This is the second entry in a series examining actions during the first 100 days of the new Trump administration and their possible implications on the arms trade, security assistance and weapons use in the future.
Rather than developing a policy tailored to the nuances of Yemen’s conflict and U.S. involvement there, the Trump administration appears to have viewed Yemen as a means of bolstering its relationships with traditional U.S. Gulf allies. In addition to more forcefully parroting its Gulf allies’ characterization of Yemen’s conflict as a sectarian proxy war, which largely ignores the local drivers of conflict rooted in governance failure and lack of accountability for Yemen’s ruling elite, the Trump administration’s strategy rests on “reassuring” its allies through weapons sales and more military support. This approach is likely to culminate in White House approval of renewed arms sales to Saudi Arabia without conditions, including the sale of precision-guided munitions that have been used in attacks on civilians and vital infrastructure.
This would only be doubling down on the Obama administration’s failure to address the glaring deficiencies of the Saudi Royal Air Force. As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights, & Labor Dafna Rand put it recently, when the Obama administration tried this approach in 2015, giving the Saudi Royal Air Force smarter bombs and more support didn’t result in “an improvement in the targeting, and [it became clear] the issue itself is the target selection…and adherence to the no-strike list.”
The current administration’s military-only approach extends to counterterrorism in Yemen in addition to the war against the Houthi rebels. Trump has reportedly slackened the military’s rules of engagement and designated certain governorates “areas of active hostilities,” leading to a dramatic increase in drone strikes and Special Operations actions against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This military-only strategy towards countering AQAP’s influence without a corollary strategy for countering radicalization can only go so far, and is strikingly similar to the Obama administration’s whack-a-mole counterterrorism strategy.
Most urgently, the administration’s predilection for a military-only approach to Yemen’s multiple crises risks precipitating a famine in the country that could kill millions of people. If it continues to willfully ignore the warnings of the humanitarian community and signs off on the Saudi- and Emirati-led siege of Yemen’s vital Hudaydah port, it will do so with no apparent political strategy to resolve the conflict, except the belief that “one more round of bombing” will bring the parties to the peace table. But U.S. escalation against the Houthis is likely to eliminate any remaining incentives for the parties to return to negotiations.
There is still time for Trump to treat Yemen as more than a military exhibition that could result in the U.S. getting bogged down in yet another quagmire in the Middle East. He could restrict further military support for the coalition and re-engage with the Houthis to push the parties to commit to a ceasefire, and work to include other local actors into a concerted, inclusive diplomatic process that has the best chance of easing humanitarian crisis throughout the country, halting anti-American radicalization, and securing the ultimate U.S. goal of limiting Iran’s influence in the country. This approach, however, would require the administration to adopt a strong soft power approach to Yemen’s conflict that seems unlikely in an administration run by generals and absent leadership at the State Department.
Kate Kizer is the director of policy and advocacy at the Yemen Peace Project.