For the past few days, the USS Cole has been patrolling the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Washington deployed the ship to the narrow waters between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden on Friday in response to a suicide attack that Houthi rebels launched on a Saudi frigate days earlier. The Cole's presence is meant first and foremost to deter or, failing that, to respond to further attacks that would jeopardize civilian shipping routes. It is also meant as a warning to Iran, one of the Houthis' sources of material support in their fight against Yemen's government. In a statement on Friday, U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn said that "the days of turning a blind eye to Iran's hostile and belligerent actions" had come to an end. A statement from Flynn two days earlier in the week specifically blamed Iran for Houthi actions against U.S., Saudi and Emirati forces in Yemen.
As President Donald Trump's administration sets its foreign policy priorities, it is looking for ways to quickly differentiate itself from the previous administration and project its strength globally. The Yemen conflict seems to offer an opportunity to accomplish both goals at once, in the administration's view. Having explicitly linked Iran's actions to the Houthi insurgency, Flynn broke new ground in U.S. foreign policy and paved the way for Washington to turn the conflict in Yemen into a theater for its efforts against Tehran. But the Yemen conflict will not yield the easy victory that the Trump administration might be hoping for. By increasing the United States' involvement in Yemen, Washington risks embroiling itself in a complex battle of which Iran is only one small part.
Though most of Washington's activity in Yemen centers on combating al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the United States has also been working indirectly against the Houthi insurgency, which began in late 2015. U.S. advisers assist Saudi Arabia with operational planning for airstrikes against the Houthis and share intelligence with Riyadh. Washington has also provided direct support for air operations by way of refueling aircraft. The U.S. Navy, moreover, has recently launched cruise missiles at several Houthi-controlled radar stations in response to anti-ship missile attacks on U.S. vessels off the coast of Yemen. Still, the United States has yet to undertake a dedicated effort against the insurgent group — at least until now. Over the past week, though, unnamed White House aides said the Trump administration is considering expanding the United States' role in fighting the Houthis to push back against Iran's involvement in the conflict.
The Houthis are not simply Iran's proxy. Though the insurgent group has been around only for a matter of decades, and it has occupied Yemen's capital, Sanaa, only since 2015, its Zaidi Shiite roots in the vast and mountainous country's highlands date back centuries. Its rivalries against Yemen's other tribal groups are similarly enduring.
But the Houthis are not simply Iran's proxy. Though the insurgent group has been around only for a matter of decades, and it has occupied Yemen's capital, Sanaa, only since 2015, its Zaidi Shiite roots in the vast and mountainous country's highlands date back centuries. Its rivalries against Yemen's other tribal groups are similarly enduring. By the time they took on the Yemeni government, the Houthis had years of experience fighting for resources in their water-strapped home in Yemen's arid interior plains. Today, they are formidable opponents, as Washington's allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have learned from their own experience in Yemen.
If the United States gets more involved in the conflict against the Houthis, it will expose itself to a host of dangers, not least of all the risk of mission creep. The conflict in Yemen is a ready-made quagmire: For the past two years, the Houthis and the Yemeni government have stayed at a stalemate through numerous attempts at political negotiations. While the Houthis and their allies in the General People's Congress insist that new elections be called, Sanaa maintains that its opponents must retreat and lay down their arms before it will entertain their demands. Neither side has budged in months. The humanitarian cost of the conflict, meanwhile, just keeps growing. The military advisers and drones that Washington has allegedly been planning to deploy against the Houthis may not be enough to produce the kinds of results that the Trump administration seems to be after. Over time, they may give way to manned air operations over Yemen and more frequent deployments of special operations forces in Washington's quest for visible gains on the battlefield. And as the recent raid on AQAP that killed a U.S. sailor and several civilians in southern Yemen illustrated, the costs of escalating military activity in the country are high.
Furthermore, in joining the fray, the United States risks getting in the middle of disagreements among the other members of the coalition. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates lead the military coalition of GCC countries fighting in support of Yemen's internationally recognized government. As their operations have evolved from airstrikes to ground combat, their visions for Yemen's future governance have diverged, putting the United States in a potentially uncomfortable position.
Perhaps more important, the United States' attempts to counter Iran in Yemen could interfere with its efforts against the Islamic State elsewhere in the Middle East. In Iraq, for example, U.S.-backed militias are fighting side by side with Iranian-backed militias to take down the extremist group. Since the Trump administration has named the fight against the Islamic State as its main counterterrorism and foreign policy priority, Washington will be careful not to jeopardize the success of the operations against the group.
After spending two years conducting airstrikes against the Houthi rebels to little visible effect, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have learned the hard way that Yemen is no place for quick, easy military victories. If Washington is looking for a fast way to demonstrate its strength against Tehran, it is unlikely to find one in Yemen if it goes too far.