As the United States considers deeper involvement in the Yemeni civil war and grapples with the fallout of a January 2017 raid resulting in the death of a Navy SEAL and an unknown number of civilians, it must confront a growing reality: Yemen has become a graveyard of myths for understanding Middle East politics and U.S. foreign policy aims.
The conflict in Yemen — which is the site of ongoing human suffering — showcases the many flawed assumptions of U.S. policy in the broader Middle East, from a hyper-exaggerated focus on sectarianism to the fatal tendency to internationalize otherwise local conflicts. While receiving less attention than other wars in the Middle East and South Asia, Yemen’s civil war exhibits the accumulation of many missteps Washington has made elsewhere.
The U.S. commitment to underwrite the Saudi-led campaign through over $20 billion in arms sales, nearly 2,000 refueling missions, and ongoing moral support does more than merely expose the United States to charges of potential war crimes: It makes the United States a willing and accepting party to the sectarian justifications guiding the Saudi mission. Even generous interpretations of motive, which hold that the U.S. is supporting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf coalition members in an effort to assuage its partners over the Iran nuclear deal, rest on a sectarian fault line guiding the Saudi and U.A.E. intervention..
Restoring ousted President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi to power may be Saudi Arabia’s stated casus belli for intervention in Yemen. But it is the sectarian argument that the Houthi rebels serve the interests and advances of Iran, an association premised on the Houthis’ practice of an offshoot of Shiism, that drives the Saudi campaign.
But sectarianism in Yemen is not the primary driver of the conflict. In Yemen, much like other places, sectarianism is less of a bloodline than a lifeline. Affiliation to sect is one of many associations that harbors community security in the face of economic, social and political dislocations, but is by no means the most pertinent one in a war defined by a long history of regional allegiances and grievances, economic and demographic disparity, and, more recently, personal political rivalry between the central figures of Ali Abdullah Saleh and Hadi. Only after the onset of the Saudi-led campaign did the arming of the Houthi rebels by Iran increase, thereby thrusting a purported sectarian affiliation front and center. Based on open-source documentation in Arabic and English, evidence of cooperation between the Houthis and Iran prior to the war was periodic but never sustained. To the best of my knowledge, it largely amounted to some armament transfers and potential collusion with members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Even now, the relationship is more complicated than a patron funding and directing one of its proxies.
What Saudi Arabia and their allies have created in Yemen is a feedback loop of sectarianism. When one of a war’s critical participants defines the stakes in sectarian terms, battle lines of sectarian division will more likely than not solidify and impact how actors perceive the conflict and participate in it moving forward: alternate underlying causes of conflict are overshadowed; actions and solutions conceived in deference to local and regional sectarian divisions are reinforced; and narratives amongst internationalist Sunni extremist groups that thrive on sectarian division are abetted. The willingness to accept such a misguided premise has no doubt been impacted by the U.S. experience of sectarianism in Iraq and borrowed from the desire to see the war in Syria primarily through the sectarian lens of local groups and their international sponsors. No matter, of course, that the “Alawite” government of President Bashar al-Assad remains supported by Sunni military, political and economic elites.
Defining Yemen as a sectarian-proxy battlefield obfuscates how the dynamic there shifted a locally minded force directing its political grievances and military might against its own government, toward one inevitably more focused on the international arena. The Houthis emerged as a local movement seeking redress from a government inattentive to its social, political and economic rights. It was such attitudes — not any conditioned to think internationally — that led them to fight six battles between 2004 and 2011 with the formerly Saudi-backed government of Saleh, himself a Zaydi Shia. But the internationalization of the conflict in Yemen — not the first of its nature — has expanded their program: At one time they remained focused on battling their own government, but more recently have widened the theater of operations beyond Yemen’s borders. The Houthis launched a ballistic missile at a Saudi warship in the Red Sea, have reportedly targeted a military base in Riyadh, and fired several missiles at the USS Mason, (to which the destroyer responded by launching cruise missiles into rebel-controlled territory). The United States remains an engaged party with what primarily had been a locally focused actor. The stark reality of America’s engagement in Yemen is that Washington finds itself on the side of international actors opposing a local force with initially circumscribed local aims. Such a policy disregards a crucial ontological fact of Middle East conflict over the past two decades: Internationalize a conflict and more internationally minded actors will fill the void.
In the case of Yemen, this means the expansion of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). According to the 2015 State Department Terrorism report, the onset of the civil war in Yemen and the increased fragility of the country benefitted the expansion of AQAP. While the report remains vague as to the impact of the Saudi-led campaign, it is much clearer about how AQAP has “manipulated the conflict as part of a broader Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict,” a clear consequence of Saudi Arabia’s war messaging to root out a supposed Iranian Shia proxy. A February 2017 report by the International Crisis Group is more blunt in its assessment: Al-Qaeda in Yemen is “stronger than it has ever been” and any efforts to stem their advances, including by the United States, will be imperiled by “military actions that ignore the local context and result in high civilian casualties,” such as the raid in late January 2017. “The Saudi-backed coalition’s almost single-minded focus on defeating the Huthi/Saleh bloc has been a boon to AQAP,” the report continues. It is difficult to imagine the same rate of AQAP expansion under a more locally contained civil conflict. The renewed focus of the Saudi-led coalition to fight AQAP appears to at least reflect the growing concern over a rejuvenated and expanding movement demanding greater attention.
This result transpiring from the heightened level of instability driven by the Saudi-led, U.S.-supported campaign in Yemen should surprise few: The desire and ability of Al-Qaeda, ISIL and other transnational Islamist groups to thrive in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the Syrian Civil War and the more recent (re)emergence in Afghanistan is well-known. But what is seldom recognized is how the United States’ internationalization of conflict, either as the principal party or abetting accomplice, as in Yemen, can directly or indirectly lead to de facto alignments with many of these international affiliates against a local actor.
The United States opposes the Houthis in Yemen and so does AQAP, placing Washington in an “enemy of my enemy is Al Qaeda” quandary seen in other countries. As a result, the United States must confront a conundrum: Is it preferable to allow a local adversary with circumscribed aims to remain unchecked or intervene at the expense of removing a potential bulwark against the destabilizing presence of transnational jihadism?
Observers may note that the conflict in Yemen was internationalized before U.S. involvement, the presence of Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda have often preceded U.S. operations, and the primary objective of the United States there and elsewhere is combating global jihadists (versus confronting a local actor). Such misgivings, while valid, do not eradicate the composite impact of the after-effects of U.S. involvement in any of the locales, where alliances realign and new dynamics re-emerge, often militating against the logic of involvement in the first place — if not overriding it entirely.
If the primary objective of the United States is the eradication of transnational jihadist movements, then it too often appears de-prioritized when attention diverts to opposing more localized actors as conflicts progress. Such actions can be doubly undermining: not only does the focus on battling a local actor allow for the potential expansion of transnational movements at its expense, but also removes or debilitates a potential partner in any post-conflict environment that the United States may eventually rely upon to lead the fight against international movements in the future.
This can be seen no better than in Yemen where the United States is undertaking a process it’s seen unfold before, but now under the terms of another country’s logic. As Perry Cammack and Richard Sokolsky note recently in War on the Rocks:
[W]hile America’s overriding strategic priority in Yemen is to defeat and destroy AQAP, the top Saudi priorities were, in the private words of one senior Saudi prince, “Iran, Iran, and Iran.”
This does not bode well for protecting U.S. long-term interests in Yemen or the region. Instead, in assisting a multi-country assault on one of the world’s poorest countries, the United States has opted for underwriting a campaign based on sectarianism, rooting out a local actor, and providing an increased foothold for AQAP. Any diversion from fighting AQAP and brokering an honest negotiated settlement between the country’s warring factions by backing an assault on the Houthi rebels — and innocent bystanders — defies U.S. strategic interests.
Whether the United States knows it has made such a choice is unclear. Either way, it typifies some of the major assumptions and mistakes of U.S. policy in the greater Middle East now piling high upon the suffering and starving bodies of Yemen. Should the United States not choose to rectify such a misguided policy or rethink some of its other foreign policy assumptions on display in the deteriorating state of Yemen, it’s frightening to think what situation must arise for any self-correction to take place.
Kevin L. Schwartz is a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress and was recently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.