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.”