Pentagon Weighs More Support for Saudi-led War in Yemen
As the administration debates how to confront Iran, some in the Pentagon favor ratcheting up support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Tehran-backed Houthi rebels.
The Pentagon is looking to increase support for Saudi Arabia’s two-year-old war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, signaling a possible expansion of Washington’s controversial backing for a campaign that human rights groups say has killed hundreds of civilians and fueled a growing humanitarian crisis.
Several Defense officials told Foreign Policy the prospect of more American help for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen was under discussion even as the administration examines its broader strategy in the region, including looking at ways to counter Iran and to defeat Islamic State militants. The Pentagon views increased support for the Saudi-led coalition as one way of potentially pushing back against Iran’s influence in Yemen, as well as shoring up ties with an ally that felt neglected by the previous administration.
The Trump administration has yet to make a final decision and Defense Department officials are locked in a debate over the issue with the White House, with some senior aides to Trump favoring confronting Iran elsewhere, one advisor said.
But pressing ahead with more U.S. hardware and intelligence for Saudi Arabia’s troubled intervention in Yemen brings with it an array of risks and pitfalls, experts and former officials said.
By pouring more weapons and ammunition into the civil war, now entering its third year, Washington could inadvertently strengthen the hand of al Qaeda’s most lethal branch, which has already exploited the chaos to its benefit.
Encouraging the Saudi-led coalition in its military campaign, which has so far proved unable to defeat the outgunned Houthi rebels, could prolong the suffering of a civilian population that aid agencies warn is on the verge of famine.
And seeking to checkmate Iran’s influence in Yemen could provoke retaliation from Tehran against the United States and its allies elsewhere in the region, possibly posing a danger to vital shipping lanes or American military advisors deployed in Iraq.
The possible increase in U.S. support would likely involve a few key elements: Pressing ahead with stalled arms shipments to the Saudi government; using drones to help gather intelligence for strikes on Houthi targets; and assistance in planning the recapture of the critical Red Sea port city Hodeidah from Houthi forces, which would allow humanitarian supplies to flow into the famine-wracked country.
The port would open a gateway for delivering humanitarian aid in a country in which 60 percent of the population is at risk of starvation, according to relief agencies. Riyadh recently floated the idea of the United Nations taking control of the port, something the international body has ruled out. Pushing the Houthi forces out of the Hodeidah would also cut off the rebels from a major transport link to the outside world.
“We’re interested in building the capability of the Saudis” to operate in Yemen and elsewhere, said one U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain the thinking within the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command.
The Saudis came away extremely pleased after a series of meetings in Washington last week that saw Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visit the White House. Saudi officials celebrated the meeting as a milestone in resetting a relationship that had frayed under the Obama administration.
“What we heard was that they would increase cooperation in all the dimensions” of military support and providing new weapons, Saudi Gen. Ahmed Asiri, spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, told reporters in Washington. He said that teams from the two countries are already engaged in talks, and the stepped-up cooperation would likely involve “intelligence sharing, equipment, and training,” for Saudi pilots and troops.
“We had a commitment that they will increase cooperation,” Asiri said.
The potential for more American help would represent a sharp break from the Obama administration’s strained ties with the Kingdom. The Saudis have drawn widespread international condemnation for bombing raids that have caused numerous civilian casualties, adding to the humanitarian crisis brought on by the civil war.
The Obama White House last year put a hold on shipments of thousands of precision-guided munitions and cluster bombs, and pulled back some intelligence-gathering support, due to concerns about botched targeting in Saudi air strikes. The bombing of a crowded funeral ceremony by coalition aircraft on Oct. 8 last year in the capital Sanaa left more than 100 dead and hundreds more wounded.
But under the Trump administration, the State Department recently approved a proposed sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh worth about $390 million, officials said, and the White House is expected to notify Congress soon of the planned deal.
Human rights groups warned Washington that such a deal would feed the crisis in Yemen, even as the United States attempts to bar entry to civilians trying to flee the conflict under a proposed travel ban that would cover travellers from Yemen and several other mainly-Muslim states.
“The U.S. should not continue to arm governments that violate international human rights and humanitarian law and simultaneously shut its doors to those fleeing the violence it helps to escalate,” Amnesty International said in a letter this month to the White House.
U.S. involvement in Yemen fits into the broader picture of the regional power struggle. Officials in the Trump administration and at the Pentagon see Iran as playing a disruptive role in Yemen’s civil war, and believe Tehran is seeking to extend its reach in the Gulf region, while keeping its rival in Riyadh off balance. Any American support for Saudi efforts in the country would be a way to check Tehran’s ambitions, something that Washington’s Sunni allies in the Gulf complained the Obama administration ignored.
“You can’t overestimate the degree the Saudis were frustrated and felt the Obama White House was hostile to them,” said Gerald Feierstein, who served as ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013.
“Iran is a key player in what’s happening in Yemen,” Feierstein added. “They are providing arms and assistance to the Houthis, and have been going back quite a long time,” well before the civil war broke out. The Obama administration had acknowledged Iranian involvement, but some officials were reluctant to confront Tehran over the conflict, arguing they could “achieve some additional progress in normalizing a relationship with Iran,” he said. “They saw the conflict in Yemen as getting in the way of that,” Feierstein said.
The Trump administration has taken a more aggressive stand on Iran, at least rhetorically. Inside the Pentagon — where Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is a noted Iran hawk — and at U.S. Central Command which oversees forces in the Middle East, planners are looking to do more, and quickly.
The two sides also have discussed potential U.S. support for retaking the Yemeni port at Hodeidah. “We’re very interested in helping, but want to make sure there’s some strategic patience” in order to avoid civilian casualties, the officer said.
Senior U.S. officers are looking to move quickly on the issue, and the exodus of political appointees from the Pentagon at the end of the Obama term — and the inability or unwillingness of the Trump administration to replace them — has helped move decisions quickly up the chain of command.
“The organization has flattened,” a defense official said, “so from a military perspective you have a little more agility, and can make decisions more quickly.”
With dozens of civilian policymaker’s desks sitting empty or being filled on a temporary basis, the officers on the Joint Staff and regional military commanders have adapted to the White House’s willingness to let the generals make the calls over troop movements.
“The military has a bias to action and we’d rather act than sit there and ponder it forever,” the officer said.
But it remains unclear if the Saudi military would be able to achieve more success on the battlefield even with American help.
One former Pentagon official called the Saudi effort in Yemen an “incompetently run and tragic campaign,” and said the view of the previous administration — and many in the Pentagon — was that “the Saudis got themselves into a mess that they couldn’t win.”
The air and ground wars have killed at least 10,000 people, according to the United Nations. Earlier this month, the World Food Program estimated that about 17 million Yemenis, well over half of the country’s population, are in “crisis” or “emergency” food situations. Human rights monitors say the coalition air raids are to blame for the majority of civilian deaths. But the Saudis reject responsibility for the bulk of the civilian casualties, and human rights groups also have reported that militias on the ground have used child soldiers, and planted mines in civilian areas.
A White House National Security Council official said that “we remain concerned about civilian casualties in Yemen and urge all sides to take additional measures to mitigate against the risk of civilian harm.”
But the NSC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to comment on whether the administration was poised to ratchet up support for Saudi Arabia.
Washington has already tried to help the Saudis improve targeting in its Yemen campaign over the last two years, and while there was some “modest success and influence, the Saudis were not always listening to our advice,” according to Brian McKeon, who worked as undersecretary of defense for policy in the last months of the Obama administration.
His concern is that expanded U.S. involvement, without a diplomatic push for a political settlement to the civil war, “might just yield more conflict and suffering.”
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce