Bottom Line Up Front
- Last week, both U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared the need for a ceasefire in Yemen.
- The statements come as some semblance of public and congressional pressure builds against U.S. support for the Saudi-led catastrophe, which up until recently has been unflinching.
- Yet the call for a ceasefire within the next 30 days is short on details and lacks a clear blueprint for concrete U.S. actions or forcing functions to make the detente a reality.
- As with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. expresses rhetorical support for ending the war in Yemen, but ultimately has failed to articulate an actionable theory of change to alter the current circumstance.
Since 2015, the U.S. has been providing significant support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their war in Yemen. That support, which started under the Obama Administration and has continued with the Trump Administration, includes mid-air refueling for bombers and fighters as well as targeting and intelligence cooperation and massive arms sales. The U.S. has framed this support as necessary to help the coalition limit civilian casualties, as well as doubling as a bulwark against the spread of Iranian influence throughout the region, the Trump administration’s overarching objective in the Middle East. Yet after more than three years of war and worsening famine and disease, the conflict has produced nothing but tragedy and a mutually hurting stalemate.
That support has continued even amid well-publicized tragedies and war crimes in which the Saudi-led coalition has bombed civilian buses, schools, hospitals, and weddings, killing and wounding thousands of non-combatants, including many children. There have been some muted voices in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives per concerns that the U.S. is essentially aiding in systematic and ongoing war crimes. The United Nations recently reported that both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels have repeatedly killed civilians with indiscriminate strikes, but that the coalition is by far the worst offender in terms of civilian deaths and injuries.
The conflict is such that there are no accurate statistics for how many people have been actually been killed in the conflict—the oft-quoted statistic of 10,000 civilians killed is years out of date and lacks an identifiable methodology. What is known is that the conflict is creating the worst man-made health disaster in recent history, leading to the starvation and death of extremely vulnerable populations. Yemen, already the poorest country in the Middle East before the war started, has been completely devastated. Famine that is caused by the conflict is now a very real occurrence across the country and is expected to get much worse, as Yemen reaches a tipping point of suffering and crippled infrastructure and logistics. Even if the conflict ‘ended’ immediately, the lag effect of these types of wars mean that the catastrophe would likely continue and worsen for some time. Prospects for an international relief effort that could address even a fraction of the country’s needs are dismal.
The U.S. has recently made several statements about the need to end the conflict via negotiations. On October 30, Secretary of State Pompeo stated that ’it is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction.’ Secretary of Defense Mattis has also made several recent statements about ending the conflict through negotiations, suggesting a cease fire to begin in 30 days during which time the Houthi rebels move back from their positions near the Saudi border. However, in both statements, there were no details as to how to bring the warring sides to the table, or how to restrain the Saudi bombing campaign. In fact, just after the U.S. tentatively called for a cease fire, Saudi jets pounded Sanaa with a series of air strikes, perhaps sending a message to Washington that Riyadh has its own timetable. The coalition also has moved thousands of troops into position for an expected push into the port city of Hodeida. It remains unclear whether the U.S. will actually pressure Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. with any meaningful leverage beyond the statements supporting a cease fire. In the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, there is renewed scrutiny of U.S. support for the Saudi government, though whether that scrutiny turns into action is uncertain at best.