Saudi Halt Lets U.S. Off Hook Backing War It Never Believed In

Airstrike in Yemen
People look down through a hole in the roof of a house which was damaged during an air strike, in Sanaa. Photographer: Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s decision to wind down its military intervention in Yemen may let the U.S. off the hook on at least one Middle East dilemma.

Much of the Obama administration’s diplomacy in the region has consisted of persuading allies to line up behind policies they don’t much like -- attacking Islamic State rather than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and negotiating with Iran.

In Yemen, the tables were turned. Analysts say the U.S. has been a reluctant backer of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign, suppressing concerns that the war will benefit al-Qaeda and risk a flare-up with Iran that could derail nuclear talks.

The U.S. is caught between “the rock of its economic and strategic commitment to its Arab Gulf allies, and the hard place of trying to reach a nuclear deal with Iran,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Mideast politics at the London School of Economics. The Americans tried to “placate” the Saudis by supporting the war, even though they’re “worried about the sectarian reverberations and the ability of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to make further gains in Yemen,” he said.

The Saudi-led coalition said late Tuesday it will scale back airstrikes in Yemen because their goals have been achieved, and shift the focus to political talks and humanitarian aid. The attacks didn’t end immediately and the coalition hasn’t ruled out further military action, with the Houthis retaining control of much of Yemen and the Saudi-backed president, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, still in exile.

‘Take This Opportunity’

Oil declined after the Saudi announcement, though it pared the drop on Wednesday as air attacks continued. Brent crude rose 1.3 percent to $62.89 at 4 p.m. in New York.

The U.S. welcomed the Saudi step back and urged all parties to “take this opportunity” to revive peace talks.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been on opposite sides of conflicts in the Middle East. Yemen is the latest theater for their rivalry and a turning point for Saudi policy. King Salman, who ascended to the throne in January, has abandoned the tradition of mostly covert and cash-backed diplomacy, and used the kingdom’s military to defend its perceived interests.

Many Western diplomats say Saudi claims of an Iranian hand behind the ascent of the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen are exaggerated. Still, as the guarantor of Saudi security since the 1940s, the U.S. has been under pressure to stand by the world’s biggest oil supplier, especially after recent tensions.

The countries argued over the 2011 Arab Spring protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; how to respond to the civil war in Syria, where Saudi Arabia seeks the removal of Iran’s ally Assad; and the wisdom of a nuclear deal with Iran.

‘Eerie Resemblance’

“If the strategic partnership between Riyadh and Washington is to have any meaning in the post-Arab uprising Middle East, the U.S. must back the kingdom in defending vital Saudi interests,” said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “A nonthreatening Yemen is high on the list.”

It’s not the first time that war in Yemen has caught the U.S. between contradicting aims. In the mid-1960s, the impoverished country on the southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula was the scene of another proxy war. Egypt sent troops to Yemen in support of a republican revolution, while the Saudis sent weapons and money to the royalist resistance.

There’s an “eerie resemblance” between the international context of that Yemen war and the current one, said Jesse Ferris, author of “Nasser’s Gamble,” a study of the 1960s conflict.

‘Certainly Skeptical’

Then, the U.S. was trying to maintain ties with Saudi Arabia but also “to woo Egypt, at that time a key Soviet ally and the biggest source of U.S. headaches in the region,” said Ferris. “Today, the U.S. is trying to balance its enduring commitments to Saudi Arabia with its ongoing attempts to woo Iran, the region’s rising revolutionary power and the current source of trouble for the U.S.”

When the Saudi bombing began, the U.S. said it was providing logistical and intelligence support. This week, after the UN Security Council passed an arms embargo, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the Arabian Sea. President Barack Obama said Iran has been warned about weapons shipments to the Houthis.

“The U.S. is certainly skeptical about the Yemeni operation,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. Still, “Saudi Arabia overcame its own concerns to lend political cover and military support to the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS,” he said, using an alternative name for Islamic State.

No Authority

A rupture over Yemen “would have greatly complicated other U.S. objectives in the region,” he said.

One of those goals in Yemen is combating al-Qaeda, whose branch there has plotted attacks against Western targets. The U.S. counted Hadi an ally against the jihadists, though the Houthis accused him of secretly aiding them.

There are signs that al-Qaeda has profited from the chaos in Yemen. This month, militants and their tribal allies seized an airport and oil export terminal in the country’s southeast.

“Terrorists thrive in war zones,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator who’s now director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. “One without any central authority to challenge them will cause deep concerns for counterterrorism officials in many countries.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE