Prospects for Peace: What the United States Should Be Doing in Yemen

By Erik Yavorsky
Over 10,000 people have been killed so far and tens of thousands more bear the wounds of war. Infrastructure is ruined, schools are closed, and hospitals destroyed in a clear campaign to starve the opposition. For two years, the Saudi Air Force has used American fuel and weapons in their military campaign in Yemen, an air campaign in which an estimated one in three Saudi bombings are against civilian targets. Extremists have taken advantage of the chaos, and as of this writing, over half a million people in Yemen have been diagnosed with cholera, all while the U.S. continues to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s deadly war. We know that a military-only approach will not end a conflict that has no military solution.
While the U.S.’ stated policy goals in Yemen are to destroy al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and deny them a safe haven. America’s support for Saudi Arabia has not accomplished this goal, but has in fact exacerbated the problem by fanning the flames of extremism and risking a wider regional war. It is time to end our support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, while pursuing an inclusive political solution as well as bringing in much needed humanitarian assistance into the country.

Hand in the Turmoil

The United States is actively refueling Saudi jets that are conducting bombing runs in Yemen. Under the veil of  “support[ing] partner nations and theater refueling requirements,” the United States has participated in thousands of refueling “events”- and the numbers increase every day. By refueling Saudi jets, the United States is strengthening the capabilities of the Saudi Air Force, increasing their operational frequency, and thus, the lethality of strikes. While the U.S. has claimed that their support for the Saudi air campaign has been “limited,”the facts on the ground (and in the air) run counter to that statement. The more the U.S. chooses to aid and assist the Saudis, the more enabled they have felt to increase their operational tempo within Yemen.
By aiding the Saudi-led coalition as they continue to bomb civilians as if they are enemies, America is shoulders a share of the responsibility for the crisis of human suffering in Yemen. American support also signals to the world that this destructive behavior is acceptable. The U.S. must uphold its commitment to rule of law and human rights and show the international community that it stays true to its values.
Not only has the U.S. provided fuel to the Saudi Air Force, but it has been the primary provider of arms to the Kingdom. In 2016, the U.S. sold $1.15 billion worth of tanks and arms to the Saudis. These tanks were designated to be “battlefield replacements” for tanks destroyed by Houthi rebels. In 2017, the Trump administration finalized an agreement to sell $565 million worth of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs), an effort supporters felt would limit the number of civilian casualties. This logic falls flat, however, due to the fact that the Saudis have been targeting civilian locations and infrastructure in an effort to get the Houthis to fall. Any shipment of arms simply enables the Saudis to continue their disastrous campaign in Yemen. As 30-year CIA veteran Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution thoughtfully noted, Saudi Arabia would lack the capacity to continue their disastrous air campaign if the U.S. begins to deny them arms shipments. It is imperative to realize that denying the Kingdom these tools of war is essential to calm the conflict and work towards a political solution, one that has not yet worked largely due to the continuation of fighting on all sides.
Among all of this turmoil and destruction, AQAP has taken  advantage of the chaos and filled the vacuum of governance within Yemen. According to the International Crisis Group, the group has successfully done this, saying AQAP is “stronger than it has ever been.” Due to a lack of a central government to provide essential services and provide order, various communities have turned to AQAP to govern and provide security and essential services, including much needed medical supplies. Not only has the group been able to increase its territorial hold, but also has continued to exploit the sectarian nature of the conflict, which is already having impacts on local governance in AQAP-controlled areas of Yemen. The increase in size and capabilities of AQAP proves that U.S. policy in Yemen is not working. The supply of U.S. bombs and fuel to Saudi Arabia, continues to run counter to U.S. national security interests and creates more opportunities for violent extremism with each successive bombing run.

Cooling the flames and building the peace

Getting humanitarian aid into Yemen must be at the top of U.S. agenda items.With 17 million people in need of food assistance, this is non-negotiable. To alleviate some of the human suffering in Yemen, the war must be ended in the short term; humanitarian aid then will be able to flow in while local actors begin to work on a actionable plan for a political solution. To do this, the vital port of Hodeidah should be off limits to military action. While controlled by the Houthis, the pro-Saudi President Hadi has said that Houthi control of this vital port is not acceptable. This is wrongheaded, as 80% of necessary goods for Yemenis come through this port. Any military campaign at Hodeidah risks the complete destruction of the port, which would be disastrous for Yemenis in need of aid throughout the country.
Dialogue and reconstruction efforts are also necessary going forward. As we have learned in Iraq, without a plan to support peacebuilding and development measures that address the root drivers of conflict, extremists will exploit the vacuum of power. Post-war Yemen risks the same fate, and it is one that the U.S. should work tirelessly to prevent. Hospitals, schools, water treatment facilities, and other vital infrastructure have been destroyed in the fighting. All sides are responsible for this, but it is in our strategic interest to help rebuild so that Yemenis can get back on their feet. Yemen is a complex society with a complex history; none of this will be easy, but history has shown the dangers of thinking that easy solutions are better.One thing is certain – bombs will in no way be able to solve this war and bring stability to the people of Yemen, only a political solution and necessary aid can do that.

Where are we now?

In all of this darkness, there is some things to be optimistic about. In 2016, only 27 senators voted to block the tank sale. Over the course of one year, news of civilian targeting and the misuse of weapons created resistance in Congress. After a valiant bipartisan campaign led by Senator Paul (R-KY) and Senator Murphy (D-CT), 47 senators voted to block munitions being sold to the Saudis. That support in Congress was fueled by a massive outpouring of grassroots activism from organizations like Win Without War and others, who demanded congressional action. Throughout floor debate on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), we have seen multiple amendments filed that aim to put an end to our support for the war in Yemen. Given President Trump’s overwhelming support for Saudi Arabia and silence on the issue of Saudi Arabia’s disastrous bombing campaign, there is even more reason to be worried about U.S. assistance to Saudi allies. Not only is U.S. policy not working, it is counterproductive and people are catching on. The situation in Yemen a quagmire, and so is the current U.S. policy. The catch: we can change this course. We must change it. We have no other choice.
Erik Yavorsky was a research intern during the summer of 2017  in the Win Without War program at the Center for International Policy, as well as a rising junior at The College of New Jersey. He has focused on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East, focusing particularly on Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. He intends to pursue a career focusing on U.S. counterterrorism policy, with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa.