WASHINGTON ― After years condemning U.S. interventionism in the Middle East, President Donald Trump stunned the world last week by escalating American involvement in Syria’s six-year civil war. But Trump has also been quietly preparing to boost the U.S. role in a war on the other side of the troubled region ― specifically in Yemen, an impoverished nation where 17 million people do not know where their next meal will come from and where all sides of a two-year civil war are implicated in alleged war crimes.
The Trump administration is slowly ramping up support to a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed militants, according to government sources, advocates and analysts. In the weeks ahead, they believe, Trump will approve a major transfer of bombs to Saudi Arabia, and may greenlight a coalition assault on Hodeidah, an essential port for food imports. Such a move would worsen the humanitarian crisis and damage United Nations efforts to negotiate a political solution.
“A week and a day ago, it looked inevitable and imminent,” Scott Paul, a senior humanitarian policy adviser at Oxfam America, said Tuesday of the move on the port. “It seems as if the combination of humanitarian concerns and more recently airstrikes in Syria seems to have at least diverted attention in the administration, but there is going to come a time when the eye goes back to Yemen.”
Katherine Zimmerman, an expert at the Republican-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank, said coalition representatives went to recent meetings like a summit between Trump and the Saudi defense minister with arguments tailored toward Trump’s stated goal of weakening Iranian influence.
They brought clear requests for tactical support, including lifting the Obama-era hold on the weapons transfer, providing more intelligence and logistical help, and increasing the U.S. involvement in the seas around Yemen, where the Iran-linked militia, the Houthis, has targeted American, Saudi and Emirati vessels. “They came with a very good engagement strategy and understood that the U.S. was open to suggestions,” Zimmerman said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly wants to provide some help to the Saudis and their close ally in the coalition, the United Arab Emirates, in their effort to take Hodeidah, though he has stopped short of recommending a deployment of American Special Operations forces. Coalition forces have been advancing on the city in recent days, apparently in the hopes of reaching its outskirts before the holy Muslim month of Ramadan begins in early June, and then attacking after Ramadan, Zimmerman said.
Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump declined to answer an emailed question about potential Defense Department involvement in planning for Hodeidah, citing force protection concerns. He also refused to comment on whether the U.S. would begin targeting the Houthi militia.
Stump said the current deployment of American support is still where it was under the Obama administration, which approved major assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in terms of aerial refueling that enabled the coalition’s bloody bombing campaign and other logistical aid.
“Four U.S. Air Force personnel, who have long been assigned to Saudi Arabia as part of an air defense liaison team, continue a narrow range of functions related to the Yemen conflict to include coordinating refueling, facilitating checks of a no-strike list, and sharing intelligence related to defense of the Saudi-Yemen border,” Stump told HuffPost. “The U.S. military’s support remains in a non-combat advisory and coordinating role.”
And a source in Congress, which must receive a notification of Trump’s approval of the weapons transfer to the Saudis, told HuffPost that notification had not arrived yet, despite a blessing for the move from the State Department last month.
But the stasis in Washington doesn’t prevent the U.S.-backed coalition and others from moving forward in ways that could limit Trump’s ability to shape events ― and threaten both the United States’ long-term goals in Yemen and the country’s desperate civilian population.
The Saudis, for instance, feel more certain of American support than they have since the beginning of the war.
“The intent is there and the meeting of minds is there,” said Ali Shihabi, the executive director of a new D.C. think tank called the Arabia Foundation, which is considered close to Saudi thinking. “It boils down to the details and what exactly America can do more than it has done previously... The fundamental problem which has already been solved was the overall attitude.”
The Saudi view of Hodeidah, which the U.N. has repeatedly asked warring parties to keep safe, seems set.
“Saudi Arabia has said... that port needs to be either taken over, or if you’re saying taking it over is a huge humanitarian problem, then let the U.N. go in and supervise it. The U.N. sort of is shrinking away,” Shihabi said, citing coalition worries about Iranian weapon shipments through the port and the Houthis’ manipulation of food supplies received there to deprive civilians living outside of their areas.
Stump, the Pentagon spokesman, made clear that Iran’s role is central to U.S. thinking. “If Iran continues its destabilizing and malign activities, then the United States will work with its partners to respond,” he said.
It seems unlikely that the weapons transfer is really in question either. While some lawmakers are pushing for greater transparency about alleged war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition before they approve the transfer, action against Iran is a popular goal on Capitol Hill, and the Saudis successfully secured a Senate vote on a tank transfer last year despite vocal criticism of their approach and low enthusiasm for the war in the White House. U.S. support in other forms ― like greater intelligence-sharing and coordination to benefit the coalition as part of regular American counter-terror activities in Yemen ― can grow regardless of congressional squabbles.
“In addition to degrading the [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] threat to the United States, recent U.S. military counterterrorism operations against [al Qaeda] in Yemen supported the Yemeni government and partner nation forces,” Stump wrote. The Saudi-backed faction in Yemen comprises the internationally recognized government.
With a friend in the Oval Office, the Saudi-led coalition can push ahead. But U.S. experts believe Washington should be wary.
“The US must not out-source its Yemen policy to Saudi Arabia or the UAE,” Zimmerman wrote at AEI’s Critical Threats blog in February. “Neither will act to secure US interests in full in Yemen and their divergence on key questions may prolong instability.”
The coalition’s strategy of pummeling its opponents, in the hope that that will weaken them and force them to negotiate, has remained largely the same since the conflict began in 2015 and has failed to provide results, she told HuffPost.
“The biggest contribution the United States can make to this fight is leadership to start to extricate our partners from Yemen,” Zimmerman said. She believes the administration should urge a political settlement as soon as possible, because that would force the pro-Iran group to recognize its internal fissures and start to splinter ― helping assuage Saudi concerns about an Iranian proxy on the border. (The Saudi-backed side is clearer in its long-term goals, she argued.)
A continuation of the war in its present form seems unlikely to have strategic benefits, even with high-profile efforts like the attack on the port. And meanwhile, Yemen will continue to bleed.
“All sides of the conflict are acting inappropriately, demonstrating a clear disregard for the lives of civilians, not fulfilling their obligations under international human rights law,” Paul said. “One task would have been to convince the coalition that taking the port is impractical and doesn’t lead to a political solution.”
“That would have been the correct course,” he went on. “Instead what’s happening is, we’re moving further and further down the road towards an invasion of Hodeidah every day where there isn’t a public opening for a realistic and flexible approach to the peace process.”