On August 9, a bomb hit a bus purportedly carrying Houthi rebel leaders in the middle of a crowded market in northern Yemen, destroying the bus and killing all aboard. As it later turned out, however, no insurgents were aboard at all: the vehicle was a school bus, the intelligence was faulty, and 51 people—including at least 40 schoolchildren—were killed. It was later determined that a 500-pound precision-guided bomb that had been manufactured by US defense contractor Lockheed Martin was used in the attack.
What distinguished this particular tragedy from many others inflicted on the Yemeni civilian population since the war began in March 2015 was the reversal in early September of the coalition’s initial claim: that the attack was aimed at a “legitimate military target” that included rebel “operators and planners.” Following a post-incident review by the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), the coalition’s in-house review body, the coalition admitted the attack was “unjustified.”
This was unusual in a conflict that has involved “17,062 civilian casualties—6,592 dead and 10,470 injured” between March 2015 and early August 2018, according to a statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Commissioner’s office concluded that most of the 10,471 casualties “were as a result of airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led Coalition.” According to Human Rights Watch, the JIAT has consistently failed to look into the vast majority of such casualties and other human rights abuses, even those that fell under its highly circumscribed mandate, and the body failed to “provide credible, impartial, and transparent investigations into alleged coalition laws-of-war violations.”
The school bus strike is emblematic of the tragedy that is Yemen today: a mounting civilian toll, often indiscriminate use of force by the warring parties, a lack of accountability that has inflamed public opinion worldwide, and a disturbing American connection to the violence on the ground.
Yemen now constitutes “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” according to UN Secretary General António Guterres. In addition to the dangers of the war, which include “indiscriminate attacks, bombing, snipers, unexploded ordnance, cross-fire, kidnapping, rape and arbitrary detention,” 22 million people—or three-quarters of Yemen’s population—are in need of humanitarian aid. Access to safe drinking water is nonexistent for millions; diarrhea and cholera are epidemic; health facilities are in crisis; infrastructure is breaking down; and the next disaster is always just around the corner.
The United States is not an innocent bystander. Over the last three and a half years, both the Obama and Trump Administrations have provided not only arms, but intelligence, aerial refueling support, and political cover for the Saudi-led coalition. Up to now, the United States has kept its focus on counterterrorism, paying lip service to the need for a brokered diplomatic solution, but in practice doing little to advance it. Moreover, despite the steadily worsening crisis, the United States has not done enough to force its Gulf allies to take steps to limit civilian casualties or ameliorate the unfolding humanitarian disaster. Amid a rising international outcry and growing congressional opposition, which have given voice to suspicions of US involvement in war crimes, the Trump Administration’s challenges are mounting, with few obvious successes to justify its policy. How did the United States get to this point? Is it willing and able to change course?
The Evolution of US Policy: From Barack Obama to Donald Trump
The United States has been involved in counterterrorism efforts in Yemen since the al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden on October 12, 2000. Almost nine years later, US-Yemeni cooperation intensified following the merger of two branches of al-Qaeda in the region to form Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2009. That organization has been responsible for numerous attacks and hundreds of deaths in Saudi Arabia and Yemen as well as several high-profile international terrorist incidents, including the assault in 2015 on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and two attempts to bomb US-bound flights in 2009 and 2010. The Obama Administration prosecuted an intensive drone war against AQAP targets—often with collateral civilian damage—in the years leading up to the Saudi intervention.
As Yemen slid further into chaos and civil war in 2014, the United States mainly confined itself to the diplomatic sidelines. That changed, however, in March 2015 after the Houthi rebels, reportedly backed by Iran, took charge of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee. In response, an alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (including Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and Qatar, as well as mercenaries from the US private security firm Academi, the successor to Blackwater) joined the fray with the ostensible goal of restoring the rightful government to power. The Obama Administration quickly announced that it would provide logistical and intelligence support to the alliance. While Washington would not take “direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort,” it established a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia “to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support” to the coalition.
Ironically, Yemen itself was of limited strategic interest to Washington or, for that matter, to Tehran, which viewed supporting the Houthis as a low-cost opportunity to irritate the Saudis even as it focused on far more strategically important goals in Iraq and Syria. From the point of view of the White House, however, Iran’s intervention was part of a broader regional challenge to American and Saudi interests that fit into a pattern of malign activities aimed at expanding Iranian influence. Thus, with the Iranian dimension weighing heavily on the Obama Administration’s decision-making, the United States now found itself more deeply embroiled in Yemen than ever before.
President Obama significantly stepped up drone attacks against terrorist targets in Yemen and, while continuing to aid the coalition, took part in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. In April 2015, the administration supported passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which required member states to impose an arms embargo on Houthi forces and demanded Houthi withdrawal from all territories seized in the fighting, including Sanaa. The resolution also strongly supported a negotiated solution to the conflict.
As the fighting dragged on and the humanitarian toll rose, however, the Obama White House began to develop misgivings. Mounting accusations of civilian deaths prompted the administration to review its involvement, eventually banning the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia after an errant attack on a funeral hall killed 155 civilians and wounded hundreds in 2016. As the Obama Administration drew to a close, it decided to defer a decision to the incoming Trump Administration regarding the expansion of the rules of engagement for special operations forces.
Trump Makes His Mark
In early 2017, Trump wasted no time in picking up where Obama had left off. The new president overturned the ban on precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and issued orders vastly expanding the use of drones in counterterrorism missions, loosening the rules governing permissible targets, and lowering the decision-making level at which strike decisions could be authorized. The administration even dispatched a small number of Green Berets to the Saudi-Yemen border in December 2017 to help locate and destroy Houthi-launched missiles. The United States continued to advise on targets, share intelligence, and provide aerial refueling for coalition aircraft.
The White House also ramped up efforts to push back against pressure to end or amend the Yemen mission. The administration opposed congressional efforts to limit US involvement on the grounds that the United States was not engaged in a combat mission (despite acknowledging the presence of US troops). The Pentagon insisted, moreover, that the United States played a vital role by advising and training coalition forces on how to limit civilian casualties—a role, if curtailed, would only lead to more civilian deaths and injuries.
The administration also insisted that cutting support for the coalition would harm US relations with Saudi Arabia, which Trump has carefully cultivated for diplomatic and commercial reasons. The US has expressed concerns about humanitarian impacts but has done little to press the coalition to make major changes in operations. On various occasions Washington has remonstrated with the Saudis and Emiratis on the need to keep humanitarian access open and to avoid massive military actions such as ongoing efforts to retake Hodeida, the rebel-held port that is a key humanitarian access point—but to little apparent effect. Administration officials have shied away from forcing the issue, reportedly due to fears that offending the Saudis would set back the US counterterrorism agenda as well as efforts to limit Iranian influence.
The Score Card So Far
Three and half years after the coalition intervention, which has been strongly backed by US military support, many now ask: Is the Yemen war any closer to resolution? Has the United States achieved its stated goals? Available evidence suggests the answer to both questions is “no.”
The peace process remains “stalled,” according to the United Nations. An effort by the new UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, to restart talks in Geneva after a hiatus of three years fell apart in September after the Houthi delegation failed to attend. While the United States and its Gulf allies continue to acknowledge that a political solution is the only way forward, as required by UNSCR 2216, none has expended much political capital to move the talks forward.
Militarily, the Houthi rebels remain firmly in control of much of the country, including the capital. Escalating operations by the coalition against Houthi targets have been met with a rash of Houthi missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and ships at sea, including an American guided missile destroyer. With its influence unabated, Iran has been accused of supplying most of the missiles involved.
With regard to AQAP, which the United States has relentlessly pursued as a sidebar to the fight against the Houthis, the results are likewise inconclusive. Although the Trump Administration sharply stepped up drone attacks against AQAP targets and damaged its leadership, the group has not been defeated and has in fact become a de facto ally of the Saudi-led coalition, receiving payments from Saudi and Emirati forces to vacate positions in key towns and, on a number of occasions, joining the Sunni coalition in the fight against the Zaidi Shia Houthis. AQAP’s presence on the front lines has been an effective recruiting tool for the group in Yemen and its numbers there are growing, one al-Qaeda commander told the Associated Press.
The humanitarian situation remains dire, despite international and US pressure on Saudi Arabia and its allies. Access for humanitarian resupply continued to be severely limited and the crisis is only growing worse. As the International Rescue Committee has noted, “Continued fighting prevents shipments of food and fuel from entering the country. Hospitals do not have diesel fuel to operate generators during power cuts, and ambulances have run out of gasoline. Stocks of antibiotics and critical medical supplies have been depleted … As the violence escalates, Yemen remains on the brink of catastrophe.”
International opposition to the war, and particularly to the actions of the coalition, is on the upswing. In 2017, the UN Human Rights Council established a group of “eminent experts” to look into “all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights” occurring in Yemen. In August they reported that there are “reasonable grounds” to conclude Houthi forces have committed serious “human rights violations” in areas under their control, and that the Saudi-UAE coalition and the government of Yemen may be guilty of “war crimes.” Houthi abuses notwithstanding, the group of experts found that the coalition was disproportionately responsible for civilian casualties. Concern is rising in Washington that the United States, as chief arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, may be implicated in those war crimes—one reason Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently told reporters that American support for the coalition “is not unconditional.”
The US Congress is taking note too.
In November 2017 and February 2018, bipartisan groups in the House and Senate each tried to force votes on the legality of US involvement in the Yemen conflict by invoking the 1973 War Powers Resolution. The efforts fell short, but they served as a warning of increasing congressional concern. Earlier in September, a larger group in the House, including Adam Smith (D-Washington), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, promised to try again.
The most serious challenge to the administration, however, came in August, when lawmakers included a provision in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring the administration to certify by September 12 that the Saudis and Emiratis were taking all necessary steps to avoid civilian casualties, allowing the free flow of humanitarian aid, and working toward a political solution to the conflict. If the certification were not made, the administration would be compelled to cut off aerial refueling services for coalition aircraft. In response, on September 11 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a rather perfunctory statement certifying that “the governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations of these governments” in Yemen. Secretary Mattis strongly endorsed Pompeo’s certification. According to The Wall Street Journal, the primary motive for the decision—reportedly taken against the advice of State Department experts and lawyers—was to protect lucrative US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The evident cynicism of this move only stoked congressional outrage. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) said “it is abundantly clear that this certification was bogus when it was announced, and the reporting on this internal memo further confirms that the administration has clearly violated the law.” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) complained via Twitter that “Congress has raised serious concerns about US support of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. [Pompeo’s] response today makes a mockery of congressional oversight authority. It’s not a certification – it’s a rubber stamp for Saudi Arabia.”
US Policy in Yemen: Steady as She Goes
But the administration has given no indication that it is prepared to back down due to congressional challenges or international criticism. President Trump made clear in his signing statement on the NDAA that the requirements pertaining to aerial refueling raised serious constitutional concerns. Military support for the coalition continues as before, despite Pompeo’s acknowledgement in his memo to Congress explaining the certification decision that “recently civilian casualty incidents indicate insufficient implementation of reforms and targeting practices … investigations have not yielded accountability measures.” The administration appears likely to push back on Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has expressed concern about a plan to sell 120,000 precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
All in all, administration policy remains in an uncomfortable stasis. The White House is able to point to little in the way of military or political progress, or even articulate a reasonable end game or exit strategy, much like the coalition itself. For now, “steady as she goes” is the White House mantra, even as the situation on the ground remains as unsteady as ever and likely to deteriorate.
Changing the Game Plan
This does not mean that the White House lacks options. On the contrary, it has several that would have a quick and powerful impact.
First, the United States should redouble its efforts to force the Saudis and Emiratis to open corridors and safeguard humanitarian relief operations in Yemen, and to do much more to minimize civilian casualties. This could start with American insistence that the JIAT, the coalition’s incident assessment group, start pursuing honest and vigorous investigations into strikes that cause civilian casualties. The United States should work closely with responsible UN bodies to ensure that international standards are being met, and not merely those that are convenient for the coalition.
Second, Washington would do well to reinvigorate efforts to move the peace process forward, if necessary putting pressure on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to do more than just express a willingness to negotiate.
Third, the United States needs to develop a very clear idea of what an achievable end-of-conflict military scenario would look like. It should consider pressing the coalition to stick to concrete, realistic goals in the context of a comprehensive diplomatic settlement.
Washington has several ways to encourage progress. First and foremost, the United States can limit or suspend aerial refueling services and other forms of military cooperation until Saudi Arabia and the UAE adopt a new approach. The administration can also conduct a vigorous review of arms sales to the combatants and consider suspending or cancelling weapons supplies, as several US allies have done already (among them Germany, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Belgium). The administration should coordinate more closely with Congress as it seeks oversight of US involvement in the Yemen conflict, which would serve as an important reminder that, indeed, US support for the coalition is not unconditional, as Secretary Mattis has warned.
In the end, the administration may not have much of a choice. If, as is widely expected, Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives in November, they will have plenty of scope to investigate US involvement in Yemen and enact their own restrictions. For humanitarian, political, and sound policy reasons, the administration would do itself a favor by shifting course on Yemen now.