The latest ceasefire in Yemen is unlikely to prevent Saudi Arabia from resuming its brutal assault on its impoverished neighbor. The Yemeni people are paying the price for Riyadh’s determination to reinstate an unpopular government friendly to the royal family. This commitment to rule or ruin apparently comes from deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known more for his ambition than judgment.
Without a vote of Congress the Obama administration has joined the Saudi-led coalition in war. Now the rebels may be firing back. The destroyer USS Mason apparently came under missile attack from Yemen—though U.S. officials admit the ship’s radar might have malfunctioned. This presumably is retaliation for U.S. complicity in the murder of Yemeni civilians. No longer can the Obama administration pretend that fighting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s war has no consequences. Washington has turned the U.S. into a foreign target, yet again.
Still, the administration played the victim card, claiming that it destroyed Houthi radar stations in “self-defense.” However, the U.S. had provided targeting intelligence, refueled airplanes, trained pilots, and supplied munitions to Riyadh since the latter, backed by several other Gulf states, attacked Yemen in March 2015. The Pentagon even deployed ships to prevent Iranian vessels from approaching Yemen’s coast.
By taking an active role in the Yemeni civil war Washington made Americans as responsible as Saudis for the carnage in the world’s poorest nations. Perhaps 4,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting, the majority by the KSA-led “coalition.” These deaths also are America’s responsibility.
No longer can the Obama administration pretend that fighting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s war has no consequences.
The U.S. made much the same mistake when President Ronald Reagan intervened in the Lebanese civil war to back the “legitimate” government based in Beirut. The USS New Jersey rained death and destruction down on opposing Muslim factions. Colin Powell subsequently explained: “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides against them. And since they could not reach the battleship, they found a more vulnerable target,” both the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps barracks.
President Barack has developed a reputation for being reluctant to plunge into new Middle Eastern wars. What possessed him to decide to help kill Houthi rebels who had not threatened America? The administration’s involvement appears to be an embarrassed response to Riyadh’s criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. Instead of dismissing the royals’ presumption that American policy should revolve around their desires, the U.S. backed their aggressive war for regional influence.
Secretary of State John Kerry explained: “we’re not going to step away from our alliances and our friendships.” Even with an essentially totalitarian state which has promoted illiberal, intolerant religious teaching and Islamic extremism, and whose citizens have contributed both money and people to terrorist attacks against America.
America needs better allies and friends. And reasons to go to war.
Yemen long was torn by conflict. Fighting has waxed and waned since the 1960s. Along the way the country divided and then reunited, but violent unrest continued. The Houthis, known as Ansar Allah, or “Supporters of God” (who doesn’t claim to be that in the Middle East?), belong to the Zaydi sect, and are Shia-lite, maintaining some theological similarities with Sunnis. The Houthis have been fighting the central government for years, including under U.S.-supported President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh, no friend of the KSA, was ousted in 2012. Riyadh then seemed unconcerned about stability and legitimacy, and instead backed the new president, Saleh’s old deputy Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The latter had little domestic support, while Saleh performed a classic political pirouette and joined the Houthis against Hadi. Most of the Yemeni security forces defected to Saleh and Hadi had to flee the capital of Sana’a to the golden embrace of the Saudi royals. Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute noted that “there is good reason to doubt these rebels pose a direct threat to Riyadh, outside the confines of Saudi paranoia.”
Nevertheless, the KSA chose war to reinstate Hadi. It apparently envisioned a quick campaign, but 19 months later the war rages on, with the rebel coalition governing most of the population. Occasionally the Yemenis also land a blow on Saudi territory. Secretary Kerry criticized attacks on the Kingdom, opining that Saudi Arabia “has a right to be free from missiles being launched from Yemen.” He apparently forgot that Houthi-coalition was only retaliating for Riyadh’s aggression.
The Kingdom proclaimed itself as following international law in backing the legally legitimate government. Yet it is doing the opposite in Syria. And after having called on Riyadh to kill his countrymen Hadi retains little following in Yemen. The Saudi royals would have to leave an occupying force to keep him in power.
The administration cites promoting stability as the justification for U.S. policy. For instance, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed that Riyadh was “sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force.” But Washington previously never much cared about who was battling whom for control of Yemen. Indeed, who rules matters little to anyone outside the country. Neither Ansar Allah nor Saleh could (or would) challenge Saudi predominance or block Gulf shipping.
Yet Secretary Kerry declared that the U.S. was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized or while people engage in overt warfare across lines, international boundaries and other countries.” He has a career in stand-up comedy when he retires from State. Apparently he forgot America’s invasion of Iraq, which simultaneously violated international law and created regional chaos. U.S. intervention in Libya had much the same effect.
America still must worry about terrorism, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains a dangerous force. Alas, the KSA’s aggression has created a vacuum, freeing AQAP to grab more territory and plot more terrorist attacks. The Houthis, no friends of liberal, democratic values, disliked the U.S. even before the American military joined with the Saudis to rain bombs down upon Yemen, but they never attacked or even threatened America. Ansar Allah did, however, fight al-Qaeda—that is, until the movement was forced to concentrate on the Saudis. Last year Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged the terrorist group’s resulting “great gains.”
The KSA’s last resort has been to justify its murderous military campaign by pointing at Tehran. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad calls all insurgents “terrorists,” trying to appeal to Washington in the latter’s fight against terrorism. The Saudi royals similarly call all Yemenis “Iran-supported” to camouflage Riyadh’s depredations. It is an equally deceitful claim.
Not that it should matter. Iran is no friend of America, but its military capabilities lag far behind those of the Gulf States, let alone of the U.S. Observed Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “The Arab countries are decisively winning this arms race.” Moreover, Saudi Arabia is less free politically and culturally, allows no religious liberty, and has done more than any other country to promote Islamic intolerance and underwrite terrorist groups which have attacked the U.S. and the West. Exactly how the KSA differs from the Islamic State, except in relative refinement of repression, is not obvious.
In any case, Houthis have been discontented with the central government for years and differ from Iranians as well as Saudis in religion. Area specialists affirm that Iran never had much involvement in Yemen’s multiple conflicts. Tehran sought to gain influence after Hadi’s ouster but, wrote Laura Kasinof, the Kingdom “blew the extent to which Iran supported the Houthis out of proportion.” Journalist Peter Salisbury reported that the conflict was “driven by local issues and competition for resources rather than regional or ideological rivalries.” Similarly, the Jamestown Foundation’s James Brandon saw a battle between two complex coalitions in which “Self-interest, and not sectarian affiliation” drove the fighting. Even British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond admitted that “the Houthis are clearly not Iranian proxies.”
Ironically, it was the Saudi invasion that turned Yemen’s traditional intra-state strife into an international sectarian proxy fight. Even so, the amount of Iranian support remains limited. Ansar Allah had access to plenty of weapons after fighting for years and being joined by most of Yemen’s army. Safa al-Ahmad filmed a documentary about the Houthis and observed that they “don’t need Iranians to bring them weapons. They’re awash in weapons.”
As for Tehran’s involvement, military analyst Tom Cooper observed simply: “There’s scant evidence of direct Iranian support for the Houthis.” The New York Times recently reported: “American intelligence officials believe that the Houthis receive significantly less support from Iran than the Saudis and other Persian Gulf nations have charged.” Anyway, the KSA can hardly complain about Iran entering a war that Riyadh started. Doing so is an inexpensive way to hit back at the Kingdom.
Particularly outrageous has been the dishonest neoconservative attempt to blame the apparent Houthi missile attacks on American ships on Tehran. For instance, the Wall Street Journal, which campaigned tirelessly for war with Iraq and against the Iran deal, headlined one editorial “Obama’s Iran Missile War.” The paper acknowledged only “limited intelligence” and “intelligence and arms” from Washington to Riyadh, ignoring the refueling of the very Saudi aircraft bombing Yemen. Never did the Journal recognize Washington’s complicity in the KSA’s killing.
Also maintaining the pretense that Tehran is responsible for the apparent missile attack was Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. At least he admitted that the Yemenis are “mad at America for backing an assault” by the Saudi royals and their allies. Nevertheless, he would shoot down Syrian aircraft to punish Iran for a Houthi attack! Apparently it doesn’t matter that Tehran doesn’t actually control either Ansar Allah or Assad. Of course, Boot considers Iran, not Riyadh and its Gulf allies, backed by America, to be the “bullies” in Yemen’s war.
After the missile attack the Jerusalem Post’s Jonathan Spyer wrote of “the growing confidence and audacity” of “the Iran-led regional bloc,” meaning the Houthis. Yet after 19 months of bombing and killing aided and abetted by America, it might be more accurate to highlight the Yemenis’ growing anger and frustration. After all, the alleged attack occurred shortly after the latest Saudi bombing atrocity. Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi responded: “the first and foremost party responsible for the carnage” is the U.S. since “the Saudis are killing Yemenis by means of U.S. weapons and military aircraft. They strike where Americans pinpoint and allow.” It is difficult to deny the rebels’ right to self-defense in retaliating.
Nevertheless, the administration maintained an air of injured innocence. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said “if you threaten our ships, we’ll respond.” He added that “we don’t seek a wider role in the conflict.” But America already is deeply involved and by any normal understanding started the new round with Yemen.
In fact, the Obama administration, which chastised Russia for killing civilians in Syria, is becoming embarrassed by the Saudi tendency to bomb clinics, homes, hospitals, infrastructure, markets, mosques, schools, weddings, and most recently funerals—killing more than 140 people and wounding another 500 in a raid Riyadh initially denied. Perhaps a third of Saudi airstrikes hit civilian targets. State Department lawyers previously acknowledged the possibility of the U.S. being held responsible for Saudi war crimes—but they seemed to worry more about legal liability than civilian deaths. And the administration continued to back the KSA.
With its latest strike the Saudis lost more than public respect. The dead include a number of influential tribal leaders previously not aligned with the rebels, whose families are unlikely to forgive and forget. Also killed were moderate insurgents who supported negotiations with the Kingdom. The Saudi royals have proved themselves to be the enemies of all. April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group warned that “Now the desire for revenge is high and militants will be empowered, which puts us in a situation where a compromise might not be possible.”
Apparently Washington has begun to scale back its assistance to the Saudis, attempting to limit “collateral” damage, that is, the killing of noncombatants. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price explained that we “are prepared to adjust our support so as to better align [Saudi activities] with U.S. principles, values and interests.” Secretary Kerry pushed hard for the latest ceasefire as a means to lead to negotiations to end the war.
Better would be to simply stop underwriting the war. Unfortunately, Washington cannot undo its past support. But the administration could say Riyadh is now on its own in prosecuting its royal jihad against fellow Muslims.
Indeed, the KSA’s propensity for aggression rather than defense—sending troops into neighboring Bahrain to suppress pro-democracy protests by the majority Shia population, aiding the Islamic State and other radical groups attempting to overthrow Syria’s Assad, and now bombing to impose Riyadh’s preferred strongman on Yemen—should cause Congress to reconsider arms sales to the Kingdom. Certainly transfers should no longer be waved through, lest America facilitate more repression and killing.
The administration has made a pact with the devil in backing the Saudi royals’ war in Yemen. There was no threat to America, not the slightest justification for the U.S. to back an oppressive, theocratic dictatorship in its aggression against a poor neighbor.
As a result of Washington’s support for Saudi ruthlessness, Yemen has suffered desperately. Roughly 10,000 people, including some 4100 civilians, have died, 3.2 million people (12 percent of the population) have been displaced, pestilence (in the form of Cholera) has hit the capital, and famine approaches, with more than half the population “food insecure,” according to the UN World Food Program. Eight in ten people need some outside aid. Jean-Marie Guehenno, president of the International Crisis Croup, calls Yemen “one of the worst humanitarian emergencies in the Middle East.” Yet the Saudi royals, secure in luxury at home, bomb on, aided by America. The administration response? Declare itself to be “deeply disturbed.”
The Yemen war could go on for years. President Obama should end America’s participation. If he doesn’t care about the loss of innocent life he should look to his legacy. At least President George W. Bush could claim humanitarian and security reasons for his misbegotten invasion of Iraq. There is no justification for America to play bloody handmaiden to the Saudis in Yemen.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.