America Should See Saudi Arabia's War on Yemen for the Horror It Really Is
The U.S. is at war in Yemen. Special Forces are on the ground in Saudi Arabia assisting the oil giant against its impoverished neighbor. Washington also is providing Riyadh’s military with munitions, targeting assistance, and aerial refueling. All to bomb a nation whose people have done nothing against Americans.
Although President Donald Trump once criticized the Saudi royals for trying to “control U.S. politicians with daddy’s money,” he has continued to support Saudi Arabia’s war efforts. Congress has too, with the Senate recently voting 55 to 44 against taking up a measure to decide whether America should involved in Yemen. At least the vote was closer than last year, when the Senate refused to block a sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis urged the Saudis to “accelerate” the peace process, but they have not listened. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), who is a supposed reformer, continues to jail his critics and apparently wants only the peace of the grave for his Yemeni victims. Already most of his foreign initiatives—involving Syria, Qatar, and Lebanon—have misfired disastrously. So far, Yemen is his most consequential blunder.
The Obama administration backed MbS’ Yemen gambit in a futile attempt to assuage Saudi concerns over the Iranian nuclear deal, now abandoned by the Trump administration. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Votel claimed that “We’re not parties to this conflict,” but the Yemeni people, dying from bombs provided by Americans dropped by planes supplied and refueled by Americans and guided to their targets by Americans would disagree.
Gen. Votel then used ignorance as a defense, testifying to the Armed Services Committee that “we do not” know what happens after providing our assistance. Robert Karem, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, confirmed that the U.S. does not “monitor their aircraft.”
In reality, America is an accomplice to Saudi aggression with horrific consequences for the Yemeni people. Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment observed: “By catering to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the United States has empowered Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security, brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse, and visited more death, destruction, and displacement on the Yemeni population.”
Yemen sits at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and has a long history of being dominated by Saudi Arabia as far back as 1934. When Yemen became independent in the 1960s, it was emerged as two independent and fractured states. Over the decades they fought each other and experienced domestic conflict intermittently, often finding their wars exacerbated by foreign intervention, including by Saudi Arabia. The two Yemens eventually united in 1990, but conflict continued with internal secessionists and outside meddlers.
For years President Ali Abdullah Saleh sat atop Yemen’s political volcano. He worked with both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to maintain control and counted among his enemies the Houthis. That group was a militia that is as much tribal as political or religious. Also known as Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”), the Houthis are Zaydis, a moderate, Shia-related sect that also shares some characteristics with Sunnis. They battled Saleh’s government through at least six separate conflicts. In addition, as Gregory Gause at Texas A&M observed, “The Houthis wanted to be affiliated with the Iranians much more than the Iranians wanted to be affiliated with them.” Later in 2009, Saleh gained and used Saudi support against the Houthis.
In 2012 Saleh was overthrown amid the backwash from the Arab Spring and succeeded by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. However, Saleh was able to fight his way back into power thanks to help from the Houthis. In response, Saudi Arabia joined with the United Arab Emirates and several lesser “coalition” partners in March 2015 in an attempt to restore Hadi, who had fled to Riyadh. Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis would become troubled, eventually leading to a split and his assassination at their hands in 2017. It should be noted that throughout all of this, Iran had little to do with what went on. Rather, U.S. intelligence reported that Tehran counselled against the Houthis’ decision to take over the capital of Yemen.
Today a Yemeni nation and state no longer exist. As April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group said, Yemen “has fragmented along historical divides, and you have various power centers.” Furthermore, a recent Chatham House report concluded that “Yemen resembles less a divided country than a collection of mini-states engaged in a complex intra-regional conflict.”
Worse still has been the impact on the Yemeni people. As of early 2018, the United Nations declared, “Yemenis are facing multiple crises, including armed conflict, displacement, risk of famine and the outbreaks of diseases, including cholera—creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
A year ago an estimated 10,000 civilians had been killed and another 40,000 had been wounded. A March update from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported: “Conflict in Yemen has left 22.2 million people, 75 percent of the population, in need of humanitarian assistance and has created a severe protection crisis in which millions face risks to their safety and are struggling to survive.”
More than a million cases of cholera have been reported, the largest recorded outbreak in history. A recent epidemic of diphtheria reached all but one of Yemen’s 23 governates. As many as 18 million people are food insecure and 14 million are at risk of starvation. Meritxell Relano, representing the UN’s Children’s Fund in Yemen, explained: “water and sanitation systems are collapsing. More than half of Yemen’s health facilities are out of service, cutting off nearly 15 million Yemenis from access to safe water and basic healthcare.” As if these woes weren’t enough, it is also estimated that three million people have been displaced.
Of course, Saudi Arabia’s MbS denied any blame. “It is very painful … and I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.”
His claims are wrong and distorted. The Houthis have behaved badly, but the conduct of the coalition is far worse. Saudi airstrikes, described as “indiscriminate or disproportionate” by Human Rights Watch, have caused at least two thirds of infrastructure damage and three-quarters of casualties. Observed Yemeni-American Rabyaah Lthaibani: “For three years now, the Saudi Coalition has bombed hospitals, schools and wedding parties. They have systematically targeted roads and farms and blocked ports so lifesaving aid and other goods could not reach people facing famine and the world’s fastest-growing cholera outbreak.”
This would be outrageous under any circumstance, but attacks on civilians appear to be conscious strategy. A UN panel of experts recently charged that Riyadh was using starvation as a weapon of war. Most obvious is the blockade which, reported Human Rights Watch, “has severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians, in violation of international law.”
But the coalition’s crimes go much further. Matthew Reisener of the Center for the National Interest cited “mounting evidence that Saudi Arabia has deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure to manufacture a food insecurity crisis in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled areas. Hundreds of airstrikes have purposefully targeted farms, marketplaces and food-storage facilities, while over two hundred fishing ships have been destroyed in coalition bombings.”
A different kind of human horror also comes from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Last June Human Rights Watch and Associated Press reported that Abu Dhabi and its local allies operated 18 secret prisons in Yemen’s south where prisoners were tortured. According to AP: “Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaeda militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuses is routine and torture extreme.” In addition, American forces were reportedly stationed at some of those facilities, though U.S. officials denied involvement in human rights violations.
What could justify U.S. complicity in another state’s murderous war of aggression?
One of many poor arguments is one from the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, who argued that U.S. have to be involved, “to keep the region from falling apart,” because “the collapse of any friendly regime there is bad for us.”
The reality is that Washington has done far more to destroy Middle Eastern order than preserve it. The invasion of Iraq, bombing of Libya, and support for jihadist radicals in Syria boosted militarist and Islamist movements throughout the region and greatly enhanced Iran’s influence. Today, Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, and America’s assistance in that war, has continued this process.
Whether Hadi was nominally friendly toward America no longer matters. Since his ouster he allied with Islamist radicals and is no friend of democracy or human rights. Moreover, by calling in airstrikes on his own people Hadi lost whatever legitimacy he once possessed. By helping kill thousands of civilians in attempting to restore him to power, Washington ensured that much of the population will be unfriendly, whatever the character of the regime that emerges. One Yemeni described the destruction of his apartment by a Saudi airstrike to The New Yorker’s Nicolas Niarchos, angrily stating, “America is the main sponsor of all that is happening to us.”
Secretary Mattis claimed that ending U.S. combat support would allow the Houthis to use ballistic missiles to threaten “vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea.” Alleged proof of this was an earlier Houthi missile attack on an American warship. That attack led other administration officials to express concern about navigational freedom, especially in the Bab-el-Mandeb waterway.
But Yemenis attacked the U.S. vessel because Washington is helping their killers, Saudi Arabia. Before this war, Houthis did not target Americans and they had no reason to. In peace the Yemenis rely on Gulf trade and they would never want to impede it. Yet now the Saudi-led coalition has blockaded Yemen and its access to the Gulf. By internationalizing the war Riyadh has also internationalized the weapons. As U.S. Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan complained and noted, previously “there was no explosive boat that existed in the Yemeni inventory.”
MbS similarly tried to paint Yemenis as aggressors. He told 60 Minutes that the Houthis were “conducting military maneuvers right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders.” Suggesting that Yemeni rebels, deeply involved in a bitter civil war, planned to invade Saudi Arabia was an obvious fantasy and wouldn’t make sense. Saudi and U.S. officials also cited missile attacks on Riyadh as justification for the war—yet the Yemenis were responding to repeated the bombing of their capital of Sanaa and killing of thousands of civilians. When striking back, Houthi leader Abdul-malik al-Houthi announced: “As long as you continue to target Sanaa we will strike Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.” It should be clear that someone cannot retroactively justify an invasion just because the victims fought back.
Yet, Iran has become an all-purpose boogeyman with which to justify Saudi and American military involvement. For instance, MbS told 60 minutes that “The Iranian ideology penetrated some parts of Yemen” and “Iran is playing a harmful role.” This from a regime which pushed radical Wahhabism onto Yemen for years. Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., contended: “Iran must not be allowed to create a Hezbollah-like proxy in Yemen through the Houthis.” Yet it was his nation’s aggression that pushed Abu Dhabi’s enemies together.
In any case, there is also the fact that Iran is militarily weak, economically decrepit, and politically divided. MbS admitted that: “Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia.” If this is the case, then why does he worry so much about Iran?
Washington officials also appear to constantly exaggerate the Iranian threat, often making it seem as though they are vast and powerful, they know otherwise. Robert Karem claimed: “We see the war in Yemen as pushing back against Iran’s attempt to destabilize the entire region and beyond.” However, Tehran’s supposed attempt at regional “domination” involves wretched Syria and Yemen, perpetually divided Lebanon, and Iraq, whose Shia majority was unleashed by America’s intervention in 2003.
Moreover, history suggests that no Yemeni faction, except perhaps that headed by Hadi, would sacrifice the country’s autonomy in order to become a puppet of Tehran. As Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute has said, “The al-Houthi leadership retains its independence from Iran and has pushed back on Tehran’s statements and offers repeatedly.” Additionally, Gabriele vom Bruck at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies observed that, “The Houthis want Yemen to be independent, that’s the key idea, they don’t want to be controlled by Saudi or the Americans, and they certainly don’t want to replace the Saudis with the Iranians.”
For these reasons, we ought to be skeptical anytime Iran is made out as the excuse for involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. Indeed, Iran’s role in Yemen always has been limited anyway. Tehran has been a minor player compared to the Riyadh. According to Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa, the present fight “is at its root a civil war, driven by local competition for power, and not a regional, sectarian or proxy war.” It should be clearly spelled out that the Houthis are not Tehran’s proxy. Adam Baron of the European Council on Foreign Relations noted that, “It’s not as if the Houthis were created by Iran, and further, it’s not as if the Houthis are being controlled by Iran. This is a group that is rooted in local Yemeni issues.” Furthermore, after three years of watching the war, vom Bruck concluded that “I don’t think the Iranians have influence in their decision-making. It’s not a relationship like that between Iran and Hezbollah.”
The relationship between Iran and the Houthis was largely one of the Saudi-led coalition’s making. The coalition’s invasion made such a Iranian-Houthi partnership inevitable because choice did the Houthis have after being attacked by their rich neighbors equipped and backed by the global superpower? As Kevin L. Schwartz of the Library of Congress concluded, “Only after the onset of the Saudi-led campaign did the arming of the Houthi rebels by Iran increase.”
Nor did Iran have to invest much to hinder Saudi Arabia’s well-equipped but ineffective legions. Iranian assistance mainly involved training and ground weapons, which pale in comparison to Washington’s aid to Saudi Arabia. Chatham House’s Peter Salisbury argued that Tehran “has reaped fantastic returns on a modest investment, drawing Saudi Arabia into a destructive war it cannot win without a substantial investment of personnel or resources.”
Yet American is drawn into yet another foreign conflict with no end in sight. Secretary Mattis has argued that the allies “stood by the United Nations-recognized government.” Additionally, the Emirati Gulf News recently proclaimed that the aim of the military campaign was “To uphold the legitimacy of [Hadi’s] internationally recognized government.” However, neither the U.S. or UAE cares about these arguments and legal niceties when it comes to their desire to intervene in Syria. This argument also frayed badly when Abu Dhabi began supporting southern separatists against that same UN-recognized government. Observed Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute, “The reality seems to be that the UAE has become exasperated with Hadi and is orchestrating its own plans for the south.”
Hadi may be the “legitimate” president, but he does not offer stability. Chatham House reported that Hadi was “widely seen as a bit player whose importance is derived from legal technicalities, external support, and access to resources rather than from hard-earned ‘grounded’ legitimacy.” He is dependent on foreign support and fears being killed if he returns to his country. Indeed, two of his ministers recently resigned, claiming that the Saudi government barred them, and Hadi, from returning to Yemen.
America’s only serious security issue involving Yemen is the revival of al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s most active affiliate. AQAP has accelerated recruiting and expanded its presence. The Jamestown Foundation’s Michael Horton observed that “AQAP has become more pragmatic and continues to de-prioritize ideology—at least in terms of its day-to-day operations—in favor of building alliances, recruiting and training capable fighters and enhancing access to revenue streams.” The group now controls an estimated third of the country.
Carafano argued that if Washington stopped underwriting Riyadh’s aggression, “Tehran, Islamic State group and al-Qaeda would feel emboldened and likely double-down on expanding the war.” This is incorrect because for Islamists and terrorists the war has been a godsend. The Houthis, though anti-American, also are anti-AQAP. However, their attention has been diverted, by Saudi and UAE aggression, giving AQAP room to breathe. In addition, even the State Department admitted that AQAP and the Islamic State have “exploited the political and security vacuum left by the conflict between the Yemeni government and Houthi-led opposition.”
Moreover, journalist Laura Kasinof observed that Hadi, lacking internal support, “cozied up to the Islamists” before his ouster, even quietly cooperating with AQAP in some areas. Also, noted Reisener, “al-Qaeda was significantly bolstered by the transfer of weapons from Saudi Arabia to a number of al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni militia groups in Yemen.” Zimmerman said that “The Saudi-led coalition tolerates AQAP’s presence on the battlefield, so long as the group fights against the al-Houthi-Saleh forces.” Thus, the Trump administration arms the Saudis- who arm or turn a blind eye of AQAP- while also increasing airstrikes and ground deployments against al-Qaeda. The U.S. is therefore undermining its own objectives by supporting a bad ally in a bad war.
Yet, American war advocates incongruously claim that the way to reduce casualties and end the war is to support escalating Saudi attacks. Secretary Mattis warned that restricting U.S. aid “could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counterterrorism, and reduce our influence with the Saudis—all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.” Arguing that Americans must continue to help the coalition kill civilians to stop it from killing more civilians is bizarre. How can the U.S. know it is stopping the killing of civilians if officials admit that they do not even pretend to monitor Saudi attacks.
Carafano declared, “Instead of turning our back on Yemen, the U.S. should focus on ending the war.” By continuing to subsidize Saudi aggression? Doing so reduces the cost of war for Riyadh. Furthermore, as an active belligerent the U.S. has no credibility to try to mediate and so cannot bring everyone to the table. Instead, the best hope to end the bloodshed is forcing the Saudi royals to pay for their murderous misadventure. The truth is that the U.S. has no leverage when it underwrites and ignores Saudi failure.
Lastly, Carafano pointed to the supposed Russian menace: “Putin would interpret an American withdrawal as a green light for additional Russian meddling—the type that Moscow has brought to the Syrian civil war.” However, this is just more threat inflation as Moscow never demonstrated any interest in joining the war in Yemen. The situation is not comparable to Syria, with whom Russia has long been an ally. In general, Moscow’s influence in the Middle East remains minor compared to that of Washington and so doesn’t require U.S. involvement in Yemen.
Candidate Donald Trump criticized President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, but President Trump is doubling down on Obama’s unnecessary Middle Eastern war. There is no good reason to do so on behalf of an authoritarian regime guilty of promoting Islamic radicalism. The U.S. is subordinating fundamental American interests and values to those of a royal dictatorship and entangling the U.S. in another distant, unnecessary, and unwinnable conflict. Ultimately, a political settlement is necessary, putting the interests of the Yemeni people before that of either the Saudi royals or Iranian mullahs.
Carafano argued that, “The U.S. cannot be a bystander.” But, of course the U.S. can and, in this case, it should. American policy has created chaos, spread radicalism, underwritten tyranny, and aided aggression. Washington has done all of these in tragic Yemen and has yet to learn from the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm. The first step towards that should be President Trump choosing to end America’s disastrous meddling in Yemen.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.