August 29, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The American War in Yemen
The U.S. finds itself in an increasingly untenable situation in Yemen, where at least 10,000 civilians have been killed in more than two years of fighting between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led military campaign. The U.S. is often described as playing a ‘supporting role’, though this description understates the substantial nature of that support, including refueling of Saudi and UAE aircraft, and providing intelligence for targeting packages. The repeated inaccuracies of the U.S.-supported coalition airstrikes have led to widespread condemnation by the United Nations, most recently after a Saudi airstrike against a house in Sanaa killed 14 people on August 23. Saudi Arabia, which normally denies any civilian casualties from its strikes, apologized for the August 23 strike, saying it was a ‘technical error.’ After a two-month pause on airstrikes in the Yemeni capital in response to growing concerns over the civilians deaths, it appears the coalition has restarted attacks in Sanaa, with the U.N. stating that at least 42 people were killed in coalition airstrikes between August 17-24.
The U.S. supports Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their campaign in Yemen over concerns that Iran is gaining a foothold in the country through its support of the Houthi rebels, who seized power in January 2015. While countering Iranian influence in the region is in the interest of the U.S., the war in Yemen comes with unacceptable humanitarian and geopolitical costs. Far from helping bring stability to the war-torn country, the war in Yemen has brought misery and generational damage to the poorest country in the Middle East. The U.S. has sought to remain detached from the consequences of the air campaign it supports, but the linkage is firm in the minds of Yemeni civilians, and increasingly in the international community as well.
The main U.S. focus in Yemen is its counterterrorism mission aimed at weakening al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most dangerous of the al-Qaeda affiliates. The counterterrorism mission has been undermined by the war, since it depends—as most counterterrorism missions do—on a stable and credible partner and liaison. There is no such partner right now in Yemen, where the situation is so chaotic that supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh clashed with Houthi supporters in Sanaa, a serious rift between the erstwhile allies. Likewise, the Saudi-led coalition has been beset by tensions between President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the UAE over the latter’s alleged human rights abuses and challenges to Hadi’s authority in the country. The U.S. has continued its drone missions and Special Operations Forces (SOF) activity in the country. From a counterterrorism standpoint, the last two years have been a disaster, with AQAP gaining strength and the so-called Islamic State attempting to seize on the instability to make inroads.
There are no signs that either side is willing to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Even if the warring parties were willing to engage in new peace talks, it is unclear that either side maintains a sufficient degree of internal unity to effectively represent their respective interests at the negotiating table. With no end in sight, the war has sparked one of the worst cholera outbreaks in recent history. Over two thousand have died of the preventable disease, and there are now more than 500,000 cases across the country. The fighting and destruction of basic infrastructure—the root causes of the man-made health crisis—pose a challenge of the highest order for the humanitarian and medical teams struggling to contain the outbreak. The growing gap between the needs of Yemen’s aid-dependent civilian population, and the ability of aid organizations to provide necessary medicine, food, shelter, and safety, is worsening by the day. Thus, continued support for the war is both a geopolitical loss and a humanitarian stain for the U.S. According to any metric by which one might judge the U.S. strategy in Yemen—whether through a political, military, counterterrorism, or humanitarian lens—the U.S. policy of backing the Saudi-led coalition’s pursuit of a military solution has been an abject failure. If any progress is to be made for the people of Yemen, the U.S. will need to use what influence it has over its allies in this war to generate movement towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
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