The civil war in Yemen went all but unmentioned during President Trump’s recent visit to the Middle East, crowded out by speeches about terrorism and promises to sell the Saudis up to $110 billion worth of weapons. Amid the extravagant pomp and circumstance, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did tell reporters that the Houthi rebels need to recognize that “they will never prevail militarily” and that “it’s important we keep the pressure on them.”
Unfortunately, more military pressure is exactly what ought to be avoided. Instead of escalating the war, the United States should help end it — and the sooner the better, for millions of Yemenis and America’s reputation in the Middle East.
Two years of conflict have wreaked havoc on Yemen’s population and devastated the country’s infrastructure. Both sides refuse to come to the peace table, which, coupled with their use of hunger as a weapon of war, has created the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Thanks to the closure of Sana’a International Airport and a coalition naval blockade that has slowed fuel, food, and medical imports to a crawl, the majority of Yemenis are now living in a situation that is downright dire.
Yet the Trump administration’s apparent decision to pursue a military-only solution without considering the strategic or humanitarian ramifications will make peace harder to attain. The Pentagon, along with Saudi, Emirati, and Yemeni government officials have been trying to sell the idea of a “clean,” four- to six-week assault on the vital port of Hudaydah that will, they say, reopen humanitarian supply routes and force their adversaries to negotiate. In reality, the offensive is no more likely to shift control of the port, which has been in Houthi hands since before the 2014 coup, than a similar attempt last year. Moreover, a new attack on the port, on which the majority of Yemeni civilians now depend and through which most humanitarian aid flows, will likely precipitate famine. And despite the Pentagon’s claims that increasing U.S. military pressure on the Houthis in Hudaydah will bring them to the peace table and weaken Iranian influence in the country, the offensive will most likely have the opposite effect: it will give Tehran a long-sought pretext to escalate support to the Houthis, and legitimize the rebels’ claim to be defending Yemen from external aggression.
In effect, the conflict has been transformed into yet another proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with all of the sectarian undertones and animosities that accompany that rivalry. Any grand notions of “good guys” and “bad guys” in the war evaporated long ago; the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis, and pro-government forces have all broken the laws of war and committed violations of humanitarian law with such frequency that one wonders how the United Nations and human rights organizations can keep track. No civilian target has been off-limits; Saudi warplanes have bombed schools, hospitals, medical clinics, weddings, funerals, and even refugee camps. Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels have shelled civilian areas, used banned antipersonnel mines in at least six governorates, blocked and looted humanitarian convoys, and sent increasing numbers of child soldiers to the front lines.
U.S. policy in Yemen has made things worse. Despite Washington’s rhetorical support for a political resolution, the U.S. has literally fueled the Saudi bombing campaign for more than two years. And billions of dollars in defense sales to the Saudis and Emiratis have enabled some of the conflict’s worst humanitarian abuses.
As long as the U.S. plays arsonist one night and firefighter the next, the war in Yemen will continue and the parties to the conflict will have no incentives to engage in an inclusive peace process. That means thousands more civilians will die in ground fighting and air strikes, the recent cholera outbreak will spiral out of control as Yemen’s already meager health infrastructure shrivels even further, and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda will remain free to capitalize on the violence.
It’s time for Washington to change course. And fast.
Reports that the Trump administration asked the Saudis to provide law-of-war assurances before releasing $390 million of precision munitions are welcome. But it appears that these assurances have amounted to nothing more than additional training for the Saudi Royal Air Force, and Saudi lip service about avoiding civilian areas in their air campaign likely won’t amount to much. With the White House approval of the sale of $510 million in precision munitions, it’s time for Congress to play bad cop. By expressing strong opposition to the sale when the Senate votes on S.J.Res.42 next week – the bipartisan joint resolution of disapproval that would block the precision munition sale – Congress can give the administration the diplomatic leverage it needs to end the notion that there can be a military solution to the conflict via unconditional U.S. support. Perpetuating Yemen’s war by resuming arms sales to an ally who is either incapable or uninterested in preventing civilian casualties increases U.S. complicity in possible war crimes and does nothing to further the peace process.
The international community is looking for U.S. leadership on Yemen. Without it, it is unlikely that the Yemen portfolio will be elevated to prominence in the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. should work with the U.K.– which holds the pen on Yemen – to introduce a draft Security Council resolution that slaps an arms embargo on all combatants in the war and reinforces the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for all ships bound for the Hudaydah port. Any interference or unjustified restrictions on the shipping of humanitarian aid into Yemen can no longer be tolerated. Yemeni political and military leaders, including senior government officials in the Hadi administration, should face the same sanctions as those on the Houthi-Saleh side if they remain intransigent to the U.N. special envoy’s peace proposals. Those who continue to pursue a military solution to a war that can only be ended through diplomacy must be punished.
Re-engaging the Houthis diplomatically, exerting pressure on former president Saleh through additional sanctions, and ending Washington’s contradictory role in Yemen’s conflict by doubling down the peace process is the best way of securing the stated U.S. goal of stopping Iran’s mischief in Yemen and saving thousands of Yemeni lives in the process.
But it can’t happen as long as the status quo ante continues to dominate discussions in Washington.