by Giorgio Cafiero and Shehab al-Makahleh
On April 18, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrived in Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman and other high-ranking officials in the kingdom as part of a regional trip, which also included stops in Djibouti, Egypt, Israel, and Qatar. Mattis said that his “frank… candid… honest” talks with the Saudis “could not have gone better.” The Pentagon chief praised the kingdom, which he called one of Washington’s “best counterterrorism partners,” for “stepping up to its regional leadership role… to restore stability in this key region of the world.” The following day an official from the administration suggested that Donald Trump may soon make his first visit to Saudi Arabia as president of the United States. While speaking with Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, Mattis stated that it serves Washington’s “interest to see a strong Saudi Arabia.”
Building on Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the White House in March, which Saudi officials claimed marked a “historic turning point” in US-Saudi relations, Mattis’ recent trip to Riyadh served to further strengthen Saudi confidence in the Trump administration’s approach to countering “Iran’s mischief.” After commending Saudi Arabia for supporting two close US allies—Egypt and Jordan—Mattis condemned Iran for backing Lebanese Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, as well as deploying its own military forces to Syria. He asserted, “Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran.”
In continuity with the last administration, Mattis expressed the White House’s support for pursuing a diplomatic settlement to Yemen’s civil war, which involves bringing Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to the roundtable. The Trump administration, at least based on its words, seems to have joined the consensus that military action alone cannot bring peace to Yemen. However, in reassuring the Saudi leadership, Mattis stressed the administration’s view that Iran, rather than the collapse of the Yemeni nation-state or other socio-economic and sectarian problems, lies at the heart of Yemen’s crisis. He pointed to Iran’s delivery of weapons to Ansarullah (the dominant Houthi militia), saying that “Iran once again is no help.” Although the international community can “make progress” on Yemen, Mattis declared that it must first “overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilize yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah.”
The Trump administration believes that the Houthis must suffer major blows before bringing them to roundtable talks for such a settlement. According to the Associated Press, US officials asserted that intensified military pressure on the Houthis is necessary for ending the Yemeni crisis. Mattis asked for the removal of the previous administration’s restrictions on support for the Saudi-led coalition, which for example would result in the US military increasing support for the UAE’s forces in Yemen without requiring case-by-case approval by the White House.
The Challenge of Hodeidah
Saudi and Emirati sources believe that the Americans will take part in strikes on Yemen’s Red Sea infrastructure to weaken the Houthis and their allies of convenience in former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s camp. Under Barack Obama, the United States helped the Saudi-led military coalition, beginning in March 2015, by providing arms, intelligence services, and refueling for Saudi warplanes, despite widespread condemnation from Amnesty International, which reported on the Saudi-led coalition’s indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian centers plus its use of internationally banned cluster bombs.
That said, the Obama administration did ultimately reject Abu Dhabi’s proposal for a US-supported attack on Hodeidah, Yemen’s strategically prized Red Sea port. The previous administration believed that an attempt to carry out such a risky campaign would only exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, possibly pushing the country into a mass famine.
Hodeidah is a key entry point for humanitarian aid entering Yemen, which is on the verge of a widespread famine with approximately 70 percent of the country’s population currently requiring humanitarian assistance. Saudi/UAE bombing of Hodeidah could bring the Yemeni people’s suffering to a new level especially if the Houthis wage an expected all-out fight for the port. The Saudi-led coalition suggested placing Hodeidah under the UN’s supervision, yet the UN rejected this idea.
Currently the Houthis use Hodeidah, which is their remaining major enclave on the Red Sea and the only modern container port under their control, to collect revenues and to smuggle arms shipped in from foreign countries. Ansarullah has vowed to fight “until the death” to defend Hodeidah. The Houthis have laid mines to protect their hold on this prized port, in addition to other territories under their control, which has led to condemnation from Human Rights Watch.
The Trump administration is currently considering stepping up US support for an expected Saudi-UAE operation aimed at dislodging Ansarullah fighters from this port on the Red Sea’s Arabian shore. To be sure, the previous administration’s concerns were more than justified. Such an operation would surely come with immense costs for Yemen’s population and all actors involved in the combat.
Risks for Washington
The White House has yet to make a decision on Hodeidah, yet it should consider the risks of stepping up US support for a Saudi/UAE bombing of the Red Sea port. Backlash from the international community against the Saudis will sharpen if such an attack leads to the outbreak of mass famine across the war-torn country. Blame will go to the Saudi-led coalition—and by extension its Western backers—much more than to the Houthis or Iran. The UN has voiced its opposition to such a military operation. “We continue to advocate to the Saudi-led coalition that the attack on the port of Hodeidah and the city itself is not necessary,” said Jamie McGoldrick, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. “This port is the most essential, the most crucial part of our ability to feed people and get medical services” into Yemen, and it “is the only port that we can use to serve the bulk of the population in need.”
Although the Trump administration has shown its support for ramped-up arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, Congress continues to serve a key role in such sales. Depending on how the Yemeni crisis unfolds in the months ahead, American lawmakers may begin questioning the US interest in backing the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and take a different stance than the White House on selling advanced weapons to the kingdom at this juncture.
Beyond the risks of a worsening humanitarian crisis and public opinion, there are also important strategic factors on the ground to consider. First, given how many Yemenis depend on Hodeidah remaining a functional port, the Houthis could gain support and legitimacy as a result of such a bombing campaign. There are a host of Yemenis in various tribal networks that operate outside of the Houthi-Saleh alliance who could come to Ansarullah’s side should the US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE wage this military campaign to wrest Hodeidah from Houthi militants.
Second, as the administration focuses on countering Salafist-jihadist actors in Yemen, chiefly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), an exacerbation of the country’s humanitarian crisis could easily offer such nihilistic forces more fertile ground to expand and strengthen their influence. Trump will need to secure GCC support for the fight against AQAP and IS. Thus, his administration should consider efforts to shift the Riyadh-led coalition’s resources towards combatting such militant Sunni fundamentalist extremists in Yemen. Increasing support for Saudi/UAE operations against the Houthis, sworn enemies of AQAP and IS, could worsen the humanitarian crisis that AQAP and IS have exploited to boost their influence over impoverished Yemenis. Ultimately, by crippling the Houthis and their de facto government in Sana‘a, the US risks offering AQAP and other extremists free rein in new areas of the country, potentially setting back Washington’s quest to fight al-Qaeda’s local offshoot in Yemen.
The Saudis, humiliated by their inability to restore Yemen’s “legitimate government,” crush the Houthi rebel movement, and restore peace to Yemen this far into their 25-month military campaign, are hoping that Trump will increase US support for the Riyadh-led coalition. Within the first three months of his presidency, Trump and his cabinet have left the Arab states in the Persian Gulf increasingly optimistic about Washington embracing a more aggressive posture vis-à-vis Iran following eight years of what most GCC leaders saw as weak and indecisive American leadership during Obama’s presidency.
The administration’s decision on Hodeidah will be one of the early and perhaps most important ones it will have to make regarding Yemen. Strong US support for the Saudi/UAE campaign to end Houthi control of the port would certainly enhance Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s confidence in the White House as these Persian Gulf states view the conquest of Hodeidah as a major gain in a grander proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence near the strategic Mandeb Strait. Yet doing so poses major risks in terms of a widespread famine and the international community’s response to it, and the potential for AQAP and IS as well as the Houthis benefiting from the escalation that such on onslaught of Hodeidah could easily produce.
Shehab al-Makahleh (Sam Mak) is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics with experience as a political advisor in the United Arab Emirates. Photo of James Mattis meeting with Mohammed bin Salman (via Jim Mattis/Flickr).