Neither Clout Nor Focus for a UN Deal in Yemen
Before being elected, Donald Trump talked tough on national military expenditure and on the Islamic State (IS), but rejected U.S. interventionism. It is hard to imagine that as president he will want to authorize a major air assault or deploy ground troops in a bid to determine the outcome of the Yemeni civil war. However, before he and his team can get their feet under the table in January, there will probably be more U.S. warship and drone attacks on perceived threats to U.S. national security in Yemen. If a major U.S. intervention isn’t taking place in Syria, then why would it in the Saudi backyard, where U.S. refueling and intelligence (and U.K. targeting assistance) is already aiding the Saudi-led campaign?
Under President Trump, Russia and the United States seem more liable to work together against IS- and AQ-related groups in Syria, empowering Assad in the process. However, it doesn’t follow that this will embolden the Russians to play a military role in Yemen, where their role pretty much ended in 1990 aside from some widely disbursed Soviet arms. Having Trump in the White House, though, might encourage Iran to get more involved in the Yemeni conflict. That is, if it calculates that, under Trump, this wouldn’t destroy a nuclear deal yet to see many of the assumed economic benefits.
Between now and January, Secretary John Kerry’s efforts to encourage Yemeni and regional players’ acceptance of the UN Yemeni power-sharing plan will no doubt continue. A compromise that the Saudis and Iranians might conceivably be cajoled into backing isn’t one that an outgoing Obama or an incoming Trump administration would disrupt. Alongside this, southern Yemeni secessionist pressures will continue. However, a southern unilateral declaration of independence—whether amid further state disintegration or as an unintended outcome of regional power sharing compromises—is not something that Trump can affect one way or another.
The Saudis cautiously back the UN deal, as does their old ally (and current enemy), Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. That said, Riyadh wants to see the full disarmament of the Houthi and Saleh forces. A complicating factor (among many) is what to do about Saudi/Qatari ally Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, an ostensible Hadi military man and Saleh’s former right hand. The Yemeni general needs to be accommodated, in the interest of his allies, local and regional. The Saudis and their current Yemeni allies need to accept, in word and deed, the UN plan to give the Iran-backed Houthis, pro-Saleh forces, and southern secessionists major stakes in running Yemen, while UN-led disarmament of Houthi and Saleh forces is first attempted in three key cities, not the whole country.
For any actor to pull this off would require both strategic clout and an intense focus on the multiplicity of differing Yemeni and regional components. It’s not clear that President Trump will give the United States this clout, and neither the outgoing or incoming U.S. administrations will have the focus.