The US administration is on the way to escalate its involvement in Yemen – a drastic change of its Middle East policy in an attempt to roll back Iran’s influence in the region.
It wants Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and local Yemeni forces to jointly defeat the Houthis, a militarized Shiite group strong in northern Yemen fighting side by side with the Yemeni army loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
According to Foreign Policy, the Saudis came away extremely pleased after a series of meetings in Washington in mid-March when Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the White House. Saudi officials celebrated the meeting as a milestone in resetting a relationship that had frayed under the Obama administration. Saudi Gen. Ahmed Asiri, spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, 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.
US State Secretary Rex Tillerson established good, business-like relations with Saudi Arabia in the days he headed ExxonMobil.
The civil war in Yemen has created a humanitarian disaster. According to United Nations estimates, two-thirds of Yemen's entire population needs some kind of assistance. Seven million people are hungry, 10,000 have been killed in the war. UN-brokered peace talks have so far led nowhere, with all parties seeking a battlefield victory. On March 13, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the situation in Yemen in a statement. «It is our firm belief that the Yemeni conflict cannot be resolved by military means», it reads. Russia calls for an immediate cessation of all hostilities.
Defense Secretary James Mattis is pushing for the president to remove all restrictions on US military support for the Saudi invasion of Yemen, which would enable the military to support Emirati operations against the Houthis with surveillance and intelligence, refueling, and operational planning assistance, without asking for case-by-case White House approval. He seeks support of National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The plans reportedly also include 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. According to him, a planned Emirati offensive to retake the port would be a contribution into combatting a common threat.
The Washington Post reports that a plan developed by the US Central Command to assist the operation includes other elements that are not part of Mattis’s request. While Marine Corps ships have been off the coast of Yemen for about a year, it was not clear what support role they might play.
If approved, the policy would mark a significant shift from counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen and limited indirect backing for Saudi and the UAE war efforts to direct «limited» involvement. As history shows, «limited involvements» often lead to participation in large-scale conflicts of great duration. It’s enough to remember how the Vietnam war started. It would also indicate that the administration has taken a more aggressive stand on Iran, the country Washington and Riyadh would like to squeeze out of the Middle East.
The US State Department has given permission for a resumption of the supply of precision guided weapons to Saudi Arabia. It signed off on a $350 million package of smart bombs. The deliveries were suspended last year after Saudi aviation killed 100 civilians by mistake. The US has been refuelling Saudi aircraft and has advisors in the Saudi operational headquarters since the kingdom started its military involvement in March 2015. Billions of dollars in tanks, munitions and spare parts were sold to Saudi Arabia as a profitable way to demonstrate to the Saudis that the United States supported their efforts.
The more intensive involvement into Yemen’s crisis should be seen in a broader context of the US policy change in the Middle East. The administration is considering delegating more authority to the Defense Department to conduct anti-terrorist operations overseas, which at the moment require the White House approval. If approved, the authority would give military commanders the same latitude to launch strikes, raids and campaigns against enemy forces for up to six months that they possess in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. They will have more freedom of action in Yemen and Somalia, where military involvement is also to be intensified. The US Defense Department’s tentative plan (strategy review) on the anti-Islamic State strategy calls for the military operations abroad to be expanded.
President Trump has said many times the main enemy is the Islamic State (IS). The involvement in Yemen will divert forces from this mission. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have cost the US about $1.6 trillion from 2001 to 2014. Can America afford to fight two wars – against the IS and Iran – with the national debt equal to $20 trillion? Does it have to confront Iran after the nuclear deal was reached and complied with? Does the US have vital interests in Yemen? The president has talked about his intention to adopt the policy of making good deals. He can make good by joining an international effort to bring peace to the war-torn country instead of getting America plunged into a new conflict with no end in sight.
Moscow has never taken sides in Yemen. It has maintained good working relationship with Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Unlike practically all other pertinent actors, except Oman, Moscow has maintained the relationship of trust with ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from the presidency in 2012, and the Houthis, the movement the ex-president is allied to, which currently controls the Yemeni capital and large parts of the country, especially in the north. Last year, Ali Abdullah Saleh even asked Russia for a military intervention, talking of reactivating old Yemeni agreements with the Soviet Union and offering «all the facilities» of Yemen’s bases, ports and airports to Russia.
Even after President Hadi moved to Saudi Arabia and the hot phase of the conflict started, Russia maintained its diplomatic presence in Sana. Representatives of various Yemeni political forces: Ansar Allah, the General People’s Congress, the Southern Movement, the Yemeni Socialist Party and many others have visited Moscow since the crisis erupted. Moscow is a participant in the activities of the Group of 18 Ambassadors to Yemen.
Russia has excellent relations with Iran. This fact was confirmed during President Rouhani’s visit to Moscow on March 27-28.
All in all, Russia is perfectly fit to play the role of mediator between the warring sides and other pertinent actors. Russia and the US could launch a diplomatic initiative to end the conflict – the same thing they should do in Syria.
The war in Yemen is unwinnable; the complicated conflict is caused by many reasons, some of which go back to the ancient history. Suffice it to remember the conflicts and tensions between the nation’s South and North. The war in Yemen can last for many years with devastating results. Sending military to fight in Yemen would amount to a unilateral declaration of war on a new enemy that poses no whatsoever threat to the national security of the United States. The move has not been authorized by Congress. Meanwhile, the opportunities for mediation and peaceful solution are far from being exhausted. As influential actors, Russia and America could join together in an effort to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict. Instead, the US gives priority to the use of force stepping on the same rake again.