Following Germany’s lead regarding relations with Yemen

By Daniel DePetris

Normally, when multiple political parties in a European country negotiate to form a coalition government, the policy issues on the table are so localized that they have little bearing on the United States. The coalition negotiations that are ongoing in Germany, however, are an exception to the rule––not only because the result will help determine how the European Union operates over the next four years, but also because Berlin is prizing the kind of common-sense, pragmatic foreign policy in the Middle East that Washington could use more of.

In what would be a dramatic change in its previous approach, the 28-page framework agreement between Germany’s two establishment parties suspends all arms sales to any country participating in Yemen’s civil war. The policy shift is a complete reversal of the status-quo in Berlin, coming a year after defense exports to Saudi Arabia more than tripled.

The Trump administration would be wise to consider a similar directive. 

There is no vital national security interest at stake for the U.S. in the country’s three-year proxy war. Indeed, by providing Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners with critical military enablers like mid-air refueling, arms sales, and political cover at the United Nations, the U.S. is contributing to a conflict that has been taken advantage of by the very same terrorist groups it is supposed to be combating.

Freezing U.S. arms sales to the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen and removing itself from the war entirely would meet two objectives: get the U.S. out of an armed conflict that has severely hurt its reputation and which serves no U.S. national security purpose; and begin the process of winding down the violence that has killed at least 10,000 people, shattered Yemen as a nation-state, and helped instigate what the United Nations has called the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet today.

Why is the U.S. military involved in the Yemeni proxy war to begin with? It’s a good question that has never been fully explained by the previous administration, not to mention the current administration. We can only surmise that the White House believes it would be a tragedy if the Houthis were in charge. But in the grand scheme of American foreign policy, which armed faction controls the seat of power in Sana’a is largely immaterial to Washington’s Middle East policy? 

Central governments in Yemen both in times of war and in times of peace are but one player in a game where many actors––from political parties and secessionists to terrorist groups and tribes––are also on the field vying for power. The central government’s authority, whether under the rule of the late Ali Abdullah Saleh or Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is often limited to the capital city and challenged by the country’s complicated mosaic of tribes that resist any demand judged as against the interests of their members. In short, Yemen is an inherently weak state, vulnerable to the long arms of its neighbors.

Oil can’t be the answer for America’s military and political assistance to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates either. Compared to its neighbors, Yemen barely registers as an oil producer––and whatever dwindling amounts of crude oil it does produce is dependent on the how dangerous the security environment happens to be at any given period. The fact the poor southwest nation on the Arabian Peninsula is not even an OPEC member is suggestive of its status as a third-tier country.

Perhaps counterterrorism is the reason for Washington’s involvement?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make sense either. The Houthis have no association with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Islamic State’s branch in the country, two terrorist groups that have either attempted attacks on American targets or aspire to.  In fact, the Houthis and AQAP are sworn ideological enemies with two vastly competing interpretations of how Yemen should be governed. And, in case that isn’t enough of a reason to hate one another, the two have also engaged in battles. 

Nor is it the case that the Saudi-led air war against the Houthis is helping counterterrorism efforts against AQAP and ISIS. The opposite is the case. According to U.S. Central Command and the Director of National Intelligence, Yemen’s conflict is undermining the wider counterterrorism fight by diverting the attention of regional powers and the Yemeni government from a jihadist threat which has continued to recruit and expand. In a report to Congress last year, the U.S. intelligence community assessed that AQAP “exploited the conflict and the collapse of government authority to gain new recruits and allies and expand their influence.” In an end-of-year assessment last December, the Pentagon also reported that the Yemeni branch of ISIS doubled in size, hardly a sign of an effective counterterrorism campaign.

Iran, undoubtedly, is a big factor in the Trump administration’s Yemen calculations.  While the relationship between Tehran and the Houthis is generally regarded as a tactical alliance to bleed the Saudi treasury, exhaust the Royal Saudi Air Force, and expose Riyadh as an incompetent paper-tiger, the U.N.’s conclusion that the November  launch of a Houthi ballistic missile towards the Saudi capital contained Iranian markings means the partnership is more than just symbolic. Yet if U.S. refueling of Saudi aircraft and billions of dollars in U.S. defense exports to Riyadh are designed to blunt the impact of Iranian weapons and supplies to the Houthis, they are not having that effect.  If the strategy was successful, scholars of the region would not be referring to the unfolding conflict as Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam.

To say the U.S. is not getting any benefit from its participation in this conflict would be an understatement of epic proportions. What Washington is receiving instead is enormous pressure from the human rights community for enabling Saudi Arabia’s behavior, which has included violations of international humanitarian and human rights law; the bombings of funerals, markets, homes, factories, and ports; and up until early this month the quarantining of the country’s busiest Red Sea port and the systemic blocking of the food and medical aid that millions of Yemenis need to survive. 

On a humanitarian and moral level, U.S. policy in Yemen is a catastrophic blemish on its record. But just as importantly, the current policy is a strategic mess putting the U.S. in the middle of a violent contest for influence between the region’s two preeminent military and diplomatic powers. Tehran and Riyadh may have a lot at stake in Yemen, but Washington doesn’t.

The U.S. must stop picking winners and losers in the Middle East’s centuries-long sectarian fights; stop providing Saudi Air Force with the munitions, aircraft, and fuel it needs to continue a military strategy that has failed; help shock a U.N.-led diplomatic process back to life; draft a more impartial Security Council resolution outlining in general terms a possible power-sharing settlement the international community would support; and last but certainly not least, start being more far more selective in when and where and on behalf of whom America deploys its military assets.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear Defense on January 30, 2018. Read more HERE.