The US in Yemen: Facilitating Disaster, Dodging Culpability
A man wearing the MAGA hat stands listening to Donald Trump at his inauguration on January 20, 2017 in the District of Columbia, Washington DC // Photo: Shutterstock/eddtoro

Commentary by Holly Topham and Ziad Al-Eryani

In March 2015, then-US President Barack Obama signed off on measures to support the newly formed Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.[1] Five years on, this ill-defined support remains as murky as ever, despite domestic pressure to review its scope and nature. What is clear, however, is that Washington is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to its policy concerning the war in Yemen – if it can even be conceived as having one.[2] 

Outsourcing to its regional allies may have made sense five years ago; Yemen has never been a strategic priority for the US and has generally been consigned to Riyadh’s domain. For many in Washington policy circles, Yemen does not come into view except when certain strategic lenses are applied – be it the threat of Al-Qaeda or regional tensions with Iran. The course of the Yemen conflict points to the risks of outsourcing policy in this way. What was supposed to be a quickly won Saudi-led intervention has descended into a multi-faceted war upon which America’s allies have long lost their grip.

As we mark this grim anniversary, America’s role in sustaining the war deserves acknowledgment. Washington has trodden a fine line during the Yemen conflict; maintaining enough distance to avoid direct implication in many of the atrocities being unleashed on the country while providing the material and logistical support – and above all, the political cover – indispensable for such operations. It has proven a politically astute but morally dubious strategy and a common thread running through both the Obama and Trump administrations.

This five-year mark comes on the eve of a potentially catastrophic outbreak of Covid-19 in Yemen. The near-decimation of the country’s healthcare sector — in which all of the warring parties played a part — will hinder response to a pandemic that even the world’s most developed countries have been defenseless in the face of. Rather than continuing to retreat inward, this is the very moment that the US should reclaim its global leadership role by reassessing its support for the Saudi-led coalition and throwing its full weight behind an immediate ceasefire.

Opaque Support for the Coalition

When the Saudi-led coalition began its intervention in Yemen, then-President Obama agreed to provide “logistical and intelligence support” for military operations and to establish a “joint planning cell” to coordinate with Saudi Arabia.[3] It quickly appeared that this support was instrumental to the most controversial aspect of the intervention: the coalition air war. The US has provided surveillance images and targeting intelligence used to drop US-made bombs on Yemeni soil.[4] [5] Until recently, the US military provided mid-air refueling to help keep coalition warplanes in the sky.[6] As of the beginning of March, the Yemen Data Project estimates that coalition airstrikes have killed more than 8,000 civilians.[7] 

In a report published in late 2019, a UN-appointed group of experts concluded that assistance provided to the coalition could make America complicit in war crimes in Yemen.[8] However, there appears to have been a concerted effort to shroud support for the coalition in enough mystery to avoid direct implication in military operations. The US may provide “targeting assistance” for coalition airstrikes, but says it is not responsible for the “selection and final vetting of targets.”[9] While the US does not consider itself at war with the Houthis, it has in the past deployed Special Forces personnel to the Saudi-Yemen border to support coalition operations.[10] Meanwhile, counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have remained as opaque as ever; the Trump administration authorized an ill-fated commando raid on Yemeni soil during its inaugural months and later revoked reporting requirements on civilian deaths resulting from drone strikes outside areas of active hostilities.[11] [12]

There have been indications of deliberate attempts to counter efforts for greater transparency. Sources told the Sana’a Center that the Trump administration’s decision to end mid-air refueling was due to new reporting requirements from Congress that placed conditionality on such operations.[13] [14] Washington, however, let the coalition take credit for the decision publicly – enabling Saudi Arabia to save face while disguising a flagrant attempt to deflect the spotlight from the Pentagon’s role in the airstrike campaign.

Such attempts to distance itself from coalition actions may have increased the risk of civilian harm in some instances. In late 2016, after a strike on a funeral hall in Sana’a killed more than 150 people, President Obama blocked a sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia.[15] Less publicized was the administration’s dialing down of efforts to establish civilian-protection mechanisms with the Saudi-led coalition that year.[16] While those involved were confident these efforts could improve targeting and reduce civilian harm, they said that their presence became too much of a reputational risk and that they were actively blocked from returning to this advisory role following the funeral hall bombing. There has been no attempt since to establish any oversight, protection or accountability measures in concert with US military support for the air war. Such instances discredit the oft-repeated argument from Washington that it is better placed to work as an influence for good behavior from the inside.

Outsourced Policy

From the beginning of the Saudi-led coalition intervention, US involvement in the Yemen conflict has been dictated by power struggles in the Gulf. The Obama administration offered assistance to placate Riyadh after signing the nuclear deal with its arch-foe Iran – reassured that this would be a swift military operation to restore the internationally recognized government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Even as the conflict wore on and civilian casualties mounted, in its early stages the course of the war ran parallel to America’s strategic priorities in the region: supporting its Gulf allies, proclaiming a stand against Iran and conducting counterterrorism operations, the latter in close partnership with Emirati forces in southern Yemen.

But the war soon mutated, with separatist demands by UAE-backed militias against the Saudi-backed Hadi government riling tensions in the south while the Houthis eliminated their onetime ally former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and tightened their grip on power in the north. The emerging picture in Yemen looks far from in line with US national interests: one American ally bombing forces backed by another ally; non-state actors – including Al-Qaeda-linked groups — wielding US-made weapons sold to coalition member states; and the growing prowess of Emirati-funded Salafi militias – some of which subscribe to the same extremist dogma as groups the US is actively fighting on Yemeni soil. Should factionalism in the south persist, conditions may once again be ripe for a resurgence of AQAP – long considered by the US to be the most dangerous Al-Qaeda affiliate. Ironically, deference to its Gulf allies and the more fervent anti-Iran stance of the Trump administration has pushed the Houthis closer to Tehran. The US has essentially found itself in the backseat of a disastrous and increasingly intractable military campaign which has strayed far from the one it initially lent it support to.

Holly Topham is a researcher and editor at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies who focuses on the geopolitical interests of Western states in Yemen as well as internal conflict and security issues.

Ziad Al-Eryani is the Washington, D.C., coordinator for the Sana’a Center, where he coordinates with NGOs, US and international stakeholders to raise awareness of the humanitarian and economic crises in Yemen as well as the need to protect the country’s cultural heritage.

This commentary appeared in Five Years Since Decisive Storm – The Yemen Review, March 2020


The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.


Endnotes

  1. “Statement by NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on the Situation in Yemen,” The White House, March 25, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/25/statement-nsc-spokesperson-bernadette-meehan-situation-yemen
  2. Gregory Johnsen, “Seen Only in a Saudi Shadow: Why the US Misunderstands and Missteps in Yemen,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, October 1, 2019, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/8135
  3. “Statement by NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on the Situation in Yemen,” The White House, March 25, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/25/statement-nsc-spokesperson-bernadette-meehan-situation-yemen
  4. Mark Hosenball, Phil Stewart, Warren Strobel, “Exclusive: U.S. expands intelligence sharing with Saudis in Yemen operation,” Reuters, April 10, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-saudi-yemen-exclusive/exclusive-u-s-expands-intelligence-sharing-with-saudis-in-yemen-operation-idUSKBN0N129W20150410
  5. Declan Walsh and Eric Schmitt, “Arms Sales to Saudis Leave American Fingerprints on Yemen’s Carnage,” The New York Times, December 25, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/25/world/middleeast/yemen-us-saudi-civilian-war.html
  6. Oriana Pawlyk, “2 Years Into Yemen War, US Ramps Up Refueling of Saudi Jets,” Military.com, February 15, 2017, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2017/02/15/2-years-yemen-war-us-ramps-up-refueling-saudi-jets.html
  7. Yemen Data Project, last updated February 29,  https://www.yemendataproject.org/data.html
  8. Mohamad Bazzi, “America is likely complicit in war crimes in Yemen. It’s time to hold the US to account,” The Guardian, October 3, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/03/yemen-airstrikes-saudi-arabia-mbs-us
  9. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, “With US help, Saudi Arabia is obliterating Yemen,” Globalpost, November 30, 2015, https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-11-30/us-help-saudi-arabia-obliterating-yemen
  10. Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt, “Army Special Forces Secretly Help Saudis Combat Threat From Yemen Rebels,” The New York Times, May 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/us/politics/green-berets-saudi-yemen-border-houthi.html.
  11. Cynthia McFadden, William M. Arkin and Tim Uehlinger, “How the Trump Team’s First Military Raid in Yemen Went Wrong,” NBC News, October 1, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/how-trump-team-s-first-military-raid-went-wrong-n806246
  12. “White House Revokes US Military’s Drone Strike Reporting Requirement: The Yemen Review, March 2019,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, April 8, 2019, https://sanaacenter.org/publications/the-yemen-review/7269#White-House-Revokes-US-Military-Drone-Strike-Reporting-Requirement
  13. “US to Stop Refuelling Coalition Aircraft: The Yemen Review, November 2018,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, http://sanaacenter.org/files/TYR_Nov_2018_en.pdf
  14. Rebecca Kheel, “Final defense bill would limit US support to Saudi campaign in Yemen,” The Hill, July 23, 2018, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/398457-final-defense-bill-includes-limit-on-us-support-to-saudi-campaign-in-yemen
  15. Bel Trew, “Obama blocks sale of arms to Saudis,” The Times, December 14, 2016, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/us-halts-precision-arms-sales-to-saudi-over-yemen-fears-bhgjqntrb
  16. Samuel Oakford, “One American’s Failed Quest to Protect Civilians in Yemen,” The Atlantic, August 17, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/yemen-saudi-airstrike-school-bus/567799/
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