By Bryant Harris September 12, 2018
Washington is getting a crash course in the complexities of Yemen's multipronged civil war.
Tensions are simmering between President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and southern separatists, threatening to undermine the US-backed coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. With Hadi's cash-strapped government relying on its wealthy Gulf neighbors to lobby for the increasingly unpopular campaign, the Aden-based Southern Transitional Council (STC) is filling the void.
The separatists inked a $15,000-per-month contract with Virginia-based Grassroots Political Consulting in January, as clashes erupted with Hadi's forces in Aden. They went a step further in May, opening a Washington office complete with their own envoy, Abdulsalam Mused, to raise awareness for their cause and muster support in Congress.
“Since January we’ve been on a mass education campaign,” said Daniel Faraci, director of Grassroots Political Consulting. “A lot of lawmakers just don’t know about the complexities and nuances of Yemen. The general view … is that Iran’s in there, the Saudis are in there and it’s just a proxy war.”
Gen. Aidarous al-Zubaidi founded the STC last year after Hadi dismissed him from his post as governor of Aden. The separatists threatened to overthrow Hadi in January, backing down only under apparent pressure from their Gulf allies. As the Congressional Research Service noted in April, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia “may have intervened in order to ensure that the STC remains committed to the larger fight against the Houthis.”
While the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an integral player in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, it is also the STC’s main backer. Hadi in turn is skeptical of the separatists' inclusion in the partnership.
The UAE in particular is critical of Hadi’s alliance with the Islah Party, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, while the separatists present themselves as a bulwark against Islamists. Tellingly, Faraci's firm also represents the interests of Libyan strongman Khalifa Hifter, another UAE client that bills itself as anti-Islamist.
“The STC does not feel that their goals are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Faraci, a former intelligence and counterterrorism specialist at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the US Navy's primary law enforcement agency. “They want a free society, open government and democratic rule.”
The separatists' grievances run deeper, however, dating back to the country's unification in 1990 and the subsequent civil war four years later. In particular, southern Yemenis want better access to state welfare programs and a greater share of southern oil profits. They also complain that the central government is selling off valuable southern land to regime-linked northerners.
“Hadi’s blatant ignoring of the STC itself is what has caused the rift,” Faraci told Al-Monitor in a July interview. “What they want is a seat at the table in the peace negotiations that will decide Yemen’s future … and then their right to self-determination peacefully.”
While the war-torn country has garnered significant attention from Congress in recent months, the focus is almost exclusively on the unfolding humanitarian disaster. Critics of the Gulf states' March 2015 intervention in the conflict gained yet more traction last month with the release of a UN report that accused all sides of possible war crimes, prompting the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to warn that US support was "not unconditional."
Saudi Arabia's multimillion-dollar influence operation has sought to mitigate lawmakers' growing pushback against the Yemen campaign, with lobby firm Hogan Lovells distributing a list of anti-Houthi talking points ahead of a failed floor vote in March to end US support for the war. Still, the Saudi-led coalition is losing congressional sympathy as lawmakers grow increasingly concerned about the civilian death toll from military operations and the cholera outbreak and famine sweeping the country.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced in June that he was blocking a multimillion-dollar sale of thousands of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both countries use the munitions in their aerial campaign against the Houthis.
“Four years into this conflict, I am increasingly pessimistic that the administration has effectively deployed any leverage gained by selling weapons for use in the Yemen conflict to move toward a political conflict,” Menendez wrote in a letter to Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In August, President Donald Trump signed into law defense legislation containing language that could limit US midair refueling support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign. The law requires the secretary of state to certify that the Saudis and Emiratis are making efforts to engage in diplomacy, ensure access to humanitarian goods, reduce civilian casualties and avoid targeting critical infrastructure. Trump, however, issued a signing statement threatening to ignore the provisions.
Despite its stated intention of confronting Iranian proxies in the region, the Trump administration has been sending mixed messages about its goals in Yemen.
David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, told Congress in June that the United States is not providing support for the UAE-led assault on Yemen’s key Red Sea port of Hodeidah. But The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that the administration was providing the coalition with targeting assistance for the assault.
Still, the administration has acknowledged the humanitarian catastrophe and the impact the Hodeidah assault will have on aid flows to Yemen. Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development is on track to spend more than $854 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen over the past two years, more than any other donor.
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