Several reports this week indicate that the Trump administration might be at a strategic inflection point in Yemen. The Pentagon appears to be pushing for more aggressive backing of the Saudi campaign against the Houthi rebels.
First with the scoop was the Washington Post:
In a memo this month to national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Mattis said that “limited support” for Yemen operations being conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — including a planned Emirati offensive to retake a key Red Sea port — would help combat a “common threat.”
Approval of the request would mark a significant policy shift. U.S. military activity in Yemen until now has been confined mainly to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there, with limited indirect backing for gulf state efforts in a two-year-old war that has yielded significant civilian casualties.
It would also be a clear signal of the administration’s intention to move more aggressively against Iran.
Subsequent reporting by the Wall Street Journal confirmed the news. Not only is Mattis pushing to support an Emirati operation to retake the port of Hodeida, the U.S. has already been increasing its logistical and intelligence support to its Gulf allies—and is moving to resume the sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Why this apparent enthusiasm for a beefed-up role in Yemen? For Mattis, the calculation is all about Iran. Unlike President Trump or advisers like Sebastian Gorka who have prioritized the fight against ISIS, Mattis has spent his career fixated on the longer-term threat from Tehran. And if Mattis wants an early chance to roll back Iranian gains, Yemen must look like a tempting target.
Dislodging Iranian proxies in Yemen could achieve a number of objectives: It would take an Iranian pawn off the chessboard, prove that the U.S. is still capable of organizing the Sunni Arabs, and send a signal to the Russians that the United States is still a vital player in the Middle East. Mattis may be calculating that he can achieve these objectives with only limited exertions. It’s not such a crazy idea: Tactically speaking, unlike Syria or Libya, Yemen is an “island” in that the United States can project force into any part of the country without having to put boots on the ground permanently. And the Emiratis—by far our most reliable Gulf military allies—would take the lead in the campaign anyway, with U.S. providing sea-based support. Furthermore, though one is loath to call anything a “cakewalk,” especially given how challenging Yemen’s terrain can be, the Houthis are not a very sophisticated adversary, even with Iranian backing.
The big question is what happens when the shooting stops. This most recent war has exacerbated divisions in a country historically known for relatively harmonious relations between Shi’a and Sunni. A successful U.S. military campaign will need to be accompanied by serious diplomatic efforts to work out a post-war settlement, and above all will require the U.S. leaning on the Saudis to prevent them from over-reaching. That said, it’s doable. Yemen, once again, is not Libya or Syria.
The fact that the Trump Administration is still far behind on staffing up its State Department suggests that even a comparatively low-hanging diplomatic fruit like this may be out of reach. But for a Pentagon eager to give the Iranians a black eye, the benefits of turning up the heat against the Houthis may well outweigh the costs.