This past week marks the first time the U.S. military actively became involved in the Yemen Civil War. Early in the week, Houthi rebels fired two missiles at the USS Mason, a U.S. Arleigh Burke class destroyer off the coast of Yemen (1). Additionally, another U.S. ship was targeted by missiles; both attacks were unsuccessful and hit neither ship. However, this prompted a response by the United States in the form of cruise missile strikes against radar installations used by Houthi rebels (2).
In the scope of American mainstream media, the Yemen Civil War has received considerably less coverage than the Syrian Civil War, due to Syria’s high number of civilian casualties and the mass migrations caused by the conflict. However, the geopolitical implications of the emerging conflict in Yemen are significant, as the region is an important trade location.
The Yemen conflict began in 2014, mainly between Shia Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized Sunni government of Yemen. The Houthis are a rebel group that adhere to Zaidism under Shia Islam and are around one-third of the Yemeni population (3). Disagreements between the Houthis and the government date back to the 1990s and early 2000s, as the Houthis demanded more representation in the Yemeni government. The conflict erupted into its current state when the Houthis successfully took control of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and spread to the coastal city of Aden in 2014 and 2015. Shortly after control expanded to Aden, Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was forced to flee as a result of the Houthi offensive. In addition, fighting has resulted in major humanitarian issues and instability within the area, as this military and social strife has entangled other states in the region, al-Qaeda of the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and the U.S.
The Yemen conflict is not covered nearly as much the Syrian conflict; however, there are similarities between the two. Just as the Syrian conflict has foreign powers intervening, Yemen has become a proxy war for states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, in addition to the long-standing domestic issues between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in securing their border and ensuring that the Shia Houthis do not take control of Yemen. The Houthis inhabit northwest Yemen, which lies directly on the border with Saudi Arabia. Due to the Houthis quick outbreak in 2014, Saudi Arabia organized a coalition to push back the Houthi advance with air strikes and prevent Yemen from being overrun by the Houthis. The airstrikes began in 2015, as Saudi Arabia built a coalition to include Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal—all of whom have a vested interest in preserving the stability of the region (4).
To further complicate the conflict, Iran arms and supports the Houthi rebels, prompting the view that along with other parts of the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting wars of support for Shia and Sunni groups, respectively; U.S. naval forces recently boarded a freighter in the Red Sea suspected to be bringing arms from Iran (5). Iran influence conflicts throughout the Middle East, and their reach extends to Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The Yemen conflict is another example of conflict within the Middle East that showcases the long-standing friction between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
The United States will likely increase its role in the conflict due to the Houthi missile attacks on U.S. ships, as well as the long-term concern of AQAP operating in a state that has the potential to increase in instability. The U.S. considers AQAP to be one of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous branches, which has prompted the U.S. to operate drone strikes in Yemen (3). The United States attempted to not involve itself in another Middle Eastern conflict, due to negative public reception and extreme complexities within the conflict. However, involvement in the Middle East is important to U.S. decision-makers, as the mix of conflict and terrorist organizations can lead to terrorist organizations holding significant amounts of territory, such as ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
Beyond the threat that AQAP poses to the U.S., there is a vested interest in maintaining maritime security in the Gulf of Aden; the recent missile attacks targeting U.S. ships indicate the threat this conflict poses for Gulf security. International trade would be heavily impacted by threats to ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. 3.8 million barrels of oil travel through the Bab el-Mandab Strait every day (6). 12.5-20 percent of global trade passes through the Gulf of Aden (7). Maintaining open passageways through the Red Sea is vital to international trade, and any further escalation will likely lead to further foreign involvement in Yemen.
Conflict is likely to persist, as the Yemen Civil War is shaping up to be another proxy war within the larger fight for geopolitical hegemony in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has serious concerns with allowing Houthis to come to power near their southern border, while Iran continues to support Houthis fighting against the legitimate Yemeni government. It will take increased escalation, threats of endangering trade, and further humanitarian crises for the international community to become more involved.
(1) "USS Mason American Naval Destroyer Targeted by Missiles from Yemen Houthi Rebel Territory after Saudi Funeral Airstrike."CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 10 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/uss-mason-american-naval-destroyer-missiles-yemen-houthi-saudi-airstrike/>.
(2) Rosenberg, Matthew, and Mark Mazzetti. "U.S. Ship Off Yemen Fires Missiles at Houthi Rebel Sites." The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/world/middleeast/yemen-rebels-missile-warship.html?WT.nav=top-news&action=click&clickSource=story-heading&em_pos=large&emc=edit_nn_20161013&hp=&module=first-column-region&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=76302747&pgtype=Homepage®ion=top-news&_r=0>
(3) "Yemen Crisis: Who Is Fighting Whom?" BBC News. N.p., 26 Mar. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423
(4) "Key Facts about the War in Yemen." - News from Al Jazeera. N.p., 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/06/key-facts-war-yemen-160607112342462.html>.
(5) Nissenbaum, Dion. "U.S. Moves to Stem Iran Arms Flow to Yemen." WSJ. Wsj.com, 12 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-wants-to-block-iran-from-arming-yemens-houthi-rebels-1428868461>.
(6) Bender, Jeremy. "These 8 Narrow Chokepoints Are Critical to the World's Oil Trade." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 01 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.businessinsider.com/worlds-eight-oil-chokepoints-2015-4>.
(7) By Concentrating Forces EU NAVFOR Can Provide Influence, Deterrence or Insight into Legitimate Activities, and Thereby Co-ordinate Better Future Activities to Deter Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea, and Thus Re-assure Legitimate Merchant Mariner. "About MSCHOA and OP ATALANTA." About Us. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.mschoa.org/on-shore/about-us>.
Image: © Dmitry Chulov | Dreamstime.com - Yemeni military on duty at the security checkpoint, Hadramaut valley, Yemen.
This presidential election season has been full of surprises. It appears that the norms of presidential elections, and even party lines, have been flipped on their head. It is hard to remember when a Republican presidential candidate was so against free trade, or a Democratic presidential candidate was essentially a status quo candidate. Even foreign policies seem to be flipped, as Donald Trump has previously indicated that he believes we need to hold NATO accountable at any cost, even if that means distancing the U.S. from the alliance, while simultaneously praising Putin as an effective leader. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton claims to be set on taking a hardline stance against Russia, due to her experience with Putin and the Russian government during her time as Secretary of State. A Trump presidency that is hard on NATO and cooperative with Russia would come at a great security risk to our allies in NATO and undermine the norm of the U.S. and Europe being close allies, while it is unclear to see what would be the result of cooperating with Russia and trying to find common ground between Trump and Putin. A Clinton presidency would lead to further distrust between U.S. and Russian leadership based on her past with the Putin regime.
Throughout the election, Trump has praised Russian president Vladimir Putin, garnering significant amounts of criticism as a result. In early September, Trump told a forum that he believes that Putin “has been a leader far more than our President [Obama] has been” (1). Remarks like these are a way of criticizing the Obama administration and Clinton because she served under that administration. In addition, Trump’s praise of Putin shows his preference for a type of leadership that is much more unilateral, and isn’t afraid to go against the international community. This all comes as Clinton indicated that she will be taking Russia head on, specifically in terms of cyber security. After the intelligence community determined with “high confidence” that the Russian government was behind the Democratic National Committee hack in July, concerns then focused on Russia attempting to play a role in the outcome of U.S. domestic politics (2).
Beyond Trump’s praise of Putin, he has been particularly harsh on NATO for multiple reasons. His main reason behind his criticism is that the other European members do not pay their fair share in contributing to the alliance and their security. This criticism is consistent with Trump’s focus being mostly economic, as Trump focused heavily on trade agreements and jobs at the first presidential debate. However, there is some truth to his accusation. Of the 28 NATO members, only 5 countries meet the agreed upon threshold of spending at least 2% of GDP towards defense with the United States coming in first at 3.61% defense spending of GDP (3). Nonetheless, pulling resources out of NATO would have strategic implications for the United States. It is unclear whether Trump is using this rhetoric as a means of scaring the U.S.’s NATO allies into increasing their spending towards defense, or if he is really set on changing the organization.
In response to Trump’s criticism, NATO officials proclaimed that the alliance is still relevant and doing many things that Trump believes NATO should do. For instance, after the first U.S. presidential debate, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg explained that NATO is already addressing many of these issues, such as increasing intelligence sharing and developing an intelligence arm to NATO. Further, the Secretary General noted that NATO fighting in Afghanistan was a great example of how the organization is taking on a greater counterterrorism role (4). A U.S. drawdown within NATO would be unnerving for many European countries, as it would allow Russia to gain influence in Eastern Europe, and would indicate that the alliance was weakening. Baltic states such as Lithuania and Estonia joined NATO to ensure that Russia did not dictate domestic politics or overstep. However, the invasion of Ukraine demonstrated that Putin is not afraid to leverage old Soviet states, especially those outside of NATO.
Still, Trump believes that NATO should stop focusing on Russia and redirect most of its attention towards terrorism. This concept of slowing or halting opposition to Russian influence is new to NATO, and especially the Republican party. During the last presidential election, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney explained during the debate that he viewed Russia as still a great threat to the United States, while President Obama brushed off the statement by saying that it was no longer the Cold War. Michael Morell, former CIA acting director, is highly critical of Trump’s praise of Putin, and wrote to Trump that “you cannot credibly serve as commander in chief if you embrace Russian president Vladimir Putin (5). There are many within Washington and the defense community, such as Michael Morell, that see Russia as a strategic threat to the U.S. based on Russia’s aggressive actions in Europe and other parts of the world.
There would be consequences to Trump decreasing support for NATO, while also allowing Putin more influence around the world. What much of this indicates is that Trump would be stepping away from the U.S. foreign policy of liberal internationalism, in which the U.S. believes in international norms and institutions. Publicly allowing Putin to keep Crimea and increase Russia’s sphere of influence would damage U.S. image, especially amongst its European allies, as it would indicate that the U.S. may no longer adhere to its long-term treaties or international norms. However, it is important to see what would happen to U.S.-Russia relations if a Trump presidency were to decrease tensions with Russia and President Putin. Would Trump and Putin be able to find common ground on issues, such as a policy in Syria or finally ease tensions? There is always the likely possibility based on Putin’s past behavior that he would be manipulative with the United States.
On the other hand, a Clinton presidency would likely ensure at least four more years of poor cooperation with Russia, and the possibility of the relationship to worsen. In 2009, while Clinton was Secretary of State, the United States and Russia attempted to hit the ‘reset’ button in order to indicate a future of increased cooperation, and an agreement to put old Cold War mistrust in the past. However, the reset failed, as Russia and the United States disagreed on multiple policies, and the invasion of the Ukraine infuriated the U.S. This failure was an embarrassment to the Obama administration and Secretary Clinton. In addition, Clinton and the Russian leadership do not like working with one another, based on the Kremlin’s view that Clinton is a liberal interventionist, and her view that the Russian government is untrustworthy (6).
Both candidates clearly have different strategies with dealing with Putin and the Russian government. Clinton will be tough, and U.S.-Russia relations will likely suffer based on the history of Clinton and the Russian leadership. The next four years under Clinton would likely increase geopolitical posturing and disagreements between the U.S. and Russia. On the other hand, Trump’s policies have never been attempted, and it is uncertain what a cooperative U.S. and Russia would look like, or if Putin’s cooperation would be a facade, with his true motivations being manipulative. A better relationship with Russia could help with other conflicts around the world, such as Syria, and could finally stop the Cold War-like actions between the two states. However, this would require the U.S. to overlook Putin’s questionable legitimacy and dictatorship-like tactics, while damaging the U.S.’s position with long-standing allies in Europe.
(1) News, BBC. "Trump Says Putin 'a Leader Far More than Our President'" BBC News. N.p., 08 Sept. 2016. Web. 29 Sept. 2016. <http://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-37303057>.
(2) Sanger, David E., and Eric Schmitt. "Spy Agency Consensus Grows That Russia Hacked D.N.C." The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 July 2016. Web. 29 Sept. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/27/us/politics/spy-agency-consensus-grows-that-russia-hacked-dnc.html>.
(3) Kottasava, Ivana. "These NATO Countries Are Not Spending Their Fair Share on Defense." CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 08 July 2016. Web. 30 Sept. 2016. <http://money.cnn.com/2016/07/08/news/nato-summit-spending-countries/index.html>.
(4) Barnes, Julian E. "NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg Responds to Trump Criticism at Presidential Debate." Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal, 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 29 Sept. 2016. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/nato-secretary-general-jens-stoltenberg-responds-to-trump-criticism-at-presidential-debate-1474981179>.
(5) Bradner, Eric. "Former Top CIA Official: Putin Wants Trump to Win." CNN, 11 Sept. 2016. Web. 29 Sept. 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/11/politics/michael-morell-donald-trump-putin-russia/index.html
(6) Ferris-Rotman, Amie. "For Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin, the Mistrust Is Mutual." WSJ. Wsj.com, 28 Sept. 2016. Web. 29 Sept. 2016. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/for-hillary-clinton-and-vladimir-putin-the-mistrust-is-mutual-1475055001>.
Image: © Palinchak | Dreamstime.com - Vladimir Putin on 70th session of the UN General Assembly
Chadd Dunn is a senior at the University of Southern California double majoring in business administration and international relations. He focuses mainly on international economics,