The United States’ support for the Saudi-led coalition has introduced a dangerous new dynamic into an already volatile and complex conflict in Yemen. In addition to the US’ controversial counter-terrorism drone strikes, raids and special ops missions, America is indirectly supporting armed groups which fight alongside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), undermining its national security strategy in Yemen.
The US is not the only international force taking part in the conflict in Yemen at present; the Saudi-led Arab coalition is supporting President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in his efforts to recapture control of the country from the Iranian-backed Houthi group which is supported by ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Saudi coalition is receiving support from the US by way of locational intelligence and operational assistance. The Arab coalition has targeted the Houthi group using airstrikes and ground-operations since 2015, with the UAE broadening military objectives to include striking AQAP. This has directly influenced AQAP’s movements in southern Yemen, and may have engineered a path for political developments in the south and the formation of the UAE-backed Southern Political Council (SPC).
However, on the grounded there are nine battlefronts: (1) Hadi vs Saleh (2) Saudi-coalition vs Saleh-Iran-Houthis (3) AQAP vs Saleh (4) AQAP vs UAE-backed forces (5) AQAP vs Daesh in Yemen (6) UAE vs Daesh in Yemen (7) US vs Houthis (8) US vs AQAP (9) US vs Daesh in Yemen. A tenth front may be being added with the Saudi-coalition fighting an Iranian military presence on the ground, making the conflict impossible to rescind.
US President Donald Trump’s support for the Saudi led-coalition is more than just fighting terrorism in Yemen; making it a possible proxy war with Iran over the nuclear deal. Supporting the coalition is an indirect way to show strength in the context of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. In Syria and Iraq, the US is currently acquiescing Iranian foreign policy by supporting Shia groups against the armed Sunni opposition, which juxtaposes the conflict dynamics in Yemen. The US claimed it “vetted” opposition groups before forming alliances, and as the complexities of the civil war unfold; the US may enter into another vetting process.
Unsettled US policy
Jim Mattis, US defence secretary, reiterated support for the Saudi-led coalition’s military objectives for the reinstatement of President Hadi. En route to Saudi Arabia, Mattis stated the Yemeni conflict needs an “UN-brokered negotiating team” to resolve the civil war. This is proving to be difficult as parties have discarded peace talks for military gains. US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerman, clarified Iran’s role, making clear that the coalition operating in the Arabian Sea has “revealed a complex Iranian network to arm and equip the Houthis”. Thus, the US policy on the Houthis appears to be morphing into a potential military-attack role, as opposed to that of a peace broker.
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The Trump administration is found in a quandary as it decides whether to support Yemen with deeper military involvement. Mattis, in a memo, asked the president to relax Obama’s policy on Yemen to assist Emirati plans on a full-scale assault to retake the Red Sea port of Hudaydah, in which the Americans have interest. Recently, the Houthis have fired missiles towards US and allied ships near the port, while unmanned suicide boats are frequently exploding besides coalition ships.
New council: A game changer
The US and the Saudi-led coalition set out to assist Hadi’s government, but now there are three governments: the Iranian-backed Houthi group in the north, controlling Sana’a; the transitional government led by Hadi and the newly formed Southern Political Council (SPC). The UAE, a member of the Saudi coalition, is also the main backer of the SPC.
Hadi has taken a strong stance against Abu Dhabi’s goals in the south of Yemen, calling the crown prince and deputy supreme commander “occupiers” as opposed to welcome “liberators”.
One of the goals of the SPC is to regain Bab Al-Mandab, a narrow waterway for commercial navigation of trade ships between Africa and the Arab world. The Red Sea port is a specific interest for all parties to the conflict and, due to fierce battles and a potential impending US attack at the request of the UAE, it can either escalate the conflict or change its course. There’s a risk that alliances between the US and UAE may be tainted if America does not support the SPC and Abu Dhabi’s military objectives to retake the Red Sea port.
The Houthi group is not capable of sustaining its advancements towards south Yemen without the protection of Saleh’s loyal national army. It is likely that dividing the Saleh and Houthi relationship would be a potential means to disrupt the civil war and force the group into negotiations. In response to Houthi assassination threats, Saleh has already turned against the Houthis giving permission to print and broadcast media loyal to him to discredit the group. Much of the narrative revolves around the “extreme” traits of the group and the influence it comes under from Tehran. The Saudi-led coalition and the US may consider engaging the Houthi group directly, sidestepping Saleh’s loyal forces.
The former president has already called on neighbouring countries to host peace talks; a crucial means to influence the conflict. Until peace talks succeed, it’s the alliances and military objectives of the parties that may impact the pendulum of the conflict.
As the Trump administration seeks a deeper weight in the civil war, fractures are emerging in battlefield alliances and political goals – in turn, the US must realise the implications of its unions.