Yemen is in chaos. Fighting has forced a million Yemenis from their homes and killed thousands of civilians. There is no government. And the country is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
While Houthi rebels are believed to be responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths, the United Nations estimates that the majority of the at least 2,500 civilian deaths are a result of the Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.
Now the United States is poised to provide more shipments of arms to Saudi Arabia, increasing the risk of civilian deaths and making an already complex situation even worse.
Dangers of Complicity
U.S. support for Saudi air strikes in Yemen may not only be protracting a complex internationalized civil war but may also be violating U.S. and international laws by enabling war crimes.
Although the United States does not have boots on the ground in the complex civil war currently raging in Yemen, the logistic and material support provided to Saudi Arabia is enabling the escalation of the coalition bombing campaign.
Recently, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of $1.3 billion worth of air-to-ground weapons to Saudi Arabia, which comes out to roughly 22,000 bombs. At least three of the bomb types listed in the proposed sale have been identified in a report by Amnesty International as having previously been used in unlawful airstrikes against civilians in Yemen.
Since the civil war began in March, the United Nations and several humanitarian rights groups have identified hundreds of civilian deaths from Saudi air strikes. Currently, only one such strike is under investigation.
The initial air campaign of indiscriminate bombing has propelled Yemen into “an unprecedented humanitarian crisis”. Saudi air strikes have hit at least five densely populated areas as well as an IDP camp in Mazraq and several medical facilities.
Coalition forces have been accused of using cluster munitions, illegal under international law, in several attacks in Hajja governorate. At one point, Saudi Arabia designated the entire governorate of Sa’ada to be an enemy military zone – an action that was denounced by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen.
Dangers of Complexity
The war in Yemen is far more complex than is often realized, with aspects carried over from the country’s protracted civil conflicts, the Arab Spring revolution, and the broader regional power struggles between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. additionally risks further entanglement in the complex regional dynamics at play in what has become an internationalized civil war.
In many ways, the current conflict in Yemen can be seen as not only the continuation of a decade old sectarian struggle but also of a bitter power rivalry left over from the Yemen Revolution during the Arab Spring. Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, are a Zaydi sectarian group predominately based in the northern part of the country that has struggled to overthrow the nominally Sunni Yemeni republic since at least 2004.
As with many opposition movements in the region, the Houthis were swept up in the Arab Spring Revolts of 2011, where their anti-government stance was coopted into the broader movement that saw the ouster of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Ironically, when the Houthi insurrection captured the capital of Sana’a years later, they would do so with the help of Saleh loyalists who had backed the Houthi regime to overthrowing his successor.
Since then the conflict dynamics have only become more complicated.
Religious extremists linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda play an increasing role in destabilizing the country and international actors have focused in on the geostrategic importance of what at first appeared to be an internal conflict.
By the time the government collapsed in February of this year and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi established his provisional capital in the southern seaport of Aden, Saudi Arabia already began to prepare for military attacks in Yemen.
The same day the Houthis reached the outskirts of Aden and forced the Hadi government into exile in Saudi Arabia a coalition of Gulf and Arab countries under the leadership of Saudi Arabia began an aggressive campaign, known as Operation Decisive Storm.
The Saudis feared, as they do now, that the Houthi insurgency in Yemen represents a proxy for their regional rival Iran. Iran has provided crucial help to Houthi rebels and the international community’s, and particularly Saudi Arabia’s, desire to balance against Iranian influence in the Middle East is likely at the core of the current ferocity with which it has waged war in Yemen.
In mid-November, a spokesman for the Houthi government announced that a delegation would travel to Oman for preliminary discussions on UN-sponsored peace talks due to take place in Geneva before the end of November. While both parties have agreed to take part in talks in recent weeks, coalition forces have pressed north on a renewed offensive.
So long as military success over the Iranian proxy force seems likely, it may continue to be the preferred option of many in the regional coalition. In this context, U.S. arms not only enable the continued air strikes but may actively discourage Saudi Arabia from seeking a political solution.
Dangers Going Forward
The United States has quietly become embroiled in yet another protracted conflict in the Middle East.
Although U.S. forces are not directly involved in the fighting in Yemen, the weapons the U.S. has supplied to Saudi Arabia have made the coalition’s indiscriminate bombing campaign possible. As the civilian casualties increase, the United States must take responsibility for contributing to the increasing deadliness of the conflict.
The U.S. has already approved further arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Now Congress has 30-days to review the deal. The clock started on November 16 but there is still time for Congress to take action and prevent this bad deal from going through.
There are many positive steps the United States could take to help solve the crisis in Yemen. Adding more weapons to the fight isn’t one of them. Supplying weapons will only embolden Saudi Arabia’s desire for unconditional victory regardless of the cost of human lives.