By Savannah Fox
Yemen may no longer be the “Forgotten War," but merely debating the situation after years of violence and famine lacks the sense of urgency and protection that civilians on the ground desperately need. With the humanitarian crisis now reaching a breaking point, it is the time for the U.S. to seize the opportunity to play a leading role in ending it.
The war in Yemen between the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is the product of a longstanding proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen with the goal of reinstating President Hadi, who fled the country after Houthi rebels had taken over the capital city, Sana’a. The rebels, who are sponsored by Iran, are only one of the groups of multiple armed factions that are fighting for control over Yemen.
About 75 percent of Yemen’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance, including 11.3 million children who cannot survive without it, according to a joint statement from the World Health Program, the World Food Program and UNICEF. At least 60 percent of Yemenis don't have enough to eat, and 16 million people do not have safe water and proper sanitation. Many more lack can't get basic health services. Thousands of Yemenis have taken to the streets to protest against the Saudi-led coalition, which is bombing the country, blockading its ports, and stopping humanitarian aid from reaching civilians who need it most. From a geopolitical standpoint, Yemen is located on the Strait of Hormuz, which remains the world’s most important energy chokepoint.
A fractured Yemen also creates opportunity for Al Qaeda and ISIL “to deepen their inroads across much of the country,” says U.S. officials. They have seen Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) grow stronger by capitalizing on the conflict there.
The Trump administration has taken notice of the crisis in Yemen: they released a statement that requested Saudi leadership to “allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it.” Trump’s statement has received bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress, including Congressman Ro Khanna (D) and Senator Todd Young (R). With the administration applying pressure on Saudi Arabia on humanitarian grounds, it’s time for Congress to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in order to launch peace negotiations.
The U.S. also needs to ensure the continued flow of oil and other goods through the Strait as any disruption would affect the health of a global economy. It is critical for the U.S. to push forward a new plan to end the violence in Yemen—Yemeni humanitarian needs and U.S. national security are at stake.
Members of Congress have recently challenged U.S. involvement in Yemen. The House of Representatives passed Resolution 599 in October, denouncing any conduct that targets civilians. However, lawmakers fear of a Saudi backlash if the U.S. cuts off arms sales and stops mid-air refueling of jets over Yemen. While U.S. lawmakers have issued a strong condemnation of the violence in Yemen, they must realize words are not enough to bring this war to an end.
The Saudi-led coalition is in a no-win conflict in Yemen and now faces a UN investigation into possible war crimes. As criticism from the UN intensifies, Saudi Arabia will be looking for a way out of Yemen. In order to pressure Saudi Arabia to negotiate, U.S. lawmakers must immediately halt all weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition as Saudi airstrikes would not be possible without the support and assistance of the U.S. Meanwhile, Houthi rebels may be willing to negotiate as their unity seems to be splintering.
Taking away Saudi Arabia’s “blank check” will strain U.S.-Saudi political and economic ties, but Congress needs to stand up to Saudi Arabia and accept the repercussions. The American military-industrial complex has already made billions of dollars from the violence in Yemen. It is time for Congress to push for an end to the violence and support the civilians who have endured a crisis for far too long.
Savannah Fox is a Human Rights Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also the Regional Advocacy Coordinator at CARE International in the Advocacy and Policy Unit in Washington DC. Savannah earned her BA in International Relations and German from the University of South Carolina.