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The War on Yemen and Eritrea

Dana Rohrabacher is feeding the Trump administration’s Iran obsession with unfounded claims:

President Trump understands the danger posed by Iran and the necessity of confronting that mullah-controlled Islamic country. He has cited the nefarious role played by the Houthis—a Shiite terrorist group operating in Yemen that is a major proxy of Tehran. The Houthis constitute a major threat to the Arabian Peninsula and the entire Red Sea region.

Some of this is simply untrue, and the rest is questionable. For starters, the Houthis are a nasty, abusive armed group responsible for their own war crimes, but they aren’t considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. They aren’t a “major proxy of Tehran.” Indeed, they aren’t really an Iranian proxy at all. Thomas Juneau explained this last year:

Yet as I argue in a recent article in the May 2016 issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal. It is simply inaccurate to claim that the Houthis are Iranian proxies.

Iran has provided them with limited support, and that support has modestly increased over the course of the atrocious war on Yemen, but Iran doesn’t have the degree of influence or involvement with them that the label proxy would suggest. It is questionable whether the Houthis ever posed a threat to the rest of the peninsula, much less the wider region, and to the extent that the Houthis now pose a threat to Saudi Arabia it is in response to two and a half years of Saudi-led attacks on them and their country. It doesn’t bode well for Rohrabacher’s argument that he starts off with such erroneous statements.

Rohrabacher goes on to say this about the war:

A coalition of Saudi Arabia and moderate Gulf states is fighting a protracted, intensive war against the Houthis. They hold a major frontline in the battle against Islamist terrorism.

This is as about as misleading a claim as one can possibly make about the coalition campaign in Yemen. The “battle against Islamist terrorism” has been largely or entirely ignored by the coalition, whose forces have sometimes even fought alongside members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The war has been a huge boon to both AQAP and the local ISIS affiliate. For that reason, the war on Yemen has been an unmitigated disaster for the effort to combat the jihadist groups that pose any real threat to the U.S. Framing the war against the Houthi/Saleh forces as a fight against terrorism wrong on the facts as well as being an example of willful blindness to the consequences of the war. Far from “holding” a “frontline” against jihadism, the coalition has enabled jihadists in Yemen to run amok and become stronger than they were before. That is just one of the many awful effects that the war has had on Yemen.

If Iran’s role in Yemen is so minimal, that makes Rohrabacher’s larger argument that the U.S. needs to increase ties with Eritrea (one of the coalition’s most abusive members) all the more strange. Eritrea’s government is an exceptionally abusive authoritarian regime, so much so that Eritreans have been fleeing the country in record numbers for years. When you review the record of the government, it is not hard to see why:

A June U.N. report accused the regime, led by former rebel commander Isaias Afewerki, of “crimes against humanity” targeting its own population, including torture, mass surveillance and indefinite military conscription that amounts to a form of slavery.

If the State Department has been “unfailingly negative” about Eritrea for a long time, that is because their government has been consistently awful. U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition is a prime example of what happens when Washington prioritizes indulging its authoritarian clients over all other considerations. The U.S. should halt that support, and it certainly shouldn’t deepen its relationships with any of the coalition’s members. Whatever limited benefits the U.S. might obtain from “close” collaboration with Eritrea’s government would not be worth it.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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