IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

September 5, 2018
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and its ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), pledged decisive victory when they went to war in March 2015 against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The result has not been the Houthis’ defeat, but tens of thousands of deaths, a cholera epidemic and famine -- what the United Nations has deemed “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

One way to end the nightmare is for the United States to withdraw its support for the war, compel the Saudi-led coalition to accept a ceasefire and ensure a peace process that keeps millions more from unnecessary suffering.

United Nations mediators have already set a date in Geneva (Sept. 6) to discuss the Yemen crisis. These talks should begin by arranging a ceasefire, followed by the transfer of the Houthi-held port of Hodeida, through which an estimated 70 percent of Yemen’s food and aid supplies flow, to UN control. Subsequent talks should focus on a political process and stabilization efforts. 

The Houthis seem willing to enter such a negotiation, but the Saudi-led coalition remains defiant.  

Concern over Iran’s support for the Houthis was one reason the KSA backed the government of Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Echoing the Saudi and Emirati portrayal of the Houthis as Iranian proxies, the Trump administration has continued to back the coalition in its onslaught of Yemenis as part of a broader pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic.

However, the war has only strengthened what had been relatively minor bonds between the Houthis and Iran, making Saudi concerns a self-fulfilling prophecy. Iran, for its part, has found a relatively inexpensive way of weakening Saudi Arabia, which is spending precious resources on this endless and cruel conflict.

One of the most horrific attacks occurred last month. A bomb used by the coalition in a devastating attack on a school bus on August 6, which killed dozens of children aged six to 11, was sold as part of a US State Department-approved arms deal with Saudi Arabia. At first, Saudi officials asserted that the bus was a “legitimate military target,” alleging that the Houthis train child soldiers and use civilians as human shields, only to later express regret and conclude a mistake had been made.

In March 2016, a strike on a Yemeni market, reportedly by a US-supplied precision-guided MK 84 bomb, killed 97 people and wounded dozens. In October of that year, 155 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in a similar attack on a funeral hall. That bomb too, came from the US.

And on Aug. 23, another 30 people, including 22 children, died in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on al-Duraihmi district, 20 kilometers from Hodeida.

American, British and French industries remain the biggest suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia while France and Italy are the second and third largest suppliers to the UAE.

Recent developments, however, suggest that a reluctance to arm the coalition is spreading. Amid mounting public pressure, European states from Spain to Greece to Norway have suspended the sale of lethal military goods to the coalition. And in Austria, the Netherlands, and in the Flemish region of Belgium, licenses for arms sales to the KSA have repeatedly been denied. Germany’s coalition government, too, has suspended approval of arms exports to any country participating in the war in Yemen.

During President Barack Obama’s two-term tenure, the US offered Saudi Arabia more than $115 billion in weapons, more than any previous administration. However, concerned about human rights abuses in the aftermath of an attack on a funeral hall in 2016 that killed more than 140 people, the Obama administration banned the sale of precision-guided military technology to the KSA.

In March 2017, however, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson overturned the ban. In May, 2017, on his first trip abroad as president, Donald Trump finalized a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has previously claimed that the United States does not make targeting decisions for the coalition, stating, “I will tell you that we do help them plan what we call, kind of targeting…we do not do dynamic targeting for them." Nonetheless, evidence suggests that the US supports the KSA and UAE naval blockade and assists in aerial targeting, intelligence sharing, and mid-flight aerial refueling. Additionally, US Special Forces are on the ground, while military drones roam above.

Recently however, Mattis has insisted that the US is “constantly reviewing" the support given to the coalition. Congress, too, has become increasingly skeptical about the continued arms sales and lawmakers have urged officials to explain US support. Congress has never specifically authorized the use of US force in Yemen, as the Constitution requires.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation calling for the ‘removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress.’ In the wake of the bus attack, congressional opposition to American support for the coalition has increased.

In a statement, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asserted, “Either the Pentagon should be 100 percent certain that US weapons and funding aren’t being used to commit war crimes in Yemen, or we should cut off US support right now.” A House colleague, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), appealed to the Defense Department inspector general, writing, “I am deeply concerned that continued US refueling, operational support functions, and weapons transfers could qualify as aiding and abetting potential war crimes.”  

On Aug. 13, Trump signed a defense authorization bill, which includes provisions requiring the administration to ensure that the Saudi coalition is taking steps to protect civilians and to end the war, prior to receiving continued Pentagon support.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), on August 24, an investigatory body overseen by the Saudis cleared itself of any wrongdoing in over 80 incidents in the last two years. In its report, HRW maintained that the investigatory body “shows a general failing…to provide credible, impartial, and transparent investigations into alleged coalition laws-of-war violations.”

Congressional opposition to the Yemen war is bipartisan. “Our humanitarian principles and our national security interests require that the United States use its influence to end the civil war in Yemen and address the world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” stated Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Indiana). In an op-ed, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) stressed, “We must stop being co-conspirators in the deaths of innocent people. We should begin by fully debating and voting on war and returning to a constitutional foreign policy.”

The comments, letters, statements, and series of tweets from representatives of both parties make clear: facilitation of this war contributes nothing to US security and may actually diminish that security by stoking anti-Americanism and creating a bigger haven for terrorism. As a former US ambassador to Yemen has said, “It is not the responsibility of the United States alone to resolve this crisis, but American leadership is needed to bring it to an end. We shouldn’t mistake the absence of headlines for an absence of urgency.”

Masoud Mostajabi is an assistant director at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on twitter @MMostajabi1

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