily, prevent resources from flowing to AQAP, and limit the effects of the war on the population.
    • Reorient the Saudi-led coalition on achieving strategic effects through limited military operations in place of campaigns that are equally punitive for the population.
    • Condition assistance on a more restricted air campaign against specific military targets and on adherence to guidelines that will better regulate the recipients of military and financial resources.
  • Block Iranian expansion in Yemen and increase military pressure on the al Houthi-Saleh faction.
    • Interdict Iranian support destined for the al Houthi-Saleh faction by maritime routes and by land from Oman, as well as the medium- and heavy-weapons shipments transiting the Gulf of Aden.
  • Expand operations against AQAP by focusing on the group’s critical vulnerability: its relationship with the Sunni population.
    • Maintain or increase support for the Emirati forces combating AQAP.
    • Establish or support partners in establishing an alternative line of support for local militias in order to break their relationship with AQAP.
    • Support local administrations and governance efforts to secure populations against AQAP’s influence.

The Trump administration promises to do more against the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), al Qaeda, and Iran than its predecessor. Yemen seems, oddly, to be a perfect place to start. Iranian-backed forces attacked U.S. ships from the Yemeni coast, al Qaeda has dramatically expanded its Yemeni base, and ISIS established a small foothold there. The U.S. already has partners on the ground through the Saudi-led coalition, now fighting on one side of the Yemeni civil war. Saudi Arabia’s objectives in Yemen seem to align closely with American interests. But outsourcing U.S. policy to Saudi Arabia, which is where the Trump administration seems to be headed, is a trap into which both the Obama and Bush administrations fell. The U.S. must instead chart its own course in Yemen for our allies to follow.

American alignment with the existing coalition in Yemen seems like an obvious policy at first glance. The internationally recognized Yemeni government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi seems a good partner against both al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Iranian-backed al Houthi movement. Counterterrorism operations against AQAP increased under Hadi’s rule before the war. Hadi also stands to lose should the al Houthis continue to hold Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The Saudi-led coalition seeks to reinstate the Hadi government over the al Houthis and claims to be fighting AQAP. The Saudis recently requested additional U.S. support, including precision-guided munitions, for the war in Yemen. The UN is negotiating for a political resolution. The U.S. should therefore back the Saudi-led coalition and the UN in their efforts. Right?

Wrong. Hadi is not a good counterterrorism partner. He is not fighting AQAP or ISIS and, in fact, tacitly works with AQAP in some areas. He lacks legitimacy even among those Yemenis aligned with him against the al Houthis. The al Houthis are not an Iranian proxy as some claim.  Riyadh’s pursuit of a peace that excludes the al Houthis from any real participation in the future government drives them toward Tehran, however. The UN is pursuing a political agreement that will not endure. It is negotiating an elite settlement, openly under Riyadh’s influence, among power-brokers who do not actually command the loyalty of Yemenis on all sides. The UN’s answer ignores the fundamental grievances and local conflicts that generated the war in the first place. Backing these efforts will lead to failure.

No one is winning in Yemen today. The Saudi-led coalition’s ground offensives have barely changed the war’s front line this past year. The coalition’s and Yemeni government’s strategy, moreover, is devastating to the population. Announced military objectives include seizing the entire Red Sea coastline, which may isolate the al Houthi-Saleh faction in north-central Yemen and will almost certainly exacerbate humanitarian conditions. Only America’s enemies—al Qaeda, ISIS, and Iran—stand to gain from the current approach. AQAP is re-emerging in territory cleared last spring and continues to fight alongside local militias on the war’s frontlines. ISIS retains a small footprint and could expand. Iran’s influence with the al Houthis has grown. The U.S. needs to lead the effort to end the war to prevent further gains by its foes.

Ending the war on acceptable terms for the U.S. requires guiding Saudi Arabia away from its goal of annihilating any specter of Iranian influence in Yemen by crushing the al Houthis. The U.S. must simultaneously pressure the al Houthis to accept a reasonable offer of negotiations and, ultimately, peace. America must push partners to focus on defeating AQAP and ISIS rather than cutting temporary deals for support against the al Houthis—as Hadi has in central Yemen—or simply ignoring their presence on the battlefield. And the U.S. must lead the efforts to broker resolutions to the myriad of local conflicts that would otherwise quickly collapse any national-level settlement.

Defeating AQAP

America’s counterterrorism partners in Yemen, Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition, perceive AQAP as the lesser enemy in Yemen, if an enemy at all, and have prioritized the defeat of the al Houthi-Saleh faction. Hadi has committed what little military resources he controls to first tamp down discontent in areas under his nominal control and second to win the war. The Saudi-led coalition tolerates AQAP’s presence on the battlefield, so long as the group fights against the al Houthi-Saleh forces. The Emiratis did lead an intensive counterterrorism campaign to rout AQAP from where it governed in southern Yemen in 2016, but the Emirati offensive stopped short of the requirements to deal a lasting blow to AQAP. Instead, AQAP melted into the Yemeni population and retreated to remote sanctuaries rather than fight head-to-head against the better-equipped military.

AQAP has resurged from such losses before, able to co-opt persistent popular grievances. In fact, AQAP is a critical enabler for some local militias fighting against the al Houthi-Saleh forces. AQAP provides these militias with weapons, training, and resources, and in doing so, builds a broader popular base.  It even receives support from the Hadi government through a series of murky relationships to hold the frontline against the al Houthi-Saleh forces in al Bayda, where the recent and ill-fated U.S. raid occurred.

The U.S. should provide an alternative support network to local militias to break the relationship with AQAP and should encourage partners such as the Emiratis to do the same. Replacing what AQAP has to offer removes a key means to generating popular support for the group. It may also move stagnant frontlines, a critical condition to get parties to the negotiating table.

Re-aligning Saudi Objectives against the al Houthis

The al Houthi movement cannot establish a Hezbollah-like state on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, despite Riyadh’s fears. The al Houthi leadership retains its independence from Iran and has pushed back on Tehran’s statements and offers repeatedly, a sign that a broader base demands this independence. The movement is fractured, moreover. Iran has insinuated itself into parts, but has not taken control of, let alone unified, the whole movement. The movement is not as strong as some give it credit. The al Houthis rely on a pragmatic partnership with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who fought them in six brutal wars from 2004-2010. Saleh’s military forces and resources lets the al Houthis maintain their positions beyond their traditional support base in northern Yemen. It is not a country-wide Hezbollah, nor can it become one.

The al Houthis are clearly a problem for the U.S., however, as the attacks in the Red Sea show. Those attacks served Iranian interests much more than they did the al Houthis’, showing that at least part of the movement now responds to Tehran’s wishes. And the al Houthis are strongly anti-American—a legacy of American support for Saleh’s wars against them. The situation remains complex. It would be erroneous to assume that the al Houthis have completed a journey toward Iranian proxy-hood that they have only just begun.

The U.S. must send two clear signals, therefore. First, that it recognizes al Houthi grievances and supports their role in a future Yemeni government. Second, that turning to Iran hurts rather than helps the al Houthis’ cause.  The aim must be to split the al Houthis from Iran, or at least as many of them as possible, rather than obliterating them. This approach runs counter to Riyadh’s current strategy, which seeks a complete defeat of the al Houthis and their near-total exclusion from power and influence. Such a solution will be unstable if it is even temporarily achievable.

The U.S. should therefore press the Saudis to drop the current requirements of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 that al Houthi forces disarm and withdraw from all seized territory before negotiations even begin. Those requirements are tantamount to a demand for unconditional al Houthi surrender. They will only prolong a conflict that is harming everyone. Offering the al Houthis—who represent a notable fraction of Yemen’s population—and Saleh, a hidden hand in Yemen’s war, the prospect of an acceptable political solution while continuing to press militarily and interdicting Iranian support is the best way to bring the conflict toward a satisfactory and stable solution.

Addressing grievances to foster peace

Interacting insurgencies drive the war’s complexities in Yemen. AQAP and the al Houthis lead two of them. There is also a secessionist movement in the south and more local contests for authority. Policies to reduce a group’s influence by targeting its military strength or influence on the ground fall short of producing a stable end-state. The U.S. must recognize that short-term solutions in Yemen are what preserved the very grievances that led to the outbreak of civil war in the first place. Instead of a counter-Iranian strategy or a counter-terrorism strategy, the U.S. must develop a strategy that begins to address those grievances that AQAP and the al Houthis have hijacked.

Resolving the national political conflict is not sufficient. The Yemeni civil war, now ensnared in the Iranian-Saudi war, extends down into local conflicts, too. The hodgepodge coalition against the al Houthi-Saleh faction fractures rapidly once the question of power is on the table. None of the main component forces supports Hadi for president and few would support the return of the Yemeni central state as it was. Southern secessionist militias may eject Hadi’s government once the al Houthi-Saleh war is resolved. Further, the severe deterioration of humanitarian conditions in Yemen will prolong instability. Yemen is second only to Syria in the severity of its humanitarian conditions.

The U.S. must start leading reconciliation efforts at the sub-state level to resolve local conflicts. It must support the establishment of forums to air and address local grievances and also begin discussions on the future of the Yemeni central government, from which many of the grievances stem. It does not need to go it alone. NGOs on the ground are already identifying conflict points, and partners like the UK can help broker mediated settlements.

Simply leaning in to the Yemen war by increasing U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition will only cause our partners to fail faster and take the U.S. down the wrong path. The Saudis exaggerate the threat from Iran in Yemen and do little to combat ISIS and al Qaeda. The Emiratis, an Arab partner seriously fighting al Qaeda, are nonetheless not on track to succeed. The U.S. must shape its partners’ understanding of the fight and direct their efforts toward our own vital national security interests, which include de-escalating the regional wars such as the Iranian-Saudi conflict now playing out in Yemen and elsewhere. Increased American backing for the existing coalition in Yemen will otherwise strengthen our enemies and drive the al Houthis closer to Tehran.

The U.S. cannot abandon its partners in the Saudi-led coalition. It must stand by its Sunni Arab partners as they seek to stabilize the region, and the U.S. cannot shape their actions if it is not involved. Yet support must be contingent on the coalition reorienting its air campaign to achieve strategic effects rather than terrorize a population into submission. The high civilian death toll and the coalition’s and its Yemeni partners’ politicization of humanitarian aid alienates the very population the coalition and its partners must win over for a long-term solution. The coalition has become a pariah in the eyes of the international community as it pursues these ineffective methods, reducing the willingness of the community to back its efforts.

American re-engagement in Yemen should recognize that both al Qaeda and Iran seek to hijack local grievances to gain influence. The war is a composite of multiple spinning local conflicts that let both of America’s enemies expand their footprint in Yemen. The war is also what opened the door for ISIS to begin operations in Yemen. The United States should lead the effort to resolve the conflicts that feed the war. Such a policy would starve al Qaeda and Iran of the sustenance they need to retain their influence in Yemen.