In the wake of the Khashoggi affair, a growing chorus in DC is pushing the idea of ending support to the Saudis for the war in Yemen. Lousy idea.
Food, water, medicine and other necessities are scarce, even in the best of times, which this isn’t. The war makes things worse. On Wednesday, the US head of the World Food Program, David Beasley, said 14 million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation.
Meanwhile, although backed by Secretaries Jim Mattis at Defense and Mike Pompeo at the State Department, UN attempts to end the war have yet to show progress. Congress is becoming increasingly uneasy about maintaining the status quo in America’s alliance with Riydah, not just because of evidence it had Jamal Khashoggi murdered, but also because it has carried out indiscriminate air assaults in Yemen that have exacted an intolerable human toll. Plus, the Saudis have no clear strategy for victory in Yemen.
So Mattis’ announcement last week that the US will no longer refuel Saudi fighter jets seems logical. Indeed, why not go all the way and end all US support altogether?
Yet doing so would be a major blunder. Recall how we got here: As an ill-tagged “Arab Spring” swept the region, young Yemenis demanded freedom. Sana’a’s thuggish dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was ousted. Civil war raged.
Emboldened by its advances in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, and encouraged by Obama-era “rebalancing,” Iran smelled an opportunity. It hooked up with the Houthis, a long-oppressed Shiite-like Yemeni minority. Armed, trained and backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Houthis captured Sana’a and some of Yemen’s top strategic sites.
Their once-ragtag militia soon became an army, modeled after Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and its leaders enforced strict Islamic rules. Wherever they could, they posted their Iranian-inspired slogan: “Allah is greatest, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam.”
In Riyadh, meanwhile, Mohammed bin Salman, who was Saudi defense minister in 2014, saw an opportunity in Yemen as well and launched a war that would make him national hero. Posters glorifying him were ubiquitous in Saudi streets, helping him ascend to power as crown prince and Riyadh’s de facto ruler.
Yet the Saudis had legitimate reasons to intervene in Yemen: A Houthi victory there places a militant Iran proxy at their border. The Houthis periodically fire Iranian-made missiles at them, even some aimed at Riyadh itself. Access to nearby ports and waterways is threatened.
Worse: Iran, which according to a new Reuters report is ramping up its military support in Yemen, is tightening its grip in the neighborhood — a recipe for endless regional instability.
Will such concerns be addressed as the UN attempts to wage peace? The last time UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, tried to convene negotiations in Geneva, in September, Houthi representatives didn’t even show up. They listed preconditions to preserve their war gains — which, naturally, are unacceptable to the Saudis.
War, then, is unlikely to end before someone wins. But the Saudis have no idea what victory would look like, let alone how to achieve it. Meanwhile, Yemen’s unimaginable suffering is weighing on the world’s conscious.
Citing such concerns, several Obama-era officials on Monday wrote a letter urging President Trump to “end participation in or any form of support for this [Yemen] conflict,” except humanitarian assistance.
Of course, these are the same officials who sent pallets of cash to Tehran in the lead-up to the nuclear deal, enabling — even encouraging — Iran’s regional aggression. Should we now do something similar in Yemen?
The war is obviously a nightmare for Yemenis. But so are the Houthis’ tactics. And handing them — and Iran — victory now will likely lead to future unrest that no one can guarantee will be less cruel or deadly.
Instead, America should deepen its support for the Saudi-led coalition and help — heck, force — it to pursue a smarter, more effective and less cruel war strategy.
As Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president Jonathan Schanzer puts it, we must “find a way to address Saudi inadequacies without ceding ground to Iran.” Washing our hands of Yemen may feel good, but it won’t guarantee peace — and will likely only lead to an even worse regional catastrophe.