It can be difficult to determine what the United States has to gain from involving itself in the Yemeni Civil War. The humanitarian crisis and the unsuccessful Saudi and Emirati attempts to defeat the Houthis have convinced some analysts that further American engagement in the war is unnecessary and even counterproductive. What, then, might Yemen have to do with the interests of the United States? There are two primary interests: limiting the Iranian threat and solving the country’s humanitarian crisis.
The most commonly noted threat to America in this conflict is the ever-growing Iranian-Houthi ties. But what does the United States actually have to lose from this cooperation? Iran fills in gaps left by America and its allies when they fail to engage productively in the Middle East, and Yemen is no different (Zimmerman 2019b). It is true that deep Iranian-Houthi cooperation began with the launch of Saudi airstrikes against Yemeni targets. Saudi involvement incentivized the Houthis to seek military assistance from sympathetic contacts, including Hezbollah and partners in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province (Riedel 2019a; Riedel 2019b). However, given the ongoing Iranian military support for the Houthis, the United States have a security interest in ensuring Iran’s influence does not deepen on the Arabian Peninsula (Zimmerman 2019a). It is in the United States’ interest to end the conflict in Yemen, and allowing Iran to gain a secure, strategic foothold on Saudi Arabia’s northern and southern borders—Iraq and Yemen—would be disastrous for peace prospects in the Middle East. The risk of a “Hezbollah-ization” of Yemen over time would place Saudi Arabia in the same situation as Israel—under a constant, unstable security threat.
But how does current and, possibly, future Iranian influence in Yemen negatively affect the United States? Iranian-supported Houthi forces have shot at American military ships in the Bab al-Mandeb. A threatened Saudi Arabia increases not only the likelihood of a lengthy war on the peninsula but also the risk of future wars in the area. Anyone concerned about human rights in Saudi Arabia should be aware that a fearful Saudi Arabia will be under pressure to curtail more freedoms. Moreover, as one scholar wrote, the Houthis are “anti-American, anti-Semitic and increasingly anti-Sunni,” a poor recipe for peace in the region (Knights, Pollack and Walter 2019).
Besides the security risk to American personnel and the unfortunate implications for conflict in the region, the United States has a moral responsibility to end the war in Yemen. By supporting the Saudi-led coalitions airstrikes, the United States has unequivocally been responsible, however indirectly, for civilian deaths and the tragic humanitarian situation in Yemen. Of course, Americans share responsibility for these deaths along with the Saudi-led coalition, Iran, and the Houthis, but that does not mean the United States can avoid taking action to end the conflict. At this point in the war, there are little prospects for improved humanitarian conditions in Yemen unless the United States takes a leading role in ending the conflict.
Realizing that countering Iranian support for the Houthis and ending the humanitarian crisis in Yemen are the keys to solving the crisis can help the United States avoid directing too much of its resources to other priorities. The terror threat posed by the Islamic State in Yemen and al-Qaida in Yemen is another interest to examine. Despite gains in territory and influence in southern and eastern Yemen, these groups do not pose as much of a threat to American interests as the Houthis (Zimmerman 2019a). Moreover, the threat to the American homeland by terrorists in the Arabian Peninsula is enormously low (Mueller and Stewart 2017). The United States has greater interests in diminishing the Houthi threat and relieving the humanitarian crisis in the country, and whatever benefits the United States can achieve by focusing on these two priorities will improve our ability to properly handle terrorism in Yemen.
Knights, Michael, Kenneth M. Pollack, and Barbara F. Walter. 2019. “A Real Plan to End the War in Yemen.” Foreign Affairs. May 2. Accessed at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/yemen/2019-05-02/real-plan-end-war-yemen
Mueller, John and Mark G. Stewart. 2017. “Misoverestimating Terrorism” in Constructions of Terrorism, ed. Michael Stohl, Richard Burchill, and Scott Englund. Oakland: University of California Press: 21-32.
Riedel, Bruce. 2019a. “As the Saudis Host International Summitry, Their Yemen Problem Isn’t Going Away.” Order from Chaos, Brookings Institution. May 28. Accessed at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/05/28/as-the-saudis-host-international-summitry-their-yemen-problem-isnt-going-away/
Riedel, Bruce. 2019b. “In Yemen, the Houthi Strategy Has Promise and Risk.” Order From Chaos, Brookings Institution. May 16. Accessed at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/05/16/in-yemen-the-houthi-strategy-has-promise-and-risk/
Zimmerman, Katherine. 2019a. “Taking the Lead Back in Yemen.” Statement before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism. American Enterprise Institute. March 6. Accessed at https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/2019-03-06-Yemen-HFAC-Testimony-Zimmerman-002.pdf
Zimmerman, Katherine. 2019b. “Yemen’s Houthi Movement Can Still Be Split From Iran.” American Enterprise Institute. April 9. Accessed at https://www.aei.org/publication/yemens-houthi-movement-can-still-be-split-from-iran/