Washington Post is reporting that Defense Secretary Mattis has asked President Trump to lift restrictions on U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia, UAE and other Persian Gulf states engaged in a civil war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The obvious question is whether this request makes sense. I, for one, am deeply skeptical.
Yemen is a complicated mess, and for most of its history it has been a complicated mess. I can hardly do justice to explaining the current conflict, and don't pretend to be an expert. I am also firmly convinced that few in the U.S. Government understand Yemen as well (which may well be our biggest problem). Nonetheless, I will do my best to provide some context for what is going on.
There are multiple conflicts going on now within Yemen, but there are two main conflicts that get the most attention. First, the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen has been challenging the central government for years. In addition, this group has global aspirations to conduct terrorist operations in Europe and the United States. For this reason, the United States has been engaged in armed conflict with this al Qaeda affiliate, including several air strikes. Even this conflict is itself complicated. While al Qaeda in Yemen clearly wants to strike the West, it is allied with local tribal groups that have a more locally focused desire to challenge the central government.
Second, an Iranian-backed Shi'a group, the Houthi rebels, have been engaged in a civil war with the central government. With the backing of Iran, they control significant territory in Yemen--including Sanaa, the capital. This conflict has effectively become a proxy war between the Sunni Persian Gulf states, and Iran, with the Saudi Air Force engaged in a highly controversial air war against Houthi held territory. This conflict is also complicated, with the former President of Yemen allied with the Houthis.
And to make matters even more complicated from time to time al Qaeda and the Houthis attack each other. Given that the Houthis' focus on been local, and have shown no desire to attack the U.S., we have largely stayed out of this conflict (other than the uncomfortable fact that much of the weaponry used by Saudi Arabia was made by U.S. companies).
So the current situation is a mess, which raises the critical question: why on Earth would Mattis think intervening to support the Persian Gulf states was in our national interest? These Gulf states are clearly our major allies in this reason, and the stated purpose of the request to the U.S. is to open a port for humanitarian aid. All true, but it still begs the issue of why the U.S. should join a proxy war against Iran. My only guess is that elements in the Administration are eager to join any fight against Iran.
My own view is that we need to be cautious, and avoid escalating this already tragic conflict. While the Houthis have not shown any desire to strike the West, our involvement could cause them to expand their aims. More fundamentally, as we have learned even in our conflict with al Qaeda, Yemen is complicated, and the ally of our enemy is not necessarily our enemy as well.