Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Tue, Nov 22nd, 2016

Team Trump and Yemen

The election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. President has left those of us who had some semblance of trust in the pre-election polling in a state of shock. Pundits are now scrambling to predict what Team Trump will do, a task about as difficult as predicting exactly where a tornado will touch down and cause widespread destruction.

Among the many negatives that the Trump political brand carries with it, there appears to be little understanding of the turmoil in the Middle East. Trying to piece together what Trump’s policy might be for immigration of Muslims to the United States, the Iran nuclear deal, the conflict in Syria and the ongoing devastation in Yemen is Humpty Dumpty squared. The only thing we do know for sure is that we really do not know anything for sure, since Trump’s comments during the campaign are often contradictory and vague to the extreme.

There was much laughter when the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson geographically fumbled the meaning of Aleppo, but it may very well be that Trump has no clue what or where Sanaa is or could be. He seems to have a good grip on countries where he has hotels and investments, including Russia. The cabinet and oval office appointments thus far appear to renew the neocon mentality with a steady Islamophobic character. Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor is retired Lt. General Michael T. Flynn, who thinks sharia law has infiltrated just about everywhere and that fear of Muslims is rational. Now we can say for certain that fear of General Flynn is rational. It is not clear if the super Islamophobe Patrick Gaffney, who advised Ted Cruz, is advising Trump, but he certainly fits the tenor of the Trump agenda on Islam.

When the unthinkable happens, it is not a good idea to stop thinking. With due recognition that I can only engage in shotgun punditry, what are some of the scenarios that could affect the war in Yemen as American policy shifts in the Trump era? On the negative side, the Islamophobic trope that Islam is a violent religion by nature and that Muslims are anti-American by default would seem to hinder chances for a settlement of the conflict. But there is a twist for Yemen, since it is the Huthis who are the most ardent in trying to root out al-Qaida and ISIS. The fact that the Huthi mantra says “Death to America” certainly complicates the picture, as does the fact that the U.S. has a willing buyer of military hardware in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. But if al-Qaida and ISIS are the main enemies, then the stance against Iran as well as Yemen may be softened somewhat.

It would appear, to be purposely vague, that Trump will follow Obama in not wanting any American boots on the ground. Some of his rabid advisors may want to replay the invasion of Iraq, but Trump would likely want to sell weapons rather than tote them along with ground forces. Thus, the Saudis should be able to keep their supply going for as long as their own dwindling resources allow them. With oil as glue, the likelihood that Trump will bear down on the Saudis for their human rights abuses or their destructive campaign in Yemen is poor. Given that Oman remains the main hope for resolving the conflict, the uncertainty over succession of the sultan only increases the likelihood of continuing violence in Yemen.

However, there is the issue of Russia pushing its way back into the Middle East. It is likely that Trump will allow Putin to step up the attacks on the “rebels” in Syria and shore up the Asad regime, its last refuge in the region. If Putin is emboldened by this, then perhaps the Russian interest in Yemen will return. There is obviously no love between Putin and the Saudis, so if Russia decides to enter the fray, at least diplomatically, in defense of Hirak and perhaps even the Huthis (both of whom have no love for al-Qaida and ISIS or the Saudis), it would signal the return of Russia as a global player in the region.

But then there is Trump’s flair for turning 180° on any issue. So everything I have just said remains pure speculation.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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