A boy walks on the wreckage of a building hit by air strikes two years ago in Sanaa, Yemen December 30, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

December 30, 2017

Only the US can reach a peaceful political settlement in Yemen

Originally published in The Hill

Headlines from Yemen splash death tolls from airstrikes, warnings of a man-made widespread famine, and the collapse of a country caught up in the Iranian-Saudi Arabian regional war. Updates are interspersed: U.S. airstrikes target al Qaeda in Yemen, the Saudi-led blockade is partially lifted for humanitarian reasons, or worsening statistics reduce the suffering of Yemenis to numbers.

Yemen is so complex that addressing its problems seems impossible. It's easy to decide that the world should just write it off and perhaps throw some humanitarian assistance its way to salve our consciences. Yet such a decision would also write off key U.S. interests: defeating al Qaeda, rolling back Iran, securing a critical maritime (and commercial) choke point, and preventing Yemen from destabilizing the region.

The United States cannot be a bystander in Yemen nor can it outsource its interests to Arab partners or the United Nations, a policy the Trump administration seems wont to continue.

U.S. reliance on others to secure its interests in Yemen has been counter-productive. The Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention has made few strategic gains at the cost of alienating Yemenis in a way that makes them vulnerable to al Qaeda and ISIS penetration. Iran’s influence over the al Houthi movement has grown undeniably in recent years. Tehran demonstrated its ability to project force with attacks on ships in the Red Sea in 2016 and now by rocket into Saudi Arabia. Emirati-led counterterrorism operations have degraded al Qaeda in Yemen, but the Emiratis have fallen into the same trap as the United States did in both Afghanistan and Iraq: Al Qaeda is militarily and organizationally weaker, but the conditions for its return persist. And the UN-led effort to mediate a political resolution is simply not viable.

Yemen is spiraling downward rapidly, its collapse accelerated by the death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh earlier this month. Saleh had broken publicly with the Iranian-backed al Houthi movement, fracturing a pragmatic partnership that he had hoped would bring him back to power after the 2011 Arab Spring.  Some of Saleh’s loyalists are now fighting the al Houthis to avenge his murder. This turnabout could end the al Houthis’ de facto control over much of populated Yemen.

Yet the defeat of the al Houthis — whatever that looks like — will only reveal the fractious nature of the anti-al Houthi coalition and the pervasive and deep-seated mistrust among Yemeni powerbrokers. And those powerbrokers, including Saleh’s son, are now using the anti-al Houthi fight as cover to secure their positions for the next round, whether in the military or in the political arena.

What then, should the United States do? The answer has been in the mouths (but not the actions) of policymakers for the entire course of the war: a political resolution is the only way forward. That political resolution is not the one currently pursued by the UN (which excludes the majority of players). It is also not going to be one brokered through Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, which will each introduce its own requirements that are incompatible with stability in Yemen.

The United States must lead the effort to prioritize negotiating a settlement to the civil war and setting the framework for a long-term political settlement (which cannot simply be holding actors to previous agreements that were flawed or in which the actors had no say). The United States must also hold its partners in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to their repeated declarations that a military solution is not sustainable — even as they pursue precisely such a military solution. American leadership could set the right tone in negotiations to succeed where other efforts have failed.

Above all, the U.S. must abandon a policy in which American activity in Yemen is confined to targeted strikes on al Qaeda leaders and efforts to constrain the Iranian Qods Force. These actions are nothing more than band-aids in the absence of a larger effort to resolve the underlying conflicts that have turned Yemen into a cockpit for regional and global conflict.  

The U.S. must continue, of course, to disrupt al Qaeda and pressure Iran in Yemen. Sustaining military pressure on al Qaeda and developing good intelligence should reduce the risk of an attack from Yemen. The al Houthis are more complicated, as their isolation from the international community helped foster the bond with Iran. They now test the bounds of American and Saudi patience with probing ballistic missile strikes at Saudi Arabia’s capital. Supporting Saudi defensive measures against such attacks, as well as against seaborne attacks in the Red Sea, could serve to mitigate these threats.

Establishing a path for key members of the al Houthi movement back into the Yemeni political scene and away from Iran could segregate moderates from those attached to Tehran at any cost. Continuing to encourage Saudi Arabia to respond strategically, rather than through punitive airstrikes and a blockade that exacerbates human suffering, is the essential prerequisite for any such path.

Yemen will be in transition for years during which malign actors and other spoilers will seek to undo any progress toward peace. The situation at hand — in which over 11 million Yemenis are in acute need of assistance for survival, Iran reaps large dividends from a small investment, al Qaeda remains a threat, and U.S. key regional partners’ strategic attention is thoroughly consumed by the conflict — requires the United States to take action.

Securing a resolution to Yemen’s war is in America’s national interest, not just as a global power, but also as a moral leader.