It’s tempting to take last weekend’s attacks on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) targets as evidence that the Trump administration is prioritizing narrow counterterrorism aims in Yemen over its former national security adviser’s Iran-centric approach. Yet Michael Flynn’s departure hasn’t lessened concern in Washington that the president continues to see Yemen as a battleground for confronting Iran by way of the Houthi rebels, the militant movement that currently co-governs the Yemeni capital of San’a and is at war with the Yemeni government. The internationally recognized government, led by Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is backed by the Saudi-led coalition, which casts the Houthis as Iranian agents. A U.S. destroyer has been ordered into the Red Sea, and the administration’s unquestioning support of Saudi Arabia is reportedly encouraging those regional allies backing President Hadi to shut down the vital Hudaydah port, potentially sparking a famine. U.S. support for the coalition – including billions’ worth of weaponry and the refueling of war planes that have, according to a UN report, indiscriminately bombed civilians – has been robust and could to be escalating, while the new administration’s commitment to a diplomatic solution has been vague at best. Last month, Foreign Policy reported that U.S. drone strikes against the Houthis may be on the table, as well as sending in military advisers to assist local forces. This would be an escalation that runs counter to the Obama administration’s policy of conducting strikes against the Houthis in self-defense only.
Eagerness to get at Iran, however, has blinded administration officials to the perils of further entanglement in Yemen’s conflict. Characterizing an attack on the Houthis as a blow to Iran grossly misunderstands the conflict dynamic. Though the Houthi movement certainly has limited ties to Iran and has benefited from small-arms shipments, the Houthis are not an Iranian proxy force that follows Iran’s marching orders. Iran’s small stake in Yemen means that it has little to lose from “being put on notice,” while U.S. entrapment in Yemen’s civil war would benefit Iran substantially.
Provincialists to Proxies?
The Houthi movement, once poised to wring significant concessions from a Yemeni central government severely weakened by the uprising in 2011 and 2012, has vacillated between incompetence and malevolence since seizing San’a in September 2014. Its grab of power has mixed human rights violations with administrative ineptitude and political intransigence. The movement swept into power thanks to the help of disgraced former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, once a sworn enemy of the Houthis, now an ally of convenience. Elements within the movement have also accepted support from Iranian sources, including small arms, anti-tank weapons, and military training.
Yet the Houthis bear all the hallmarks of a loose-knit, militarized organization attempting to prosecute parochial concerns, not the Yemeni wing of an Iran-constructed “Shia crescent.” The movement has come a long way since the 1990s, when it began as a populist movement in the Sa’dah governorate, wreathed in the language of Zaydi-Shia revivalism and best known for running a summer camp. In the unsettled period between revolution and civil war, before the Houthi putsch garnered the international community’s ire, Iranian influence was easily discounted. While some tried to intimate a religious link, perpetuating the stereotype that Shias worldwide are latent Iranian agents, the Zaydi tradition is a distinct sect within a non-monolithic Shiism, one inextricably tied to the Yemeni northwest. As provincial populists will, elements within the movement condemned Iranian attempts at outreach, as they did other foreign meddling. Even after a steadier relationship materialized, Iran found that its limited assistance provided only limited leverage; reports have indicated that the Houthis stormed San’a against the explicit advice of Iranian agents.
Painting the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, however, remains a favorite talking point of the Saudi government to bring Washington to its defense. But this projection ignores the party to which Houthi considerations truly bend: former President Saleh. It’s difficult to imagine the Houthis maintaining control over San’a or making their southward push (since reversed) without the aid of the soldiers and bureaucrats who once made war on Sa’dah, the northwest governorate where the Houthis are based. The civil war and Saudi bombardment have fundamentally reconfigured Yemeni politics for the worse. Although the strength of the Saleh network is difficult to determine, his General People’s Congress (GPC) controls the defense ministry within the Houthi-GPC counter-government and accounts for much of its military might. Having captured the oil and telecommunications ministries as well, Saleh is content to let the Houthis absorb the world’s negative attention as his own loyalists maximize their position in anticipation of a postwar settlement.
That being said, Iran certainly benefits from the Houthis sharing a border with its Saudi antagonists, and the Houthis have proven themselves willing to poke the bear time and again. Unlike the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts to which Iran is wedded, however, Yemen is not a longstanding commitment, and a Houthi setback would not cause nearly the same harm as the total fall of the Assad regime or the collapse of Shiite militias in Iraq; options that ironically the Trump administration has not put on the table. Such defeats would make terminal Iran’s regional isolation, cut off access to the Mediterranean, and remove a land bridge to its Hezbollah partners. In comparison, delivering small arms to an in-over-its-head Houthi movement is not part of an existential fight. It’s just a bonus for Iran.
Given this reality, the US is primed to expend significant resources, and possibly American lives, to hit Iran precisely where it doesn’t hurt. It will do so in a country whose residents already suffer mass malnutrition and oncoming famine resulting, in part, from ongoing US support for the Saudi-led coalition. Years from now, U.S. officials will look back ruefully on the U.S. role in Yemen’s devastation – under both the Trump and Obama administrations. And that’s before miring the U.S. military in a civil war that cannot be won on the battlefield.
Expanding support to the Saudi-led coalition, up to and including an on-the-ground military campaign, will not only continue to implicate the US in the coalition’s violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. It will negate entirely the political solution, however elusive, toward which U.S. Ambassador Matthew Tueller and others at the State Department are working tirelessly. Even if the Houthi-Saleh alliance loses San’a, they will buckle down in the mountains of Yemen’s northwest for a generation, serving exactly the role that Iran prefers. This is because in a prolonged insurgency, those elements within the Houthi movement that reject outside interference will have to yield to Iranian influence or be eliminated, as the small arms and occasional missiles trickling into the country will be their sole lifeline.
Rather than ratcheting up U.S. military involvement in the Yemeni civil war, the Trump administration should follow the lead of its diplomatic officers and commit to the UN peace process that has the best chance of producing a legitimate transitional government, while encouraging creative peacebuilding solutions – including reactivating networks of tribal mediation – at the local level, and convincing allies to contribute to an expansive postwar reconstruction program. U.S. intervention will hardly put Iran “on notice”; instead, it will fuel further decades of instability, and risk pushing yet another of the region’s factions entirely into Iran’s orbit.