TSG IntelBrief: Trump Eyes Expanding Role in Yemen
March 29, 2017

Trump Eyes Expanding Role in Yemen

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The Trump administration is reportedly considering an expansion of the U.S. role in Yemen’s two-year-old civil war, including renewed support for the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition.

• Should the Trump administration decide to more directly support the Saudi-led coalition, the U.S. would risk inserting itself—without any clear objective—into a regional sectarian competition.

• The prospect of increased support for the Saudi-led coalition also compounds existing concerns over the Trump administration’s commitment to ensuring that U.S. military operations do not incur excessive civilian casualties.

• After U.S. assistance under the Obama administration failed to decisively alter the Yemeni conflict, there is little reason to believe that renewed U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition would now serve American strategic interests.

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As the civil war in Yemen enters its third year, the Trump administration is reportedly considering an expansion of the U.S. role in the conflict. While no official decision has been made, media reports indicate that the administration is debating an increase in intelligence sharing, logistical support, and weapons provision to the Saudi-led coalition currently battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country. Should the Trump administration decide to more directly support the Saudi-led coalition, the U.S. would risk inserting itself—without any clear objective—into a regional sectarian competition that has caused unprecedented humanitarian disaster and bolstered the growth of terror groups in Yemen.

According to the UN, after two years of war the current conflict in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people, with neither side gaining a decisive military advantage. With 60% of the country’s population currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, the war has pushed Yemen to the brink of all-out famine. Despite the demonstrated futility of seeking a military solution, none of the warring parties have been willing to engage in serious negotiations toward a political settlement. In the context of a stalemated conflict that is increasingly assuming the characteristics of the wider sectarian struggle in the region, both al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State have exploited the ongoing chaos to their advantage, with al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate in the country quadrupling in size since the start of the civil war. 

The prospect of increased support for the Saudi-led coalition also compounds existing concerns over the Trump administration’s commitment to ensuring that U.S. military operations do not incur excessive civilian casualties. The Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen has witnessed a host of incidents in which civilians were killed, potentially implicating the U.S. through its support for such operations. Repeated Saudi strikes resulting in large numbers of civilian casualties—often lacking clear military objectives—are what ultimately led the Obama administration to scale back U.S. support for such operations. 

In addition to concerns over civilian casualties posed by the prospective increase in U.S. involvement in Yemen, the U.S. is facing increased scrutiny over its own targeting practices after allegations that recent U.S. air strikes in Iraq caused hundreds of civilian casualties. Coupled with the civilian casualties from strikes in Iraq, the possibility of increased U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition raises the prospect that the Trump administration is willing to ease restrictions on the rules of engagement at the expense of civilians on the ground.

While the civil war in Yemen is highly complex, U.S. involvement since the beginning of the conflict in March 2015 has consistently lacked an overarching objective and a coherent strategy to achieve it. Initial U.S. support to the anti-Houthi coalition under the Obama administration was neither able to shift the military dynamic of the conflict, nor minimize civilian casualties from Saudi airstrikes. Initial U.S. support likewise did nothing to stop the expansion of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Yemen. Given the static dynamics of the conflict, there is no reason to believe that renewed U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition would now achieve any of these goals. Furthermore, while the U.S. has a clear interest in combating international terror groups in Yemen, claiming a stake in the Yemeni civil war risks repeating the same mistakes the U.S. made in Syria and Iraq, where U.S. support was viewed as an attempt to underwrite the agenda of one regional sectarian power at the expense of another.

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