By: Connor A. McNairn*
Peaceful transitions of power are often overlooked or taken for granted by those who enjoy the stability of political systems that foster them. But for states lacking the political infrastructure to facilitate such transitions, separatist movements, military uprisings, and eventual civil war are often the outcome of political conflicts. Such is the reality in Yemen. Following the Arab Spring, which witnessed a massive uprising of repressed Arab populations across the Middle East, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to cede power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. But given the variety of problems that challenged Hadi upon his taking office, including food shortages and al-Qaeda attacks, the new leader was faced with the rise of the Houthis – a sect of disillusioned commoners and Muslim minorities who eventually took control of Sanaa in late 2014 with the support of Shia Iran. Hadi was eventually forced to flee the state.
Following the Houthis’ takeover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in conjunction with seven other Sunni Arab states and backed by the logistical support of the United States and United Kingdom, began launching assaults against the rebels in hopes of reestablishing a Hadi government. What has followed in the three years since has been a devastating and continuous state of civil war. The conflict has resulted in a myriad of human rights emergencies, ranging from possibly the largest cholera outbreak the world has ever seen to massive food shortages. Wide-spread bouts of diphtheria have also plagued hundreds in the state, and according to Mark Lowcock, the leader of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the country “looks like the apocalypse.”
In a moment of such grave turmoil, specifically one that the UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs dubs the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, the world looks to major global players for potential relief initiatives. The United States, which is undoubtedly the world’s largest economic superpower and, by extension, the most resourceful state in terms of offering potential aid to the region’s poorest country, has the potential to curtail much of the human suffering that has hitherto plagued Yemen. But in reality, U.S. involvement in the conflict has done the exact opposite. In backing the efforts of Sunni-led strikes on locations both Houthi and civilian occupied, the U.S. has been complicit in, if not actively responsible for, much of the humanitarian crisis that has left 22.2 million people in need of assistance, over 16,000 civilian dead, and roughly 2 million people displaced. What is more, through its attempted intervention in Yemen, the United States has also countered its own ambitions to rein in a nefarious Iran and its influence within the region.
What is the U.S. doing?
Before the civil war in Yemen began in 2015, the United States had already employed 100 military advisors in the state to oppose al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Such opposition is necessary in order to combat al-Qaeda’s influence in the region, which, if strong, might translate to increased terror attacks both in the U.S. and in the Middle Eastern region. In addition to directly combatting terror influence, the U.S. also maintains strong shipping interests in the Peninsula. Because Yemen is adjacent to the Bab-el-Mandeb, which narrowly separates Yemen from the Horn of Africa, its political stability, or lack thereof, poses a threat to U.S. shipping interests through the neighboring Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Specifically, the U.S. ships three to four million barrels of oil through the area on any given day.
Given its varying interests in Yemen, the United States felt obligated to support Saudi Arabia logistically – its foremost ally in the region – at the inception of the conflict. It is worth noting that the United States is not an official member of the coalition forged explicitly to fight the Houthis, but within the purview of international law, U.S. actions in support of Saudi Arabia make it party to the war. According to the Agence France-Presse (AFP), U.S. forces have actively participated in the refueling of Saudi-led warplanes, which have conducted numerous bombing campaigns on both Houthi strongholds and civilian communities. But aid to Saudi warplanes was just the beginning of U.S. involvement in the conflict, as the transition between former President Obama and current President Donald Trump has prompted increases in U.S. aggression.
Toward the end of President Obama’s tenure, the United States opted to cancel a potential $500 million sale of laser-guided bombs to Saudi military forces in response to growing concerns of increased civilian casualties. But the Trump administration’s more energetic approach to the conflict prompted a Senate vote to reverse Obama’s cancellation; the Senate approved of the reversal with a 53 to 47 vote. In addition to aggregating increased military funding, the Trump administration also approved a clandestine U.S. Special Forces operation on the Yemeni border to assist in the destruction of Houthi military sites. U.S. military strategy in Yemen is emblematic of its increased commitment to Saudi allies under the Trump administration. But these trends carry implications into an increasingly contentious U.S.-Iran relationship.
U.S., Yemen, and Iran
Similar to its Saudi strategy, the United States’ calculations surrounding Iran have also changed significantly under the Donald Trump presidency. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more widely known as the “Iran Deal,” was negotiated in 2015 under the Obama administration. The crux of the deal was that in exchange for reductions in Iranian nuclear developments, the United States, in tandem with Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia, would limit crippling sanctions on Tehran. But immediately after assuming the presidency, Donald Trump pulled the United States out of this crucial international deal. Although other states committed to the deal have attempted to salvage it in America’s absence, it is unlikely that the international community will be able to retain its benefits. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran Deal undoubtedly damaged the United States’ relationship with Tehran, but U.S. involvement in Yemen has made matters even worse.
It is no secret that Saudi Arabia and Iran have a number of conflicting political motivations, not the least of which revolves around religious difference. In an attempt to bolster allied initiatives and consolidate power back into the hands of the original Hadi government, the United States has fundamentally opposed Iranian interests in the region. But through its interventions in Yemen, namely those that have directly opposed Iranian-backed Houthi efforts, the United States may have actually increased Iran’s influence in both the state of Yemen and the region more broadly.
The Saudi-led coalition that is responsible for opposing the Houthi rebels has legitimated Iran’s activity in the conflict and has given Tehran further reason to build stronger relationships with the Houthis. As a key supplier of Houthi arms, which include short-range ballistic missiles, Iran has now effectively gained entry and political influence into a part of the Middle East that it had previously lacked. This is not to say that absent American support for Saudi military strategies, Iran would not engage in a relationship with the Houthis; but through continuously engaging in and tacitly supporting the atrocities of war that have left Yemen in its current condition, the United States has also given Iran a continued reason to remain in the conflict.
It is difficult to prescribe remedies to a situation like the Yemeni Civil War, as its origins convey the weakness of the state’s political institutions and the broader instability of the entire region. But when thousands of civilians are killed, hundreds of thousands exposed to plague and physical violence, and there is no end in sight, it is incumbent upon the world’s most powerful states to employ strategies that seek to minimize the toll on innocent human lives. American interests in the region, which revolve mainly around AQAP anti-terrorist initiatives and shipping access to bolster oil trade, can still be nurtured in the face of the conflict. It is wise for the United States to continue its effort to mitigate al-Qaeda’s presence in the Arabian Peninsula and keep safe the waters that neighbor the battlefields of Yemen. But doing so is achievable without selling half a billion dollars in arms to a coalition that has repeatedly bombarded civilian locations. If the United States hopes to achieve its several goals in the region without nurturing an expansion of Iranian power and remaining complicit in human rights violations, it must drastically re-think its approach to aiding the Saudis and other Sunni participants in the anti-Houthi coalitions.
 BBC News, “Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?” BBC News, January 30, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423
 Al Jazeera News, “Yemen could be ‘worst’ humanitarian crisis in 50 years,” Al Jazeera Media Network, January 5, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/01/yemen-worst-humanitarian-crisis-50-years-180105190332474.html
 Associated Press, “World faces worst humanitarian crisis since 1945, says UN official,” The Gaurdian, March 10, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/11/world-faces-worst-humanitarian-crisis-since-1945-says-un-official
 Council on Foreign Relations, “War in Yemen,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 21, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker?marker-7#!/conflict/war-in-yemen
 Elizabeth McLaughlin and Luis Martinez, “The US Role in Yemen: What You Need to Know,” ABC News, October 13, 2016, https://abcnews.go.com/International/us-role-yemen/story?id=42780004
 Philippe Bolopion and Belkis Wille, “Bleeding in Yemen: The Looming Humanitarian Crisis,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 15, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/saudi-arabia/2015-04-15/bleeding-yemen
 AFP, “US to refuel Saudi-led aircraft in Yemen war,” Yahoo News, April 2, 2015, https://www.yahoo.com/news/us-refuel-saudi-led-aircraft-yemen-war-230232806.html
 Mohamad Bazzi, “The war in Yemen is disastrous. America is only making things worse,” The Gaurdian, June 11, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/11/trump-yemen-saudi-arabi-war-us-involvement-worsening-crisis
 Daniel Byman, “How the U.S. Is Empowering Iran in Yemen,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 26, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2018-07-26/how-us-empowering-iran-yemen
*Disclaimer: The content contained in the following material is the sole ownership of the author and does not reflect the Towson University Journal of International Affairs nor Towson University in any respect whatsoever.