April 24, 2018
Many Americans want to wash their hands of the Middle East, and Yemen—poor, violent, and torn apart by proxies—would seem like a good place to start. Yet, further U.S. disengagement from Yemen would be a serious mistake. In fact, the United States should be looking for smart ways to do more, and it should do so now.
Yemen has been largely poor for all of living memory. Despite pockets of wealth, most Yemenis have lived isolated and hardscrabble rural existences for centuries. When protests swept the Arab world in 2011, Yemenis’ annual per capita income was the lowest of any Arab state—about $1,300. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was pushed from office after 33 years, and Yemenis were cautiously optimistic that conditions would improve.
Yet, spoilers emerged among those who had held power and those who aspired to it. Soon the transitional government was battling not just the Houthis, a tribally grounded group in the northern outreaches of Yemen that had been battling Saleh since 2004, but also Saleh and many of his forces, who joined with their former Houthi enemies. Several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states that had helped to ease Saleh from power came to the aid of the transitional government, but the government quickly lost control of the capital to the insurgents. Iran saw an opportunity to torment the GCC, which it resented for its wealth and close U.S. ties, and it quietly began to send nominal support to the Houthis. As the Saudis strove to repel Houthi advances, they sought and won U.S. military support in refueling, targeting, and logistics. Groups aligned with al Qaeda and the Islamic State group formed and reformed in conflict-riven areas, making shifting sets of deals with tribal leaders and often drawing direct U.S. military action. Bombs fell, warlords consolidated control, and Yemenis suffered.
Three years on, Yemen remains locked in conflict. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of Yemenis require some sort of urgent humanitarian assistance. Diarrheal diseases are common, diphtheria is spreading, much of the electrical grid has been destroyed, and access to food and clean water is sporadic in many areas.
To some, Yemen is a microcosm of the entire Middle East: long-nurtured hatreds rising to the surface, mixing with an innate brutality and extremism, and fueled by proxy warfare. Rather than wade in, the instinct is to quarantine the conflict and wait for it to burn itself out.
The conflict, however, cannot be quarantined. Yemen lies astride the Bab al-Mandeb, an important shipping lane on the Red Sea that leads to the Suez Canal. Most Asian shipments to Europe pass through it, as do millions of barrels of oil per day.
Terrorism has also seeped out of Yemen, not only when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to attack a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb concealed in his underwear, but also when individuals in Yemen tried to ship bombs concealed in printer cartridge containers in 2010. The terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015 had connections to Yemen, and the list goes on. Even when it is relatively disconnected from the world, Yemen is connected enough that terrorists can take advantage of ungoverned space to plan and launch spectacular attacks against the United States and its allies.
Perhaps even more important, Yemen has become a trap for U.S. allies and a playground for U.S. adversaries. Saudi Arabia reportedly spends $5 billion a month on operations in Yemen, while drawing harsh criticism for its seemingly indiscriminate targeting and indifference to human suffering. Iran probably spends less than 1 percent of that amount supporting the Houthis, taunting the GCC states and reminding them of Iran’s regional power. By most accounts, the Houthis are increasingly rapacious and brutal, which may be a sign of growing desperation.
Yemen’s challenges are difficult, but they are not intractable. The GCC states seem to have internalized that they cannot bomb their way to victory in Yemen, and they recently pledged massive support to UN humanitarian operations—signaling that they will no longer seek to use aid as a political tool. The Houthis seem increasingly hard pressed to manage the areas they control, especially since Saleh defected from (and was then killed by) the Houthi alliance in late 2017. The resultant loss of Saleh-aligned technocrats has hit the Houthis hard. A new and energetic UN envoy has stepped in with an ambitious push to start a broad political dialogue, and a new UN humanitarian coordinator has arrived and enjoys credibility with the main antagonists to the conflict. Some simple things—such as preemptively chlorinating water supplies and replacing damaged sewer bends—can make a large difference quickly, and restoring functioning markets and opening up the flow of supplies will relieve populations and diminish the power of warlords.
Resolving issues in Yemen will take years. A new UN Security Council resolution will be needed that is more closely tailored to the current political landscape, and spoilers will need to be kept at bay. Not only is southern secession an enduring political challenge, but the conflict has also empowered a range of malign actors whose expectations will need to be managed.
What this calls for is not some kind of neocolonial effort where the United States tries to fix Yemen, as it tried to fix Iraq after decades of Saddam Hussein’s brutality, nor does it call for billions of U.S. aid dollars. What Yemen needs instead is U.S. leadership among like-minded Western allies, GCC partners, and in the UN system. It needs the United States to help forge consensus on promoting a new national dialogue, allowing access to food and medicine and reconstituting the economy.
No other country can focus attention like the United States, and every country involved in Yemen wants something from the United States. The U.S. government can be a catalyst for change, and the problem may now be ripe for improvement. Ameliorating conditions in Yemen would advance a wide variety of U.S. interests and warrants much more attention than it has gotten.
(This commentary originally appeared in the April issue of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.)
Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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