The U.S. “yellow light” in Yemen

The U.S. “yellow light” in Yemen

Daniel L. Byman

The United States continues to tacitly support Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’s military campaign in Yemen even as the country implodes, Iran’s influence grows and U.S. allies sink into the quagmire. The United States calculated that supporting its allies in favor of preventing Iranian encroachment offers more value than the fallout from the humanitarian crisis. Yet, the newest operation over the port of Hodeidah offers the United States an opportunity to push for peace negotiations.

When the Saudi and Emirati intervention began in 2015, the Obama administration neither wholeheartedly embraced it nor strongly opposed it, eventually settling into a lukewarm embrace. At the same time, the United States was engaged in its own mini-war in Yemen, where it had been hunting terrorists since 9/11. In 2002, the United States killed al-Qaida terrorist Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a Yemeni national, in the first drone strike outside a designated war zone. U.S. efforts continued fitfully in the years that followed. However, the Obama administration stepped up operations when al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, tried, and almost succeeded in, bombing an airplane over Detroit in 2009. In 2011, the United States launched the first (and only) drone strike that deliberately targeted a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who operated out of Yemen. Today, U.S. special operations forces work with the UAE to target al-Qaida and Islamic State fighters in Yemen and the  also conducts drone attacks. Additionally, they are beginning to help Saudi Arabia locate Houthi missile bases and stockpiles.

Under Obama, the United States followed an often-confusing policy in Yemen, attempting to balance humanitarian concerns, a sense that the intervention would fail, and a desire to please Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Those allies see Yemen as a key regional issue because they worry about Iranian influence there, and by tolerating their intervention, the United States does them a favor in a country with historically low U.S. interests. Indeed, U.S. support proved vital for the military intervention to continue. Quietly, the United States—along with France and the United Kingdom—provides intelligence and air refueling along with other logistical support. The International Crisis Group described U.S. policy in Yemen as a “yellow light,” an indication of U.S. ambivalence, that allies blithely ignored, recognizing that U.S. backing would still be forthcoming.

At the end of his administration, Obama gave the Saudis a symbolic wrist slap, temporarily halting the sale of smart bombs to the Kingdom because of the war and the repeated Saudi military mistakes that led to the deaths of many Yemeni civilians. In the end, both supporting and opposing the war failed and proved the worst of both worlds, frustrating allies yet doing nothing to stop the intervention or improve the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

For the Trump administration, the Saudi relationship is particularly important, and he quickly lifted the Obama smart-bomb ban. Although he cares little about Yemen, Trump responded positively to Saudi and UAE efforts to court him and embraced their view of Yemen. He noted, correctly, that the Saudi-U.S. relationship was “very strained” under Obama, and Saudi Arabia’s leaders seem to be among the few foreigners that Trump likes. However, the Trump administration’s first foray into Yemen was a botched raid by special operations forces seeking terrorists in a Yemeni village , which led to the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL and, according to the villagers, around 25 civilians including nine children—hardly an auspicious beginning. In the end, the Trump administration has not veered too far from Obama, most recently rebuffing a request to join the current UAE-led offensive on the strategic port of Hodeidah.

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