From the War on al Qaeda to a Humanitarian Catastrophe: How the U.S. Got Dragged Into Yemen
Both Obama and Trump have backed a Saudi-led air campaign that has killed thousands of civilians.
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.
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 Houthi rebellion 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.
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 Houthi rebels.
Yet the U.S. war on al Qaeda grew even more complicated in March 2015, when the first Saudi jets streaked across the Yemeni sky targeting Houthi Shiite rebels, who had taken control of the capital of Sanaa in September 2014. The Saudi government feared a pro-Iranian regime gaining a foothold on its southern border. And they rallied Gulf governments in a bid to reinstall Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was elected president as the sole candidate in the 2012 election.
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.”
For the Obama administration, supporting the coalition war effort was a way of repairing strained ties with the Saudis, who strongly opposed the July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which curbed Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the easing of Western sanctions.
Gulf allies were fearful that Washington and Tehran were pulling closer together, potentially tipping the power balance in the region. Those concerns made officials in Washington more willing to support the Yemen campaign to reassure friends that the old alliances remained firm.
But 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.
“It’s almost like we’re holding seminars at the headquarters level” with the Saudi air force, one U.S. military officer with knowledge of the operation told FP. “We’re not doing intelligence sharing or targeting.… We’re really not playing that game at all.”
Other U.S. contributions continue, however. The United States is still providing information to help track the source of Houthi rockets coming over Yemen’s border toward Saudi Arabia, which have forced the evacuation of some towns near the frontier. American tanker aircraft continue to refuel Saudi and allied jets operating over Yemen, although U.S. Central Command will no longer provide the exact numbers.
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, with Houthi rebels killing or injuring another 414.
Incidents like these led to long internal debates in the Obama White House over Yemen that were never fully resolved, a second former Defense Department official said. “The Obama administration was driven by people who wanted to do more, the people who didn’t want to do anything, and the people trying to minimize risk,” the former official told FP. “If you had to pick one of those three, category three is what happened.”
Minimizing risk meant providing targeting intelligence to Saudi Arabia in the hope of minimizing civilian casualties. While the Obama administration grew “very frustrated” with how the Saudi-led forces were carrying out the war, the former official said, they still believed U.S. support had some positive impact. “It’s always hard to prove a negative, but I think we had some success in improving Saudi efforts to minimize civilian casualties on the margins,” the official said.
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.
“Americans are very pragmatic people, as I often told the Saudis. If you can show that what you’re doing is going to result in a positive or more favorable political outcome, we’ll back you,” said Andrew Exum, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in 2015-2016. “But in this case, we thought they were getting into a quagmire, without having a clear idea how they were going to terminate the conflict and how they were going to end up with a better outcome.”
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).
“They’re getting better,” the former Pentagon official said. “You can’t make them altar boys in a day.”
President Donald Trump, who had been critical of Obama’s support for Saudi Arabia in the past, inherited the prior administration’s Yemen policy. In late January, on the recommendation of Pentagon leadership, Trump authorized a disastrous special operations raid in Yemen that left one Navy SEAL dead, three more injured, and resulted in the loss of a $75 million aircraft that crash-landed. At least 10 Yemeni civilians were also killed in the raid, according to multiple reports.
Trump quickly distanced himself from the mission, which failed to kill or capture any high-value targets and appeared to yield little valuable intelligence on al Qaeda. “This was a mission that was started before I got here,” Trump said after the raid.
While the Trump administration has not focused much on the Yemen conflict, it did at one point consider expanding cooperation with Saudi Arabia on the war in Yemen. And in May, Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia, trumpeting $100 billion in arms sales to the kingdom, which critics felt undercut any leverage the administration could have had on limiting the war in Yemen.
Preoccupied by tensions with North Korea and how to handle the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump White House has not made Yemen a priority in its first eight months in office, according to sources with close ties to the White House, leaving the Obama policy on autopilot.
In the wider regional rivalry between Shiite-ruled Iran and Saudi Arabia, the conflict in Yemen has become a bleeding wound for Riyadh, much to the benefit of Tehran.
“The big winner in all of this is the Iranians, because the Saudis and the Emiratis are spending a fortune — and Iran is spending 1/100th of that,” said Riedel, the former CIA officer who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They have this very useful war of attrition that bleeds their enemies.”
In the meantime, the Trump administration is largely continuing the Obama-era Yemen policy. There are still Americans on the ground providing direct support and logistical help to allied troops, said a U.S. military official, who asked to speak anonymously to discuss current operations. “We don’t share intelligence, but we will advise and accompany them on some of these missions,” the military official said.
In addition to the advising effort, which defense officials say is similar to what U.S. troops are doing with local forces in Iraq, Syria, and soon Afghanistan under the new strategy there, American commandos have taken larger risks in Yemen and have been involved in direct combat. American drones and manned aircraft have also conducted more than 90 airstrikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula targets this year, more than doubling the 38 strikes launched in 2016.
But both the refueling and ground efforts share the same lack of oversight from Washington. “We have no overall overarching Yemen policy. From a military point of view, it would help to have some sense of what the strategy is going to be, but there’s nothing right now at all,” the military official said.
Senators this week are pushing two amendments to the defense spending authorization bill that would block future arms sales unless Saudi Arabia and its partners demonstrate they are abiding by the Geneva Conventions in the air war. One of the proposals, sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, includes a condition that Riyadh lift the blockade on the delivery of the four cranes for the Yemeni port of Hodeida.
In the run-up to the Senate vote in June, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, assuring him that his government would take measures to reduce civilian casualties, including expanding a list of off-limits targets for bombing.
But there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has reined in its air campaign, which has been marked by strikes on hospitals, residential buildings, and schools, or undertaken genuine investigations into bombing raids gone wrong, said Kristine Beckerle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite promises to the contrary, the Saudi-led coalition has continued to carry out indiscriminate attacks in Yemen and failed to credibly investigate airstrikes that have resulted in laws of war violations,” Beckerle said.
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 Houthi rebels 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.”
FP staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.
Photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary