“Despite its desire to quell the conflict as quickly as possible, America finds itself in a quandary. It cannot just capitulate to the Iran-backed Houthis, a militant group seeking every opportunity to attack its Saudi allies.”
As the current civil war in Yemen nears 1,000 days, American policymakers and warfighters alike are scrambling to consolidate US involvement in a conflict that they cannot invest fully in, nor back away from.
The commitment of the United States in Yemen for the two and a half years since the current conflict began has been marked by hesitancy and often cloaked in mystery.
To be clear, the war in Yemen was not brought on the country by foreign entities but is rather deeply rooted in local conflicts. The struggle for control between the Zaidi faction known as the Houthis and forces fighting for Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi have been brewing within the nation for decades.
In its broader context, however, the civil war has morphed into a proxy battle between big power players in the region, with a Saudi Arabia-led coalition backing Hadi and Iran lending its support to the Houthis. This is where the US begins to be interested.
In this way, the future outcome of the Yemeni civil war has turned into a major foreign strategic interest for the United States. America does not want to see the Houthis victorious, which would essentially spell an expansion of influence and power for Iran and the Shiite axis that it heads.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia, with all its faults, is an important US asset in the region. Saudi Arabia provides America with military installations, and it cooperates with the US in intelligence gathering efforts. This is not mentioning the business and energy interests America 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 friends. Ballistic missiles provided by Iran have repeatedly been fired into Saudi Arabia over the past several years. The US has thrown in substantial support for Saudi Arabia on this issue specifically. America provided the Saudis with Patriot anti-missile systems to defend its most sensitive locations, especially around the capital of Riyadh (an excellent, comprehensive rundown on the missile threat from Yemen to the region can be seen here). American diplomats have also used the opportunity to expose Iran’s backing of the Houthi rebels and supplying of weapons to the country.
The US, however, has stopped short of becoming a full-fledged member of the Saudi coalition. For a while, the official stance of the US government was that it was providing logistical support only. American aircraft, for instance, provide vital refueling for Saudi warplanes flying back and forth from bombing sorties in Yemen. The US has also used its navy to help protect areas around the Saudi coast from Houthi maritime forces. Over the past year, multiple US vessels have been deployed in the Gulf in response to Houthi suicide boat attacks on Saudi frigates.
Over the recent period, however, signs have been popping up indicating that the US is expanding its involvement in Yemen, perhaps indicating a broader commitment in the country all along.
Recently, US Central Command 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.
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 escalated over the past several months. Most of these attacks have been targeting jihadist groups not necessarily connected to the civil war. However, there is reason to believe that the US 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 spokeswoman explained to media sources that “we use unmanned platforms like these to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, including to track terrorist networks.”
While the official stance is that US drones in the conflict zones are for intelligence purposes, the stated intentions of intelligence officials make it hard to believe that strikes are not also taking place. The CIA has been pushing the Trump administration to grant the intelligence community authority to conduct deadly strikes in countries like Yemen since earlier this year. Trump finally gave in to these requests in March, departing drastically from the policy of former administrations that gave sole authority for drone strikes to the Defense Department. This would explain the recent increase of high-profile targeted drone assassinations being carried out in the country, the most recent being in Marib, just east of Houthi-controlled territory.
Interestingly though, as reports of increased US involvement in Yemen are being revealed, 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 hostilities 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 US can live with. “We’re pushing everybody to move into a political process as quickly as we can” Lenkering added.
A prime factor that is driving this push for talks to replace shooting is undoubtedly the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen that has truly spiraled out of control. In what has likely become 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 healthcare facilities have been destroyed in the past two and a half years of fighting, leaving the diseased and weak population with no recourse. While the violence itself has contributed to this abysmal situation, the primary factor has been the Saudi blockade of the country, originally set up to prevent weapons and supply deliveries from Iran to its Houthi allies.
While Saudi Arabia lifted its blockade a number of weeks ago at the demand of the American administration, Yemen will require a massive international rehabilitation effort if it is to avoid a country-wide famine. This obviously will not be possible to orchestrate as long as the opposing factions are still warring in Yemeni cities. This explains US diplomats’ frantic push to put a halt to the fighting, even if it means foregoing total victory for its allies and instead reaching a compromise.
Despite its desire to quell the conflict as quickly as possible, America finds itself in a quandary. It cannot just capitulate to the Iran-backed Houthis, a militant group seeking every opportunity to attack its Saudi allies. Even Lenkering had to add in his press release that his offer to the Houthis was conditioned on a commitment to desist from hostilities aimed at the Saudis.
“We cannot welcome [the Houthis] when they rocket our allies like Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, and also not – not when the Houthis are menacing the border of Saudi Arabia, which is something that goes on very consistently.”
An internationally organized effort to save Yemen will be forestalled until at least some pre-conditions are met. Until then, America will have to delicately protect its interests in the country without conflagrating the already desperate situation of the Yemeni people.