By Daniel DePetris
The civil war in Yemen has created one of the world’s greatest humanitarian disasters. According to United Nations estimates, more than two-thirds of Yemen’s entire population needs some kind of assistance. Seven million people are hungry, 10,000 have been killed in the war, and the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator recently reported to the Security Council “the Yemeni people now face the spectre of famine.”
While all parties in the war have violated international law during hostilities, most of the misery Yemenis have forcibly endured over the past two years were perpetrated by Saudi Arabia.
Most important, the U.S. has no vital national security interests at risk in this conflict.
Why, then, is the United States reportedly preparing to assist the Saudis to an even greater extent than when the conflict began?
The State Department recently signed off on a $350 million package of smart bombs to the Saudi-led military coalition currently combating the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. And in the event one thought this was an isolated sale to merely generate business, Foreign Policy magazine reported just last month that the Trump administration is searching for ways to escalate America’s part in the civil war “[t]o counter Iran’s proxies in Yemen.” It continues, “the administration is considering ramping up drone strikes, deploying more military advisors and carrying out more commando raids.”
This would be a mistake with potentially huge ramifications.
The Yemeni civil war is nothing short of a civil conflict in a fractured society, fueled by the region’s major powers in Iran and Saudi Arabia — two countries that view one each other as national security threats and peer competitors.
Yemen, like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain, now increasingly resembles another front in a Saudi-Iran regional cold war, where a boon for Tehran is seen as a significant geostrategic setback for Riyadh (and vice versa). Exceedingly alarmed the Iranians were using the Houthis as a puppet force, the Saudis assessed that allowing the Houthi militia to swallow up the entire country was an scenario that had to be avoided. The Saudi-led bombing campaign commenced in March 2015 and has continued to this day—thousands of innocent civilians have been killed and injured, and the country’s already weak public health infrastructure has been utterly wiped out.
The Obama administration, perhaps viewing U.S. logistical and diplomatic support to Riyadh’s adventure in Yemen as an effective way to lessen Saudi criticism over the Iranian nuclear agreement, believed it would be in Washington’s interest to extend help with refueling so Saudi planes could stay in the air longer. Billions of dollars in tanks, munitions, and spare parts were sold to the Kingdom as a profitable way to demonstrate to the Saudis the United States supported their efforts.
These decisions, however, have been and remain strategically bankrupt. It was always a dubious proposition that Washington should stick its thumb on the scale of this conflict in the first place. But as the Yemeni conflict enters its third year this month, the proof is in the pudding — Washington’s offer of military aid to the Saudi-led coalition hasn’t made the successful completion of the war any closer. In fact, it has only lengthened the hostilities and generated an intense anger among vast segments of the Yemeni population.
If U.S involvement in an regional proxy war weren’t bad enough, consider this: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is one of the immediate benefactors. AQAP has taken advantage of the civil war to rake in over a million dollars in bank robberies, generate millions more in port operations, and acquire sophisticated military hardware from Yemeni troops who were deployed to fight the Houthis in other parts of the country. As a senior Yemeni government official told Reuters last year, Al-Qaeda was able to sweep up “very large quantities of sophisticated and advanced weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles and armed vehicles” as soon as Yemeni army units were redeployed to combat the Houthis.
The sad part of this story is the civil war in Yemen cannot be won militarily, a fact repeated during endless Security Council meetings and donor pledge conferences by U.N. officials and even America’s own diplomats.
The Houthis are a nationalist movement, which has been ingrained in Yemeni society since long before the civil war began in 2015. The Yemeni armed forces are too weak, corrupt, and loyal to specific commanders to achieve battlefield victory. The Saudis are growing increasingly tired of the war and have long worn out their welcome among the average Yemeni. And yet despite these realities, the United States apparently still finds it wise to sell Riyadh all manner of weapons and equipment knowing full well they will be abused in Yemen by Saudi Arabia.
To date, U.S. policy on Yemen has been simple: There is no military solution to the civil war in that country. Continuing the current path or allowing the U.S. military to become a protagonist in the war not only undermines U.S. policy — it also defies common sense.
Not to be overlooked, there are also domestic legal consequences the U.S. must confront if it decides to send our bombers and special operators to fight on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
Congress has never authorized the use of U.S. military force in Yemen for the purposes of conducting a military campaign against the Houthis. Sending U.S. forces into Yemeni soil to aid the Saudi coalition in its war aims would a unilateral declaration of war on a new enemy that isn’t a national security threat to the United States and hasn’t been debated by the legislative branch. The one branch of government that is given the power to declare war under the U.S. Constitution would be kept out of the conversation. Unless and until the U.S. Congress authorizes the use of force against the Houthis, the Trump administration would be shredding our Constitution.
Is Iran a dangerous actor in the Middle East that has interests that directly in conflict with the United States? Absolutely. That is why Washington must always respond when Tehran breaches Security Council resolutions or supports terrorist groups that kill Americans in the region.
But renting out our military power to Saudi Arabia and potentially plunging our service members into an unauthorized proxy war would be a dangerous and unwise way to demonstrate Washington’s anti-Iran credentials.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by U.S. News and World Report on March 15, 2017. Read more HERE.