Rethinking America’s Involvement in Yemen
As the world fixes its gaze on the Syrian Civil War, there is also another conflict raging in the Middle East that demands the attention of the American people: the Yemeni Civil War. However much the devastation of Aleppo, the slaughter of a multitude of innocent civilians, and the ruthless airstrikes from Syrian and Russian fighter jets are horrifying, the same tragedy is happening in Yemen. Why should this tragedy in the southern outskirts of the Middle East matter to Americans? Because the US is complicit in contributing to the chaos there.
It all started when the Houthis, a longstanding Shia insurgent movement, captured the capital city of Sanaa, which lies in the country’s northwest, in September 2014. They continued to move south, which ultimately culminated in the January 2015 resignation of President Hadi’s internationally-recognized government. Two months later, the Houthis reached Aden, a major port city in southern Yemen, and Hadi fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia, which commenced a military campaign aimed at targeting the insurgent movement and restoring Hadi to power. But there is more to the story than just a regional power wanting to reinstate law and order in a country to its south.
Saudi Arabia has been troubled at what it alleges to be an Iranian-backed insurgency in Yemen. The July 2015 announcement of the US-led Iran nuclear deal has of course exacerbated concerns in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia’s main geopolitical foe would be much more emboldened than ever to carry out its regional aggression. In order to allay concerns that the US is favoring rapprochement with Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia’s security, the Obama administration has had to prove its commitment to the Arab nation, which has received more than $115 billion during Obama’s presidency (the most out of any administration). And just a few weeks ago, the Senate voted to table, or reject, a resolution that would have blocked a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. But in the end, its accusations that the Houthis have substantial support from Iran are false, and as such, the Yemeni Civil War is not a huge proxy conflict between two rivals. So what is the US actually getting involved in, at least indirectly?
The answer is simple: a devastating humanitarian crisis not unlike what is occurring in Syria. Since the conflict’s inception, more than 4,000 civilians have been killed, and more than 3 million Yemenis have been displaced from their homes. Numerous civilian structures have been damaged or destroyed, including health facilities, schools, and economic infrastructure, the destruction of which has led to $14 billion in losses. In fact, data show that one-third of all Saudi air strikes have hit civilian areas, contradicting official government statements that the Saudi-led coalition is doing its best to minimize civilian casualties; Saudi Arabia may have already perpetrated international war crimes. According to an article from The Atlantic last month, officials from both the US State and Defense Departments have “questioned how well the Saudis had thought through their war in Yemen.” Well it’s time for Washington to seriously question and make changes to US foreign policy as it relates to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
It is appalling that the US has been complicit in the aforementioned atrocities. To add insult to injury, the civil war in Yemen does absolutely nothing to advance US interests in the Middle East. The only way out of this mess is through strong diplomatic efforts that bring the civil war to a close. While that may be a tall order for the Obama administration, which only has a few months left, the next president must help negotiate a solution between the Houthis and the Saudis. Even though it may be intuitive for the US to significantly reduce military aid and arms support to Saudi Arabia as a way to protest and withdraw indirect involvement from the Yemeni Civil War and pressure the Saudis to cease their military activities in Yemen, that would not be a wise decision; going that route could result in a gradual deterioration of the longstanding US-Saudi alliance, which benefits both nations. The next president needs to convince the Saudi monarchy to stop fighting an enemy that neither poses an existential threat to Saudi Arabia nor is backed by Iran. But that does not mean that the US, or Saudi Arabia for that matter, should not be deeply concerned about other developments that are troubling Yemen.
Ironically, as a result of the chaos created by the civil war, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which both pose security threats to the US and Saudi Arabia, have been able to thrive in Yemen, causing more headaches in Washington and Riyadh. ISIS is widely known due to ubiquitous media coverage, but the American public must not forget about AQAP, which is considered to be “the most dangerous branch of Al-Qaeda.” AQAP has demonstrated its ability to conduct attacks abroad, as evidenced by both the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt of a US-bound airline and the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. There currently is a very small number of US troops in Yemen who are working with Arab forces to track down AQAP militants, but that counterterrorism effort is limited to the extent that Saudi Arabia is focused more on bombing the Houthis than on defeating AQAP and ISIS. A scenario in which the Yemeni Civil War draws to a close through diplomacy, as previously discussed, would be ideal because the US would not be abetting war crimes; instead the US would be advancing its national security interests in the Middle East by working with Saudi Arabia to fight the terrorist groups that the war enabled to metastasize in the first place.
With respect to Yemen, Washington must give itself a reality check. Frankly, the US is contributing to the horrors occurring there, and the civil war is not accomplishing anything with respect to the safety and security of the American people; the war has actually caused terrorist groups to thrive. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been exaggerating Iran’s alleged support for the Houthis. A responsible US foreign policy going forward will look at all these facts and realize that the war must come to an end. This will help the US and Saudi Arabia focus their efforts in Yemen on decimating AQAP and ISIS. And those efforts are surely more deserving of the billions of dollars in military aid than efforts to squash a rebel group whose area of operations is very limited.
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