The Trump administration is sending signals that it is interested in getting more involved in the Yemen war. Those American voters who saw Trump as an isolationist or antiwar candidate appear to be in for a set of big disappointments. The Yemen conflict is a civil war, with Saudi Arabia and its allies giving air support to the rump government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the south, which is seeking to dislodge from northern Yemen the rival government run by the Houthi militia. The war has created a humanitarian crisis in the country, pushing millions to the brink of hunger, and there is no universe in which further American involvement will redound to Washington’s credit. Trump’s interest is driven in part by Saudi propaganda that the Houthis are Iran-backed.
Last week, General Joseph Votel testified for the Pentagon before Congress, insisting that Yemen is key to US security. He pointed out that it sits astride the Bab al-Mandeb strait at the mouth of the Red Sea, and could be used by a hostile power to interrupt sea traffic in that key body of water, through which about 10 percent of world trade flows. Arguably, however, it is the war itself that poses the biggest threat to maritime security in the region. In mid-March, what appear to have been Saudi helicopter gunships mistakenly attacked a boatload of Somali refugees fleeing Yemen for Sudan, killing some 40.
Votel also pointed to the danger emanating from the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemeni press reports that the United States is regularly bombing and droning AQAP there. The murky Yemen civil war, however, is treacherous ground for a superpower. The first significant US military operation in Yemen under Trump was a January 29 raid on an alleged AQAP camp in al-Gheel in southern Bayda Province, in the course of which as many as 30 civilian noncombatants, including children, and one Navy Seal were killed. The main target, Abd al-Rauf al-Dhahab, however, has switched back and forth between allying with Al Qaeda and with the government of Mansour Hadi. He had recently been enlisted by the latter to fight the Houthis. That is, the raid may have been based on old intelligence from before Dhahab’s recent change of allegiance.
Overall, there is a key contradiction in US policy toward AQAP, inasmuch as the Houthis are sworn enemies of the Sunni extremists. In contrast, the Saudi-led coalition has either willy-nilly permitted or has turned a blind eye to Al Qaeda territorial advances in southern Yemen. The coalition appears to have no scruples about recruiting tribal figures with an Al Qaeda past. By crippling the Sana government and supporting the Saudi-led continual and massive bombardment of the country, the Pentagon has actually given Al Qaeda free rein.