WASHINGTON — In the first eight weeks in office, the Trump administration has launched dozens of missiles into Yemen, found itself embroiled in controversy over a botched raid into the country, and sought to provide heavier firepower to the Saudi Arabian-led forces fighting there. The real reason for this new interest, experts say, is because of how the country figures into the White House’s plans to counter Iran’s influence.
But in doing so, they may be opening space for another foe to regain momentum: al-Qaeda.
Since the days of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump has taken a hardline stance against Tehran, once calling the nuclear deal signed between the US, other world powers, and Iran "the worst deal ever negotiated." Though he hasn't torn it up as he'd indicated he would, he has surrounded himself with hawks — like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo — who think rolling back Tehran is a top priority.
A part of that effort currently looks like it will be focused on Yemen, which has been in the middle of a crippling civil war since 2015. Like the Syrian conflict before it, which has now lasted six years, the fight for Yemen involves multiple regional and global actors struggling for control — though the Yemen conflict has proved far less contentious among the great powers or divisive in Washington.
The US under the Obama administration became involved in aiding a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intended to restore Yemen’s internationally-recognized government after a coup attempt from the Houthi rebel group. The Houthis are considered an Iranian proxy by the US, due to both the fact that the group's members practice a form of Shia Islam, despite being a different model than practiced in Iran, and increased weapons shipments from Tehran to the Yemeni rebels over the months.
It appears that the US believes that ramping up its support even further for the Saudis is necessary. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the State Department approved the renewed sale of guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, suspended last year, and that a policy review on Yemen is underway at the White House.
“We’ll be looking for ways to blunt Iranian malign influence in the region. And we’ll be looking for all the tools that the US government has,” a senior US official told the Post. “In that context, I think you have to look at Yemen.”
Reversing the political fallout in Arab capitals after the nuclear deal also plays a role in Yemen's boosted importance. After the deal was signed, the US's traditional Arab allies became convinced that the US was attempting to pivot towards Iran as part of a new long-term strategy.
The Trump administration has been seeking to counter that view — even if the actual actions to do so have been few and far between.
But, as with most things involving Yemen, things are a bit more complicated that they would seem on the surface.
"If the Obama administration was all about Iran in a good way, it's not weird that Trump administration would be all about Iran in a bad way," Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. The problem is that the "mirror image of [the Obama White House's] policy is not going to solve the problems that were caused by that one-dimensional policy," Pletka said.
That can be seen in how the Trump administration seems to have ramped up the campaign to defeat al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, or AQAP. AQAP is a regional, independent branch of the terror group that seeks to attack the West but is also trying to build an Islamic emirate in Yemen.
The complexity of fighting AQAP reflects a terror group that is both a ground force in the ongoing civil war in Yemen and a transnational threat to the West, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
So far, the US has conducted more than 45 airstrikes in Yemen under the Trump administration, including at least 15 last week, according to the US military.
But, Gartenstein-Ross warned: “If you weaken the Houthis, you strengthen AQAP and vice versa.”
AQAP and the Houthis “feed off each other. And violence begets violence,” Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of Long Wars Journal, said. “Without a strong government that can fight these actors, you have different insurgencies jockeying to take over what’s left,” he said.
No one in the administration has answered how the US can weaken AQAP while not strengthening the Houthis, particularly in the areas of southwest Yemen currently under AQAP control.
Part of the issue lies in the fact that the US is currently viewing the conflict from a Saudi point of view, Pletka said, including Riyadh's view that the battle is part of its broader struggle with Iran in a Sunni-Shia battle for dominance in the Middle East.
A US defense official told BuzzFeed News that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will still attack the Houthis as part of their ongoing strike campaign on behalf of the government. With the US attacking AQAP that may allow the UAE and Saudi Arabia to more aggressively attack the Houthis. But US defense officials concede that approach is precarious, given that the Gulf states have in several instances struck the wrong target. A Saudi strike in October on what turned out to be a Yemeni funeral prompted the Obama administration to attempt to distance itself further from the ongoing campaign.
Moreover, short of a stable government in Yemen, both the Houthis and AQAP can maintain control over parts of Yemen. But that solution is potentially years away.
The US struggle over how to tackle two foes in Yemen already has presented challenges within the Trump administration. Former National Security Adviser retired Lt. General Michael Flynn suggested that the US priority was stopping Iranian expansion. It was Flynn who now infamously put Iran "on notice" during a White House press briefing without expounding on just what that means.
Despite that, the first US military campaign in Yemen focused on AQAP. Then, days after a Jan. 29 raid targeting a suspected AQAP compound, which killed Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a Navy SEAL, and as many as 30 civilians, the US military turned back to the Houthis. The US military considered intercepting an Iranian ship bound for Oman, suspected of carrying weapons to the Houthis, two defense officials told BuzzFeed News.
Under the Obama administration, US strikes focused on decapitating AQAP’s leadership, as part of a containment strategy. But the terror group is a counterinsurgency that has survived the loss of leadership. The Trump administration has given US Central Command a broader prevue to attack the terror group and has opened a new front against AQAP, saying it is the biggest threat to the West.
"If we go in there looking at it as an Iran only problem, the only thing that's going to happen is this is going to come back and bite us in a year or two," Pletka said.