The Trump administration is moving toward deeper US military involvement in Yemen’s civil war – a conflict that has left the impoverished country in a dire humanitarian crisis and on the brink of famine.
Indeed, as President Trump considers a Pentagon request to increase US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the United Nations has declared the Arabian Peninsula country to be in extreme need of food aid. Hundreds of thousands of children will die of starvation in the coming weeks unless aid delivery conditions improve rapidly, the UN warned.
The situation underscores the dilemmas the US faces in the two-year-old civil war, which has opened the door to increased Al Qaeda and Iranian influence in the region and – along with conflicts in Africa – brought the specter of famine into the 21st century.
Some senators are demanding that the US assert its moral force and insist that food assistance reach the starving now, while critics of US military support for the Saudi-led coalition say the US should simply pull the plug on military assistance they contend is keeping the conflict going.
Yet other regional experts say the US can and should do, or threaten to do, both – essentially using military support in the conflict as leverage to push for a political solution and thereby opening the door to sustained food aid delivery.
“Unfortunately I don’t see any good short-term solutions in Yemen, but the two [military support and humanitarian assistance] are not mutually exclusive,” says Katherine Zimmerman, an expert in Al Qaeda and radical threats at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. “I’m hoping the US pursues a strategy that allows us to broker a solution that doesn’t alienate the population … and that facilitates food aid getting to people where they are.”
Tougher stance toward Iran
The United States has been supplying arms and other means of support to the Saudi-led coalition since shortly after the civil war broke out in 2014. With Iran aiding the Shiite Houthi rebels, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seeking to peel off parts of the Sunni Arab population, the Obama administration put in with the Saudis and Gulf Arabs seeking to reinstate the ousted Sunni government.
But President Barack Obama placed certain limits on the assistance offered and the missions the US would support, and it’s those limits that Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired general, earlier this month asked the Trump White House to lift.
President Trump and his advisers are expected to take up Secretary Mattis’s request separately from a broader Yemen policy review the White House is conducting.
The Pentagon request is widely seen as evidence of Mr. Trump’s determination to take a tougher stance toward Iran and Tehran’s efforts to expand its regional heft and influence at the expense of the Sunni Gulf monarchies.
The administration is also considering a major arms sale to Saudi Arabia that includes more sophisticated weaponry that the Saudis could use in the Yemen conflict.
80 percent need assistance
Yemen’s humanitarian disaster and looming famine hover at the center of the conflict and the discussions about the merits of escalation.
Already half of Yemen’s 26 million people were dependent on food aid when the war broke out, as Ms. Zimmerman of AEI points out, but now at least 80 percent of the population needs assistance to survive.
The UN recently named Yemen among four countries (along with Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria) where more than 20 million people are at risk of starvation.
In Yemen’s case, the Houthi-held port of Hodeida stands at the center of the country’s food crisis.
Most of the food aid the millions of hungry Yemenis depend on must pass through Hodeida, but Saudi Arabia has blockaded the port in an effort to keep out Iranian arms shipments. A United Arab Emirates plan to forcefully wrest the port from Houthi control with stepped-up US assistance is among the strategy shifts the Trump White House is considering.
The Obama administration nixed the same plan last year after concluding there were no guarantees of success for a plan that would exacerbate dire humanitarian conditions.
Senators cite 'moral imperative'
In the meantime, various officials and humanitarian activists are pressing the US to focus more on addressing Yemen’s food crisis.
Last week Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and nine other senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stating that the US has a “strategic and moral imperative” to initiate an emergency international effort to stave off famine in the three East African countries and Yemen.
“The scale and complexity of these crises might lead some to say the situation is hopeless,” the senators wrote. “We reject such a response as US leadership can make an enormous difference, and we believe the Department of State can and should lead a diplomatic effort now to reduce the political barriers that are hindering the delivery of food to millions of starving people.”
Concerning Yemen, the senators said the US should work urgently to “persuade” combatants to allow food aid and aid-delivering organizations access to Hodeida and other Red Sea ports.
At the same time, according to an aide, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee is "actively engaging the administration" on the threatening famines and specifically on Yemen's aid delivery complications.
Senator Corker has had "direct discussions" with Mr. Tillerson and with the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, the aide says. Corker "believes all parties to the conflict in Yemen have a responsibility to allow for humanitarian access but also understands the port facilities face significant infrastructure challenges that also inhibit aid delivery," the aide adds.
Others say the US should pressure Saudi Arabia to end the Hodeida blockade.
Robert Naiman, policy director of the group Just Foreign Policy, says Congress should use its leverage to signal it would hold up any new arms sales to Saudi Arabia if the Saudis do not lift their US-backed blockade of Hodeida.
Last week Mr. Naiman attended an Illinois town hall meeting put on by Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois. After raising the idea of a quid pro quo with the Saudis that links the arms package to opening Hodeida, he elicited a “Count me in” from Senator Durbin.
Beyond opening the port
Still others caution that simply opening Hodeida – or even less, aiding a battle that did deliver the port to the Emiratis – would not solve Yemen’s food-aid delivery crisis.
“The Saudi-led coalition claims it will be able to deliver aid much better if it takes the port,” says Zimmerman. “That might be true, but my concern is that all you would do is push the fighting farther out to the secondary roads leading out of the port,” she says. “But those roads are crucial to reaching a population that … for the most part is spread out across the central highlands.”
Zimmerman says what’s really needed is a humanitarian cease-fire, including a halt to devastating Saudi airstrikes. That may not be in the cards short-term, she acknowledges, but says any real solution will require deeper US involvement. In her view, the US should set an independent course untethered to the Saudi-led coalition, allowing the US to better engage with all the parties to the conflict.
“The Houthis are seen to be a monolithic proxy of Iran, but that’s not true,” she says. The US should work with the Houthi factions not beholden to Iran, and press for a cease-fire to get food shipments moving again.
But ultimately it will only be a political solution, with Houthi participation in the government, she says, that is going to really open the door to cutting Yemen’s famine short and resolving its chronic food insecurity.