A Misguided Military Escalation in Yemen

By: Nate Subramanian, Columnist

Photo Credit: Newsweek

This past month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly asked the Trump administration to lift Obama-era restrictions on direct military support for the Saudi-led coalition that has been battling Houthi rebels in Yemen since March 2015. While the United States has provided intelligence, targeting, planning, arms, and logistical support since the Saudi intervention began, direct military action thus far has generally been aimed at al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) forces in the region.[i] US assistance has been substantial: the United States flew over 1,600 refueling missions for Saudi warplanes through November 2016, and together with the United Kingdom provided over $5 billion worth of arms to fight the Houthis through March 2017.[ii]

The Saudi intervention has been characterized throughout by significant violations of jus in bello that call into question the justice and basic morality of the war itself. To justify continued assistance, let alone escalation, the United States must be able to point to a vital state interest that both is possible to achieve through aiding the Saudi coalition and outweighs the moral value of mass civilian death. The stated US strategic aims of countering Iranian influence, reinforcing the US bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, and diminishing the role of al-Qa’ida affiliates in the conflict do not meet this test. The foreign policy community must oppose the most recent escalation and any further US role in the intervention, and it should advise decisionmakers to seek to extricate the United States from a war in which it should have no part.

Dubious US Interests

Current reports state that the Pentagon views the Saudi intervention as a way to “counter Iranian influence”; Trump administration officials reportedly believe that Iran has aggressive ambitions to expand its foothold in the country.[iii] However, defeat of the Houthis would not entail a material blow to Iran. Iran labels the Houthis part of its “Axis of Resistance” and ships them limited quantities of tactical weaponry, but according to analysts, Iranian support for the Houthis is significantly less than Saudi support for Hadi-aligned forces, and serves mainly as an escalatory threat to hold Saudi attention and prevent action elsewhere in the region. The Houthis fluctuate between expressions of gratitude and ambivalence regarding Iranian support, and reports indicate that Iran’s control over the Houthis remains limited. For instance, in 2014, the Houthis attacked the capital of Yemen, Sana’a, against the advice of Iranian agents. In April 2015, a US intelligence official told the Washington Post, “It is wrong to think of the Houthis as a proxy force for Iran.” The Houthis likely desire a political resolution to the Yemeni conflict, whereas Iran benefits more from a perpetual conflict that saps Saudi will and attention.[iv]

While Saudi Arabia sees countering Iran as a vital interest—analysts note Riyadh’s “hyperbolic assessments” of Iran’s role in the conflict and region as a prime mover for the intervention—the degree to which stopping the Houthis is a US interest worthy of US blood and treasure remains a topic for debate.[v] Saudi Arabia sees Yemen as a key battlefield in its regional proxy conflict with Iran; the Saudi coalition has maximal aims, seeking a bloody military victory that has remained distant for more than two years. The Houthis remain, however, broadly incapable of threatening US security. Considering the Houthis continue to control Sana’a, along with many other cities in the west of the country, it is unclear what level of continued Houthi presence in the country would be acceptable to the United States.[vi]

Few current crises present the need to curry Saudi favor. Under the Obama administration, one could argue that supporting Saudi intervention was a necessary step to gain the Kingdom’s support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf states, saw the Iran nuclear deal as a portent of shifting US allegiances in the region.[vii] Under the current US administration, which has vocally opposed the JCPOA in the past but tacitly accepts it in the present, this line of reasoning does not track well. To avoid Saudi alienation in any proposed solution to the Syrian civil war, scholars Colin Kahl, Ilan Goldenberg, and Nicholas Heras suggest assertively interdicting Iranian weapons shipments, rather than aiding the Saudi intervention.[viii]

When the intervention began, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, commander of US CENTCOM, testified that the United States aimed to keep Yemen from becoming an ungoverned space for AQAP to exploit.[ix] This aim has not been achieved, and today seems further out of reach. Adding arms to a civil war that has grown intractable is more likely to further a power vacuum in which groups like AQAP can propagate than to counteract such groups. Despite the intervention and continuing US drone strikes, AQAP grew from approximately 1,000 members in 2014 to 4,000 in 2016.[x] Saudi attacks are aimed predominantly at Houthi targets, and in 2016, a Yemeni government official claimed that the Saudi focus on the Houthis had allowed AQAP to expand.[xi]

Moral Horrors

The humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen—the poorest country in the Arab region even before the civil war––is enormous in scope. A Saudi naval embargo has since 2015 stopped the delivery of food and medical aid to the country, which was dependent on imports for 90% of its staple food before the war.[xii] A UN-backed report from March states that 17 million people in 20 out of 22 governorates—60 percent of the country’s population—are in “crisis” or “emergency” food situations. The coastal Taiz and Al-Hudaydah governorates are particularly hard-hit, with acute malnutrition rates of 17 percent and 25 percent in their respective capital cities.[xiii] Seventy percent of humanitarian aid enters Yemen through the Al-Hudaydah port; both the United Nations and the International Rescue Committee have opposed military action around the port, citing catastrophic humanitarian impacts.[xiv] Early in the intervention, the Saudi-led coalition bombed the cranes at the Al-Hudaydah port, limiting the ability to offload humanitarian aid. The Saudis have continued bombing the port and surrounding areas through the present day.[xv] There exists therefore compelling evidence to suggest, as critics of the intervention have, that Saudi Arabia intends to use starvation as a method of war.[xvi]

In addition to famine and malnutrition, the war involves accusations of extensive jus in bello and human rights violations by the Saudi coalition. Notable civilian casualty incidents include: an April 2015 bombing of the Sana’a airport in order to prevent an Iranian Red Crescent aircraft from landing; a May missile campaign that targeted schools and hospitals; a November double-tap airstrike against a Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) hospital; and airstrikes against a funeral hall that killed at least 140 people in October 2016.[xvii] In a February 2016 report, Amnesty International stated its belief that the Saudi-led coalition had deliberately targeted civilian objects.[xviii] The Saudi coalition has been accused of using US-made cluster munitions in civilian areas, in contravention of US export laws, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has raised the possibility that this use constitutes a war crime.[xix]

Given that the United States has aided the Saudi-led coalition, it seems likely that fear of implicating the United States and of damaging the US-Saudi relationship will continue to hamper multilateral efforts to investigate the violations. After the October 2016 funeral hall bombing, the Obama administration promised to review the US role in the war; in December, it blocked the sale of guided munitions over concerns about civilian casualties.[xx] In addition, the Obama administration pressured the Saudi-led coalition to avoid attacking ports vital to humanitarian aid such as Al-Hudaydah. The efficacy of this pressure is debatable, according to US Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT): “I don’t really know if there was much of a leash … We kept telling them not to bomb civilians, not [to] double tap civilian targets, and they kept doing it.”[xxi] Saudi Arabia, for its part, brought together a bloc of countries to oppose and eventually sink the Dutch-proposed UN inquiries into human rights violations in 2015 and 2016.[xxii]

As neorealist Stephen Walt points out, the United States has failed in nearly every one of its wars and interventions in the greater Middle East since 1990.[xxiii] US assistance to the Saudi intervention in Yemen seems likely to fit the pattern, as it facilitates grievous moral consequences with only a tenuous connection to the achievement of state interests. The United States should cease its involvement in a war that does not address vital US interests and only bloodies the hands of those involved.

[i] Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan, “Trump administration weighs deeper involvement in Yemen war,” The Washington Post, March 26, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-administration-weighs-deeper-involvement-in-yemen-war/2017/03/26/b81eecd8-0e49-11e7-9d5a-a83e627dc120_story.html.

[ii] Jennifer Williams, “Trump is weighing a major escalation in Yemen’s devastating war,” Vox, March 27, 2017, http://www.vox.com/world/2017/3/27/15073250/trump-pentagon-war-us-yemen-saudi-arabia; Bruce Riedel, “Saudis jump on Trump bandwagon,” Al-Monitor, March 24, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/03/saudi-arabia-trump-administration-obama-clinton-salman.html.

[iii] Williams, “Trump is weighing,” Vox.

[iv] Ali Watkins, Ryan Grim, and Akbar Shahid Ahmed, “Iran Warned Houthis Against Yemen Takeover,” The Huffington Post, April 20, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/20/iran-houthis-yemen_n_7101456.html; Katherin Zimmerman, “Signaling Saudi Arabia: Iranian Support to Yemen’s al Houthis,” AEI Critical Threats Project, April 15, 2016, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/signaling-saudi-arabia-iranian-support-to-yemens-al-houthis; Kate Kizer, “Hitting Iran Where It Doesn’t Hurt: Why U.S. Intervention in Yemen Will Backfire,” Just Security, March 8, 2017, https://www.justsecurity.org/38543/hitting-iran-doesnt-hurt-u-s-intervention-yemen-backfire/.

[v] Samuel Ramani, “Why Saudi Arabia Is Continuing Its War In Yemen,” The Huffington Post, November 8, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/samuel-ramani/why-saudi-arabia-is-continuing_b_12869248.html.

[vi] “Mapping the Yemen Conflict,” European Council on Foreign Relations, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2016/08/yemen-conflict-controls-160814132104300.html.

[vii] Williams, “Trump is weighing,” Vox.

[viii] Colin Kahl, Ilan Goldenberg, and Nicholas Heras, “Can Trump End the War in Syria?” Foreign Policy, March 29, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/29/can-trump-end-the-war-in-syria/.

[ix] “Statement of General Lloyd J. Austin III,” testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 26, 2015, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Austin_03-26-15.pdf, 27-28.

[x] Micah Zenko, “Happy Anniversary to America’s Shameful Travesty of a War in Yemen,” Foreign Policy, March 27, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/27/happy-anniversary-to-americas-shameful-travesty-of-a-war-in-yemen/.

[xi] Yara Bayoumy, Noah Browning, and Mohammed Ghobari, “How Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger – and richer,” Reuters Investigates, April 8, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/yemen-aqap/.

[xii] “Yemen: Food crisis could become famine this year, UN warns,” BBC News, January 27, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38767874.

[xiii] “IPC Map of Yemen – March-July 2017,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed April 13, 2017, http://www.fao.org/emergencies/resources/maps/detail/en/c/847475/; Tom Miles, “No famine in Yemen but over half on the brink – U.N.-backed report,” Reuters, March 15, 2017, https://www.yahoo.com/news/no-famine-declared-yemen-60-percent-brink-u-115915939.html.

[xiv] “NGO Appeal to Trump: Don’t Go to War in Yemen,” LobeLog, April 4, 2017, https://lobelog.com/letter-to-trump-dont-go-to-war-in-yemen/.

[xv] Daniel Larison, “The U.S. Must Stop Enabling the Destruction of Yemen,” The American Conservative, March 14, 2017, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/the-u-s-must-stop-enabling-the-destruction-of-yemen/.

[xvi] Riedel, “Saudis,” Al-Monitor.

[xvii] “Aud flights to Yemen blocked after Saudi Arabian jets bomb airport runway,” Reuters, April 28, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/28/aid-flights-to-yemen-blocked-after-saudi-arabia-bombs-airport-runway; Marian Castillo, “U.N. rep accuses Saudi-led coalition of violating international law,” CNN, May 12, 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2015/05/09/asia/saudi-airstrikes-yemen/; Noah Browning, “Yemeni MSF hospital bombed, Saudi-led coalition denies responsibility,” Reuters, October 27, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-idUSKCN0SL0VK20151027; “Saudi-led coalition admits to bombing Yemen funeral,” The Guardian, October 15, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/15/saudi-led-coalition-admits-to-bombing-yemen-funeral.

[xviii]     “Yemen: The UN Human Rights Council Must Address Violations and Abuses Against Civilians in Yemen Conflict,” Amnesty International, February 18, 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde31/3390/2016/en/.

[xix] Zachary Cohen, “Rights group: Saudi Arabia used U.S. cluster bombs on civilians,” CNN, February 29, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/29/politics/saudi-arabia-us-cluster-bombs-on-civilians/index.html; “Use of cluster bombs in Yemen may be war crime: U.N. chief,” Reuters, January 8, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-un-idUSKBN0UM23H20160108.

[xx] Helene Cooper, “U.S. Blocks Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia Amid Concerns Over Yemen War,” New York Times, December 13, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/us/politics/saudi-arabia-arms-sale-yemen-war.html.

[xxi] Jessica Schulberg, “Donald Trump’s Shift on Yemen Risks Plunging the Country into Famine,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-hodeidah-yemen-famine_us_58a88970e4b037d17d28610b.

[xxii] Fatima Bhojani, “Seeking Accountability in Yemen,” Foreign Affairs, March 21, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/yemen/2017-03-21/seeking-accountability-yemen.

[xxiii] Stephen M. Walt, “Tom Friedman is Calling for a Partition of Syria. Trump Should Run the Other Way.” Foreign Policy, April 7, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/07/tom-friedman-is-calling-for-an-invasion-of-syria-trump-should-run-the-other-way/.

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