A house in Sana’a, Yemen destroyed by an airstrike, 6 June 2015
At the UN General Assembly in October, President Obama vigorously denounced Russian support for “tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children.” So why is his administration supporting similar acts over the skies of Yemen?
According to the UN’s 2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview, 21.2 million out of Yemen’s 24.4 million inhabitants are in need of humanitarian aid in order to meet their basic needs as a result of the ongoing civil war between Houthi rebels and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi supported by a Saudi-led coalition. Given the United States’ support of operations that verge on war crimes and the various factions’ inability to establish peace, Washington needs to change its strategy and intervene politically in Yemen.
The United States — by supplying the Saudis with military equipment, in-flight refueling, and intel — has played an instrumental role in supporting largely indiscriminate airstrikes that have destroyed cities and killed thousands of civilians. In March 2015, a National Security Council statement revealed that President Obama “ha[d] authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led military operations” in Yemen. However, this benign sounding “logistical” support has actually consisted of “mainly ammunition and bombs,” including a recently approved $1.29 billion bomb deal to replenish the Saudi sorties in Yemen. This support has only grown with the increasing number of ground troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have used their U.S.-made armored vehicles to lethal effect. Given the tremendous civilian death toll since the Saudis began airstrikes, including 81 attendees of a wedding party, these weapons seem to possess more firepower than precision and the Saudis who use them seem to care more about decimating the Houthi opposition than maintaining stability in Yemen.
US support is so controversial that in September the UN Security Council sanctions committee chair was asked by council members to investigate and approach “all relevant parties to the [Yemeni] conflict and stress their responsibility to respect and uphold international humanitarian law and human rights law.” While members ranging from the UK and France to Russia and China supported this initiative, the US blocked it.
As the violence continued, suspicions over the White House’s involvement also emerged at home. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told Foreign Policy that he is concerned the conflict “directly, or indirectly, implicates us,” referring to the Leahy amendment that prevents the US from providing military aid to countries with a history of human rights violations.
More troublingly, the violence is continuing despite the fact that a peace agreement already exists. In April, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2216, which demands that the Houthi rebels stop fighting and withdraw from the territories they have occupied as well as Sana’a. In October, the Houthis affirmed their acceptance of the deal. Now the issue is over timing.
Whereas Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his coalition demand that Resolution 2216 be implemented before any peace talks occur, the rebels want to discuss the logistics of the deal before implementation. As the two parties remain in stalemate, the civil war continues claiming lives. Recently, more than 50 people, mostly civilians, were killed in only two days. It would not be farfetched to think that continuing the war to completely decimate the Houthis is part of Saudi Arabia’s calculus. Instead of pursuing peace in Yemen, Riyadh has the incentive to destroy the Houthi rebels, an Iranian proxy, in order to counter mounting Iranian influence throughout the region.
Although strikes have already come at a huge cost to civilians, the United States still has time to rectify the situation by pressuring for a political solution instead of continuing to blindly back one side of the conflict. The US should pressure Hadi, now that he has returned from exile, as well as Riyadh, to end the fighting at once and initiate talks. Only then can the United States create a situation in which Yemen is left at least somewhat intact. The latter point is of particular importance, considering al-Qaeda’s already strong presence on the peninsula.
The recent Paris attacks and intensified focus on ISIS must not serve as an excuse for the US to further ignore the Yemeni conflict, which the UN recently declared to have claimed 5,700 lives and caused a humanitarian crisis for a “staggering 82 percent of the population.” If anything, the Yemeni case exemplifies the need to utilize diplomacy to foster political stability in the Middle East, before extremists take advantage of the chaos.
Matt Lam is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, studying Economics.