Changing the US Role in Yemen

The American Enterprise Institute’s Katherine Zimmerman recently published a list of policy recommendations for the United States as the Trump administration reevaluates US engagement in Yemen. In this piece, Zimmerman warns the current administration against falling into the role that America played in Yemen under Presidents Obama and Bush, which amounted to “outsourcing US policy to Saudi Arabia.” Instead, she urges the Trump administration to be more independent and self-determining in future dealings with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Although the Hadi government and Saudi Arabia may seem like obvious allies at first glance, she emphasizes that this is not actually the case. Rather than working with the United States to defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which would align with American interests, Hadi works indirectly with AQAP, who has become his de facto ally in the war against the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Furthermore, he lacks broad support and legitimacy among Yemenis, even his allies in the civil war. Zimmerman stresses that his adversaries the Houthis are not, as has been claimed by some, merely a proxy for Iran in the region. However, Saudi Arabia’s attempts to exclude them from a future Yemeni political system could drive them closer to Tehran. The political solution put forward by the United Nations is also heavily Saudi-influenced and would disproportionately benefit elites; as such it is not a sustainable solution to the complex conflict.

Ultimately, the current approach to the Yemen war is only serving the interests of ISIS and AQAP by creating chaos and leaving the vast majority of Yemenis desperate for change and dissatisfied with governance in their country, while increasing Iran’s influence over the Houthis. Zimmerman argues that since none of these factors are in the interests of the United States, the current administration should focus on taking the lead in Yemen in order to bring an end to the conflict. A lasting resolution, she says, must include the Houthis in Yemen’s political future, seek resolutions to local conflicts, and focus on the defeat of AQAP and ISIS in the country.

She suggests that these goals be achieved through several measures. Bringing the Houthis into the fold would require US recognition of Houthi grievances and support for their future role in Yemen’s governance, as well as a clear message that a closer relationship with Iran will not benefit their cause. This entails pressuring Saudi Arabia to forgo requiring the Houthis’ unconditional surrender as a precondition for peace. Furthermore, addressing the various local conflicts in Yemen must start at the sub-state level, with reconciliation measures focusing on airing and resolving grievances in cooperation with local NGOs. Simultaneously, there should be a focus on defeating AQAP, which has gained a stronger foothold in Yemen over the course of the civil war. This necessitates replacing what AQAP provides to gain Yemeni support, namely military resources such as weapons and training for militias fighting the Houthi-Saleh alliance. In doing so, the US would be able to weaken al-Qaeda’s relationships with local communities.

Ultimately, Zimmerman urges the US government to increase its involvement in Yemen, not through military support alone but by focusing on these three priorities. De-escalating the conflict and meaningfully addressing local grievances, including those of the Houthis, will lessen AQAP, ISIS and Iranian influence as well as the likelihood of war re-erupting in the future. These are the goals that the United States should take the lead on achieving in Yemen.