In observing the contemporary Middle East, the media often focuses on a series of well-documented conflicts and crises, namely multi-partisan warfare in Syria, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, also known as the Islamic State group, advances in Iraq and unrest in the Palestinian territories. Obscured amid this coverage, however, is the Yemeni civil strife. While Yemen may not captivate the casual observer, the significance of recent developments in the war-torn state necessitates an American commitment to mitigating the multitude of threats stemming from its seemingly interminable conflict.
Yemen’s descent into chaos began in 2011 when President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to abdicate after popular revolts challenged his authoritarian rule of 33 years. Transferring authority to his then Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saleh sought to retain political influence, but saw his stature diminish through the U.N.-implemented National Dialogue Conference transition plan. As Hadi’s allies, including Sunni fundamentalist group Islah, began consolidating power, Saleh offered his support to the Shia Houthi militia, who overran the capital, Sana’a, in 2014.
In addition to upending the Yemeni governmental system, the Houthi advent was particularly concerning to Saudi Arabia considering the Shia militant group’s ties to Saudi rival Iran. Responding to perceived Iranian hegemonic expansionism on its southern doorstep, the Saudis began a bombing campaign in March 2015 in support of Hadi, to which the Houthis responded with cross-border strikes into southern Saudi Arabia. While the United States, United Kingdom and France endorsed the operation, the Saudis have faced criticism for causing thousands of civilian casualties and employing internationally banned cluster munitions.
In a region dominated by civil war and humanitarian crisis, why should American policymakers prioritize Yemen? The rationales are twofold. First, continued Yemeni instability creates a governmental vacuum providing groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and IS with havens from which they may orchestrate global terrorist strikes. As long as IS and AQAP, considered the most active extremist organization plotting against U.S. interests, remain secure in Yemen, threats to national security will only intensify.
The second factor concerns the Saudi-Iranian strategic dynamic. Representing competing poles in the rival Sunni and Shia blocs, the regional powers have engaged in proxy warfare across the Arab World, most notably in Syria, where Saudi-backed rebels are struggling to overthrow Iranian ally President Bashar al-Assad. In Yemen, Saudi King Salman believes aiding the embattled Hadi regime will be crucial in impeding the spread of Iranian influence.
Traditionally, the United States has aligned itself with the Sunni bloc, offering the Saudis near-unconditional military assistance. However, because the Obama administration has a vested interest in ensuring Iranian compliance with the recent P5+1 nuclear accord, the primary U.S. objective has shifted towards the broader de-escalation of Saudi-Iranian tensions. Initiating a political process to determine Yemen’s future could provide an opportunity for Tehran and Riyadh to cooperate on issues of postwar governance and security. At the very least, core Saudi and Iranian concerns — border security and the oppression of minority Shia groups, respectively — can be discussed now in a manner that sets the stage for further future collaboration.
Considering U.S. interests in ending Yemen’s current strife, the Obama administration must engage with the belligerent factions and pursue a mutually acceptable solution. Such would entail an U.N.-brokered ceasefire and subsequent high-level talks between the Hadi regime, Houthi leadership and Saleh supporters. Initiating a dialogue, however, requires each side to undertake particular steps to demonstrate their goodwill: The Hadi government must express openness to political reconciliation while reducing military operations; the Houthis must minimize strikes into Saudi Arabia and advocate cross-sectarian discussion; and the Saudis must explicate their security concerns to the Houthis while temporarily halting the bombing campaign.
If the primary actors perform the aforementioned tasks, negotiations could then begin with the goal of developing a comprehensive plan for peace and postwar development. Optimally, the sides would address sectarianism by promising minority rights and a level of autonomy to marginalized areas in the south while instilling a power-sharing system granting measures of authority to the Hadi regime, Houthis and Saleh loyalists.
Such a proposition, however, is expected to draw ire from Saudi leaders, who see any Houthi presence as inherently threatening their security. Consequently, Riyadh will seek a continuation of its current military strategy to reinstall Hadi in Sana’a. If King Salman proceeds with this approach, the United States must attempt to convince the Saudi leader that a diplomatic solution in Yemen could directly benefit Saudi security interests. Particularly, governmental stability would allow local forces to concentrate on purging Yemen of IS and AQAP, both of which have and will continue to plot attacks within Saudi borders.
If the Saudis refuse this logic, however, the Obama administration must be wary not to expend too much political capital attempting to persuade Salman to shift course in Yemen. The Syrian strife has objectively farther-reaching implications, and Saudi cooperation is paramount in ensuring that already-delayed talks are not predestined for failure. Thus, the U.S. cannot present any ultimatums regarding the kingdom’s conduct in Yemen, because if Saudi compliance is to come in one theater or the other, Syria must take precedence. While this position may appear unsympathetic to the plight of the Yemeni people, such is the nature of interrelated conflicts waged by sovereign actors.
Reasons for optimism do exist, however, albeit in the unlikeliest of places. Indeed, the presence of IS and AQAP ensures that Yemen remains an international priority and the focus of future efforts for pacification and stabilization.
Matt Gregory is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Sense of the Middle East appears every other Friday.