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From the War on al Qaeda to a Humanitarian Catastrophe: How the U.S. Got Dragged Into Yemen

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Sep ,13 \NewNews


In January, the World Food Program devised a plan to deliver equipment that would help alleviate the mounting humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. Four cranes, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, were ready to be shipped to a Yemeni port to replace equipment destroyed by Saudi jets in August 2015. Yet eight months later, U.S. officials have failed to convince their Saudi counterparts to allow the cranes, which are needed to unload shipping containers, to be installed.

A Yemeni man carrying a gun walks past graves in a cemetery in the capital Sana on June 25, 2017 after the Eid al-Fitr prayer, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. / AFP PHOTO / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The Saudi refusal comes amid the worst outbreak of cholera in the modern era, afflicting more than 600,000 Yemenis while millions more teeter on the brink of starvation. With U.S.-made bombs, intelligence, and refueling aircraft, the 30-month Saudi-led air campaign has failed to crush the Houthis and killed or wounded thousands of civilians.

 Washington’s assistance to Persian Gulf countries waging war against Houthi rebels in Yemen was envisioned as an inexpensive way to show support for an ally. But the armed intervention led by Riyadh has turned into a quagmire and has left thousands of dead and injured civilians in its wake.

Interviews with current and former U.S. government officials paint a picture of a counterproductive war effort that threatens to introduce more instability in the Middle East while also aggravating the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

In the meantime, the civilian death toll and humanitarian suffering in Yemen has prompted growing criticism of the Gulf coalition on both sides of the aisle in Congress. In June, the Trump administration notified Congress that it would resume selling precision-guided munitions to Riyadh, tossing aside a ban that former President Barack Obama imposed in 2016 in reaction to errant Saudi airstrikes. Members of Congress reacted by introducing a measure to block any American arms sales absent Saudi guarantees on human rights. The measure was only narrowly defeated.

The unlikely partnership between the world’s most powerful democracy and the world’s last absolute monarchy has always been plagued by contradictions and strains. But it has survived based on a pragmatic trade-off, according to Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA officer and author of a new book on the alliance, Kings and Presidents. That bargain calls for U.S. security guarantees for Riyadh and Saudi guarantees of affordable oil for the global economy, Riedel said.

The United States has chosen to overlook Saudi Arabia’s missteps in Yemen — and not for the first time, Reidel told Foreign Policy. “For administration after administration, Yemen just doesn’t matter that much. And it’s more important to them to have good relations with the Saudis, and the Yemenis get sacrificed on this,” he said.

Rescuing Hadi

The United States has had one foot in Yemen since the 9/11 attacks, hunting down al Qaeda militants in the tribal hinterlands for more than a decade before Saudi Arabia launched its war on Houthis.

By backing the Saudis, Washington was taking part in two wars in Yemen: a Gulf-led coalition intent on unseating the Houthis and a continuing counterterrorism effort targeting al Qaeda. In an ironic twist, the Houthis were also battling al Qaeda.

The Obama administration in the early days backed the Saudi effort, setting up a “joint planning cell” to help coordinate the air campaign, which also included aircraft from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain.

“There was a fundamental agreement that we as an international community should continue to support the legitimate government,” said Gerald Feierstein, the former ambassador to Yemen and top State Department official under Obama. “The Saudis wanted to intervene, and we agreed with them. Before that, we had urged the Saudis to be more aggressive in support of Hadi, trying to strengthen Hadi’s hand vis-à-vis the Houthis.”

The campaign didn’t go as U.S. policymakers had envisioned. While American advisors in Saudi Arabia were providing guidance, civilian casualties continued to mount as the Saudis repeatedly targeted residential areas. Frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of the Saudi military to be more discerning in their targeting, by June 2016, the United States had pulled most advisors assigned to the operations center. American personnel are no longer involved in coordinating airstrikes, a U.S. defense official told FP.

Since the campaign began, more than 5,100 civilians have been killed and 8,700 others wounded in airstrikes and fighting on the ground, according to recent U.N. figures. Just last month, the Saudi-led coalition admitted to striking an apartment building in Sanaa, killing 16 civilians. The coalition called it a “technical mistake.”

In October 2016, the Saudis also admitted to having bombed a funeral in Sanaa, killing at least 155 people and injuring another 600, but refused to offer an explanation. A confidential U.N. report obtained by FP estimated that the Saudi-led air coalition was responsible for 683 child casualties since 2015.

Yet the Saudis’ flagrant disregard for mounting civilian casualties in Yemen tested U.S. patience. Despite the early support among many in the Obama administration for the Saudi-led effort, the flattened markets and dead civilians led the national security team to conclude that the quixotic campaign had little prospect for success, former officials said.

After the United Kingdom threatened to block further arms sales, Saudi Arabia announced in December 2016 that it would stop using British-made cluster munitions. That same month, the White House blocked the sale of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia (there have since been reports that the Saudis continue to use Brazilian-made cluster bombs).

Human Rights Watch is due to release a report on Tuesday that cites five airstrikes since Jubeir’s letter to Tillerson that reportedly killed 39 civilians, including 26 children. The group concludes that the bombing raids appear to have violated the laws of war.

The Trump administration takes “all reports of civilian casualties seriously” and “continues to work with the Saudi-led coalition to reduce and minimize civilian casualties,” said a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council. And the administration also has made clear that “all sides of the conflict must improve humanitarian access to desperate populations in Yemen.”

But the NSC spokesperson said the United States is committed to backing the coalition war effort, which is “supporting the legitimate Yemeni government and defending itself from Houthi incursion into Saudi territory and missile attacks.”

Yet by continuing a strategy that expresses concerns for civilians while backing the Saudis, the Trump administration is left grappling with the dismal humanitarian situation in the country. The stranded cranes destined for Hodeida are perhaps the most glaring example of this tension. U.S. officials “regularly raise” issues such as food insecurity and the cranes at the port of Hodeida with Yemeni and Saudi counterparts, a State Department spokesman told FP.

While the Saudis are blocking the delivery, the administration argues that the Houthis shoulder much of the blame. “The Houthis have refused to engage on a U.N. plan to allow neutral authorities to administer the port of Hodeida, which the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government support,” the State spokesman said. “This initiative could increase confidence between parties and lead to renewed talks.”

The Saudi delegation to the U.N. referred FP to an Aug. 17 statement in which it expressed its willingness to allow for the installation of the cranes in Hodeida as part of a plan brokered by the international body to increase commercial and humanitarian shipments into Yemen’s Red Sea ports. But the Saudis have informed the United States and the U.N. that they can’t move forward on the plan until the Houthis accept the U.N. ports proposal.

The most recent attempt to resolve the impasse came last month, when Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a senior U.N. official met with Saudi representatives to push the issue. But Haley’s Saudi counterpart, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, and the head of a relief fund run by Riyadh refused, according to a U.S. official and two other diplomatic sources. The Saudis said the blockade on the cranes planned for the port of Hodeida could be lifted only in a final peace settlement.

One U.S. official said the White House and the Pentagon have expended little political capital trying to pressure the Saudis to relent.

“Who cares what [Haley] says in New York when the White House is not backing her,” the official said. “The Saudis sitting in Riyadh are mostly getting advice from the DOD on targeting. That will always undercut the humanitarian argument anyone is making in New York.”

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