Experts say that the underlying reason for Trump’s interest, is because Yemen figures into his plans to counter Iran’s influence. However, doing so may create space for al-Qaeda.
As far back as his presidential campaign, Trump has taken a hardline stance against Tehran, calling the nuclear deal, “the worst deal ever negotiated.” Still, he hasn’t torn it up. He has surrounded himself with hawks, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who think rolling back Tehran is a top priority.
And now they’ve focused on Yemen, who has been in a civil war since 2015. Just like the six year Syrian conflict before it, the fight for Yemen involves multiple regional and global forces struggling for control.
Nancy Youssef, national security correspondent, and Hayes Brown, world news editor and reporter, in an article for BuzzFeed News, write, “The US under the Obama administration became involved in aiding a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intended to restore Yemen’s internationally-recognized government after a coup attempt from the Houthi rebel group. The Houthis are considered an Iranian proxy by the US, due to both the fact that the group’s members practice a form of Shia Islam, despite being a different model than practiced in Iran, and increased weapons shipments from Tehran to the Yemeni rebels over the months.”
So it seems that the US believes that even more support is needed for the Saudis. The State Department approved the renewed sale of guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, Washington Post reported on Wednesday, a sale that was suspended last year. It also reported that a policy review on Yemen is underway at the White House. A senior US official told the Post, “We’ll be looking for ways to blunt Iranian malign influence in the region. And we’ll be looking for all the tools that the US government has. In that context, I think you have to look at Yemen.”
The Trump administration also wants to counter the political fallout in Arab capitals after the nuclear deal, when the its traditional Arab allies became convinced that the US was attempting to pivot towards Iran as part of a new long-term strategy. This boosts Yemen’s importance.
Things are more complicated that they would seem, though.
“If the Obama administration was all about Iran in a good way, it’s not weird that Trump administration would be all about Iran in a bad way,” Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. The problem is that the “mirror image of [the Obama White House’s] policy is not going to solve the problems that were caused by that one-dimensional policy,” Pletka said.
Trump’s administration seems to have increased its campaign to defeat al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, or AQAP. AQAP is a regional, independent branch of the terror group that seeks to attack the West but is also trying to build an Islamic emirate in Yemen. The complexity of fighting AQAP lies in the fact that it is both a ground force in the ongoing civil war in Yemen and a transnational threat to the West, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
The US under Trump’s administration, conducted more than 45 airstrikes in Yemen, including at least 15 last week, according to the US military.
Gartenstein-Ross warns, “If you weaken the Houthis, you strengthen AQAP and vice versa.”
AQAP and the Houthis “feed off each other. And violence begets violence,” said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of Long Wars Journal, adding, “Without a strong government that can fight these actors, you have different insurgencies jockeying to take over what’s left.”
No one in the administration has answered how the US can weaken AQAP while not strengthening the Houthis.
Part of the problem is that the US is currently viewing the conflict from a Saudi point of view, Pletka said, including Riyadh’s view that the battle is part of its broader struggle with Iran in a Sunni-Shia battle for dominance in the Middle East.
Youssef and Hayes write, “A US defense official told BuzzFeed News that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will still attack the Houthis as part of their ongoing strike campaign on behalf of the government. With the US attacking AQAP that may allow the UAE and Saudi Arabia to more aggressively attack the Houthis. But US defense officials concede that approach is precarious, given that the Gulf states have in several instances struck the wrong target. A Saudi strike in October on what turned out to be a Yemeni funeral prompted the Obama administration to attempt to distance itself further from the ongoing campaign.”
How to tackle two foes in Yemen has already presented challenges in Trump’s administration. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn suggested that the US priority was stopping Iranian expansion. It was Flynn who now infamously put Iran “on notice” during a White House press briefing, but didn’t explain just what that meant.
The first US military campaign in Yemen focused on AQAP, but days after a Jan. 29 raid targeting a suspected AQAP compound, which killed Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a Navy SEAL, and as many as 30 civilians, the US military turned back to the Houthis. Two defense officials told BuzzFeed News that the US military considered intercepting an Iranian ship bound for Oman, suspected of carrying weapons to the Houthis.
Under the Obama administration, US strikes focused on AQAP’s leadership, using a containment strategy. But the group is a counterinsurgency that has survived the loss of leadership. Trump’s administration has given US Central Command a broader range to attack the terror group, opening a new front against AQAP, saying it is the biggest threat to the West.
“If we go in there looking at it as an Iran only problem, the only thing that’s going to happen is this is going to come back and bite us in a year or two,” Pletka said.