- By Jon FinerJon Finer was the chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry and director of policy planning at the State Department. He also spent four years in the Barack Obama White House, serving as a senior advisor in the offices of the national security advisor and the middle east advisor, as a foreign-policy speechwriter in the office of Vice President Joe Biden, and as a White House fellow in the office of the chief of staff. Before serving in government, Finer was a reporter at the Washington Post, where he covered conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Georgia, and Gaza.
The first foreign-policy crisis of the Trump administration may well involve a country most Americans could not find on a map. Already, the new president has signaled his intention to increase military involvement in Yemen, putting Iran “on notice” and warning that it was “playing with fire,” following a Iranian ballistic-missile launch and an attack on a Saudi vessel just off the Yemeni coast by Shiite Houthi rebels. Days earlier, President Donald Trump green-lighted a risky special operations raid against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that led to the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL and numerous Yemeni civilians.
When Sen. John McCain questioned the portrayal of that raid as a “success,” Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer earned further criticism for lashing out that such comments dishonor American dead and aid the enemy. As is often the case with Trump’s comments on policy, they quickly become the focus of media attention, rather than what the administration is actually doing — or what the facts are on the ground.
The impoverished Gulf nation is actually marred by two separate but overlapping conflicts.
The first, which predates the Arab Spring uprising that swept longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh from power in 2012, is a counterterrorism fight waged by Yemeni government, with U.S. support, against AQAP, al Qaeda’s most virulent franchise.
The second, and more damaging conflict, is a civil war between the government of Yemen and the Houthi minority, which was expected to last a matter of weeks, and maybe months, but is now well into its third year. It began when Houthi militia fighters descended on the capital Sanaa in late 2014 and soon evicted the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a close partner of the United States.
Getting more deeply embroiled in Yemen’s first war without a strategy for resolving the second would be a mistake. Instead, if new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants to make an early diplomatic contribution, then there is a confounding but vital mission with his name on it: de-escalating a Yemen civil war that is damaging U.S. interests and should have stopped a long time ago.
The civil war escalated dramatically in March 2015, with the intervention of a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which understandably felt threatened by the turmoil on its border and by ties between the Houthis and Riyadh’s arch-rival Iran. The United States, which had long been urging Saudi Arabia to take greater responsibility for security challenges in its region, offered a range of support, including with intelligence, weapons sales, aerial refueling for Saudi planes, and various measures to help secure the Saudi border.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention succeeded in shoring up much of southern Yemen, where the Hadi government is seeking to reconstitute, after decamping to Saudi Arabia.
It has also come at great cost. According to the United Nations, 16,200 people have been killed in Yemen since the intervention, including 10,000 civilians. The humanitarian situation in what was already one of the world’s poorest countries, is now, after Syria, the most dire on the planet, with one in five Yemenis severely food insecure.
Meanwhile, for well over a year now, the military campaign has failed to make measurable progress, demonstrating what U.S. officials have been telling their Saudi counterparts all along — that any resolution will come through negotiation, not military victory, and that the longer the conflict drags on, the greater the cost to the Yemeni people, as well as to Saudi Arabia’s resources and reputation.
For the United States, the cost has also been significant.
The war has preoccupied key partners with an enemy that does not directly threaten the United States. Indiscriminate air strikes, conducted with American weapons and in the context of American assistance, have killed scores of non-combatants (such incidents eventually compelled the Obama administration to review and adjust our assistance to the coalition). And while Iran and the Houthis have historically maintained an arms-length relationship, the long conflict has brought them closer and led to the introduction of more advanced weapons, such as missiles capable of striking deep into Saudi territory or of threatening the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a critical channel for maritime traffic.
U.S. interests took a further hit earlier this week when the Yemeni government in-exile, frustrated by the bloody U.S. special forces raid near Aden, said it was revoking permission for U.S. operations against AQAP, which poses a genuine threat to the homeland (the Yemeni government later said the operations could continue though asked for greater coordination).
Should he choose to accept this mission, Secretary Tillerson may be well-placed to succeed.
He knows the complex politics and terrain, having served in Yemen early in his career at ExxonMobil. His close relations in the Gulf — and our Gulf partners’ purported confidence in him — could help them make the difficult decisions peace will require. He will not face the overhang of (unfounded, but also undeniable) suspicion in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal that the Obama administration tolerated Iranian meddling on Saudi Arabia’s border.
The timing may also be ripe. Saudi officials and their Emirati coalition partners have been signaling for months that they are eager to end the conflict, which they did not expect to last nearly this long. The Obama administration was making painstaking but genuine progress toward an accord until the election, after which it partners seemed more inclined to wait for the new team to arrive.
And after years of U.N.-led negotiations that sought to sell a relatively one-sided peace to the Houthis (despite what was, at best, a stalemate on the ground), the Obama administration developed and bequeathed to its successors a more balanced roadmap to which all key parties (the Saudis, the Houthis, and the Yemeni government — as well as the United States, U.N., and U.K.) grudgingly agreed.
The new approach did not reflect a more neutral stance in the conflict — the Obama administration explicitly took one side. It reflected the reality, as we saw it, that the Houthis would be reluctant to concede in negotiations what could clearly not be achieved in combat.
The main innovation in the roadmap was that, rather than requiring the Houthis to make all of the concessions up front, which they would never have agreed to do, given their relative strength on the ground, it carefully sequences the various steps that constitute each side’s key demands.
For the coalition, that means the Houthis first withdraw from the Saudi border and key cities, such as Sanaa. For the Houthis, it means the subsequent replacement of the Hadi government with one that includes more of their officials in senior positions.
All of that said, making peace between these adversaries will be extremely difficult. For one thing, the Houthis are infamously difficult to work with. When Secretary of State John Kerry met for several hours with their representatives in Oman last November, he was forced to endure a lengthy airing of historical grievances before embarking on the topic at hand. They also have a long history of violating dozens of agreements, which every Saudi diplomat can recount, chapter and verse.
Negotiating peace will also inevitably involve straining relationships with our key partners, who will need to be pushed in the right direction.
Hadi, who all relevant players acknowledge cannot govern a reconciled Yemeni state, has consistently scuttled deals that would require him leave office. His Saudi patrons have proven either unwilling, or unable, to compel better behavior and are themselves too are quick to revert to unreasonable demands — a tendency that would be reinforced if the Trump administration signals it unconditionally has Riyadh’s back.
Meanwhile, the Emiratis, who maintain a heavy troop presence in southern Yemen but have, wisely, been more focused on AQAP (the first war) than the Houthis (second), have for many months been threatening to attack the Houthi-held port of Hudeidah, a provocative step that would almost certain set back any peacemaking efforts indefinitely.
In other words, getting this done will require the United States to play hardball with both sides, and deftly — the kind of tough, cajoling diplomacy that should be right up the alley of a former CEO, guided by an adept team of State Department Arabists.
Early signs, however, suggest the new administration may take a different tack, foregoing the more balanced approach necessary to end the Yemen civil war, while aligning the United States more fully with our Gulf partners.
According to news reports the administration may soon designate Yemen a formal battlefield for U.S. troops, which would give the Pentagon and commanders in the field greater latitude to make operational decisions with less political oversight.
This approach would be fraught with risks that must be managed.
First and foremost is that the civil war, and the humanitarian and strategic catastrophe it has spawned, will not end any time soon. The Houthis, according to one State Department official who dealt with them and refers to as “junk yard dogs,” are hardened fighters ready to dig in for the long haul.
Second, depending on their location, mission, and rules of engagement, an expanded presence of U.S. forces — while Yemeni and Saudi governments are still at war with the Houthis — could bring U.S. troops into close quarters with Iran and its proxies, with all of the escalatory potential that entails. Resisting Iranian meddling in the region is a worthy goal that the Obama administration shared and acted upon. The question, though is whether deeper — and possibly even direct — U.S. intervention on this battlefield at this time makes sense. While the Houthis fired on a U.S. ship late last year, they have not repeated that mistake since the Obama administration retaliated by destroying radars located along the coast. If President Trump chooses to put U.S. forces into the middle of a civil war, it should explain a purpose and objective more concretely than simply “pushing back” on Iran. Moreover, it must do so with its eyes open to the risks those forces would be assuming and the reality that a limited special forces mission is unlikely to turn the tide on the ground.
Finally, the longer the conflict with the Houthis continues, the more AQAP will continue to benefit from our, and our partners’, divided focus, as it strengthens its hold on ungoverned territory. Increasing counterterrorism operations in the absence of a viable government partner could also backfire, since such missions tend to be less effective at best, and at worst can increase the likelihood of mishaps like the January 29 raid.
Every new secretary of state has to prioritize. This means balancing between the issues you choose to tackle, and those that must be addressed. Yemen’s civil war probably falls somewhere in between. Given the crush of higher-profile global challenges, Tillerson could easily give it a pass. But if he does, things could continue to escalate quickly, all of its damaging qualities will get worse, and a solution will be even further out of reach. Now may be the best chance he has to give it a shot.
Photo credit: SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images