Transitions in Focus: Yemen

The passage of Senate Joint Resolution 7 is a fresh rebuke for the Trump administration, that its support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen is unauthorized, illegal, and an immoral assault on the Yemeni people. To boot, the war, already in its fifth year, does nothing to enhance US national security interests according to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and other sponsors of the bill.

At the two-year mark of his presidency, Donald J. Trump finally has the team he wants. With the departure of H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, and James Mattis, individuals more aligned with the president’s inclinations now have his ear inside the White House, as do prominent conservative commentators on the outside. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is careful not to step on Trump’s toes—when asked on his way back from Turkey what the president meant by threatening to devastate Turkey economically, Pompeo replied, “you’d have to ask him.”

On Yemen, the Trump administration has tied the worst humanitarian disaster in the world to stopping the spread of Iranian influence. The crisis in Yemen was not the focus of Pompeo’s Cairo speech on January 10, where he mentioned Iran at least two dozen times, including the promise “to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. Pompeo did express support for UN efforts to achieve peace in war-torn Yemen, but announced no special US diplomatic initiative toward that end.

Days after finishing a fresh round of peace talks in Sweden earlier in December, UN Yemen Special Envoy Martin Griffiths remained optimistic, but also expressed caution saying “our collective achievements this week were indeed a significant step forward. But what is in front of us is a daunting task.  As ever the hard work starts now.”

To be sure, there are plenty of daunting issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve a lasting peace in Yemen. These issues were not addressed in the talks in Sweden. While negotiators failed to reach agreement on the economic and political issues fueling the war in Yemen, the talks deliberately prioritized humanitarian issues, starting with the main access point for international aid: the port city of Hodeidah.

With the high and ever-growing civilian death toll of Yemen’s civil war, the acute need for peace contrasts sharply with the sparse hopes of a peace process. After months of delays, the government and rebel forces announced on November 19 their intentions to temporarily freeze military operations and convene for negotiations in Sweden. The success of these talks will depend on whether the parties can effectively apply the lessons of past peace talks to structure a new peace process for Yemen.
On Tuesday, October 9th, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East held a conference to discuss the nature of foreign involvement in ongoing conflicts in the region as well as the resilience of Jihadism in the post-2011 period. The conference coincided with the launching of a report, “The Arc of Crisis in the MENA Region: Fragmentation, Decentralization, and Islamist Opposition,” which explores a number of trends in governance that have emerged since the Arab Spring.
When over $2 billion was pledged for the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP) earlier this year, it was considered not only a success but also the best funded response plan worldwide according to anonymous aid workers who spoke to the author during the UN General Assembly. So far, 65% of the pledged funds have been delivered. The delivery of the remaining funding is expected throughout this year.
Officials in US President Donald J. Trump’s administration have repeatedly described the ongoing conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, hence justifying the United States siding with a country that many US officials view as “our strong ally” against Iran.

Ironically, the Yemen policy of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was also Iran-centric, lending the Saudi-led coalition vital logistical and intelligence support in order to get grudging support from Riyadh for his nuclear deal with Iran.  

Both administrations have been guilty of looking at Yemen solely through the prism of Iran policy. In both cases, Yemen has suffered the consequences.