Since 2014, the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi has been at war with the Houthi rebels and their allies. Saudi Arabia has led a coalition backing the government since March of 2015. Iran, Saudi Arabia claims, is quietly supporting the Houthis, a Shia rebel group which led multiple rebellions against the former authoritarian president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis currently hold the northern part of the country; the southern part is held by troops supporting President Hadi and by local tribes.
Through a combination of ill-advised arms deals and recent military action, the United States has found itself mired in a conflict which it will neither be able to resolve nor exit easily. In order to avoid becoming embroiled in yet another unpredictable Middle Eastern conflict, the United States should retract its support for the campaign and pressure the Saudis to disengage, while allowing the United Nations to take the dominant role in the peacemaking process.
The United States entered the conflict directly on October 15, 2016. Missiles fired from rebel-controlled areas of Yemen struck the USS Mason; the Houthi military denies Pentagon claims that the attack came from the rebel group.The US Navy destroyer USS Nitze fired cruise missiles at three radar installations in retaliation for the apparent attack on the USS Mason.
The United States engaged Saudi Arabia in a US$1.3 billion arms sale last year, despite warnings from State Department officials that the sale could make the United States culpable for war crimes in the conflict. The weapons, exchanged in November 2015, were specifically sold with the purpose of restocking munitions used in Yemen. The United States has a long history of arms deals with Saudi Arabia, having sold them US$58 billion worth of arms between 2009 and 2015. However this particular transaction threatens to violate the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty, which prohibits the sale of conventional weapons in cases where such sale facilitates war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Throughout the conflict, the coalition has been aggressively launching air strikes into Yemen, and civilian areas have frequently been in the line of fire. Twenty months of Saudi involvement came to a head with the catastrophic strikes on the capital city of Sana’a on October 8, 2016 which killed around 140 civilians and wounded upwards of 500. A laser-guided bomb struck a funeral service in Yemen’s largest city, killing its mayor, Abdel Qader Hilal. Saudi Arabian officials claim the incident resulted from “erroneous information.”
The irresponsibility and destructiveness of the coalition’s tactics have created a nightmare situation in Yemen. Since air strikes led by Saudi Arabia’s coalition began, at least 10,000 people have died, and more than 30,000 have been injured. The coalition has also put a blockade in place, which has helped wreck Yemen’s economy, leaving 80 percent of civilians in need of humanitarian aid.
After the tremendous loss of life as a result of the strike in Sana’a, the United States officially reviewed its stance on the conflict. After discussions among top level military officials, the US government has frozen a US$390 million sale of munitions to Saudi Arabia. However, despite the documented presence of US munitions at the scene of Saudi attacks on Yemeni civilians, the United States has not (and likely will not) completely halt arms deals with Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Obama administration has said, without giving specifics, that it will increase its support of the Saudi Arabian army in other areas, such as intelligence sharing and border protection. While acknowledging the importance of the American alliance with the Saudis on the basis of its policy — namely to eliminate ISIS and to impede the growth and progress of other Jihadi groups — further support of this conflict is unconscionable in the light of the loss of life and damage done to the country of Yemen.
After the loss of countless lives and billions of dollars, the Saudis’ venture is no closer to achieving the goal of a stable government in Yemen. Instead of propping up a failing military campaign, the United States should halt its sale of military weapons to the Saudis and use its influence to push the Saudis to curtail their use of military force. The United States can use its influence within the coalition to bring the situation to a diplomatic solution through a power-sharing agreement, determined by the United Nations, which takes the desires of both the Houthi rebels and established government into consideration.
All parties involved in the conflict agreed to a three day ceasefire beginning on October 19, 2016, with the larger goal of reaching a political solution to the ongoing conflict. However, the ceasefire ended abruptly a week later on October 26 as government forces opened fire on rebels in the Marib province east of Sana’a. UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh presented Houthi forces with a possible plan for the process of rebuilding the country; in late November, the rebels reviewed the plan and accepted the possibility of a power-sharing agreement. However, Mr. Hadi has rejected the plan, claiming that he is the legitimate leader of Yemen. He continues to launch serious military offensives against the rebels, who retain control of Sana’a.
History has proven that the United States should not become entrenched in foreign conflicts, particularly in the Middle East. America is already involved through its decades-old alliance with Saudi Arabia and through current support of the campaign in Yemen with both weapons and tactical support. The United States has garnered some responsibility for the outcome of the events there and it is incumbent on the government to prevent the further breakdown of order in an already unstable region by acting quickly to curb the bloodshed through advocation of the UN peace plan and the immediate end to sales of weapons to the Saudis.
Correction Note: Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition in Yemen since March of 2015; originally, the article read “since March of last year.”