For an American who had a hand in shaping U.S. Mideast policy during the Barack Obama years, coming to Yemen has the unpleasant feel of visiting the scene of a tragedy one helped co-write.
It is a scene whose most heartrending aspects are not easily accessible to a visitor. It is still possible to travel north, to the war-battered capital, Sanaa, now controlled by the Houthi insurgent group, or up the Red Sea coast, where a catastrophic struggle for control over the port city of Hodeidah still looms, but it’s a challenge. So when one of us recently ventured into the country, the journey went no farther than Aden, the southern port city over which the internationally recognized government regained control early in the conflict with the help of a Saudi-led coalition.
Aden does not bear wounds witnessed elsewhere: the spread of cholera, 80 percent of the population requiring humanitarian assistance, and a large number threatened with famine. Yet even there, signs of war abound. Aden today is faring better than many other Yemeni cities, and security there is much improved compared with even six months ago, but the bar is low. Many buildings were hit, some completely destroyed, only very few repaired after the Houthis were pushed out. Along with the physical scars are security ones. Rival forces and militias man checkpoints. Parts of the city are controlled by government forces, others by the Security Belt, a separatist-leaning armed group backed by the United Arab Emirates nominally falling under the Yemeni government; the two sides fought a brief but bitter battle a little over a year ago, which concluded with an uneasy truce.
And along with the physical and security scars are political ones. Southern separatists chafe under a government that they see as an obstacle in the way of their ultimate goal. Asked whom they consider their most dangerous long-term enemy, they are more likely to mention Islah, the Islamist movement that is part of the government with which they are nominally allied, than the Houthis, the group with which they are formally at war. Some hint that they could not care less who rules the north as long as they are left alone in the south; if the Houthis were to extend a hand, they might find takers. The separatists bide their time but leave no doubt: They will regain the independence the south enjoyed between the eviction of the British in 1968 and unity with North Yemen in 1990 peacefully, or they will achieve it by force. Much of the world is focused on the conflict unfolding farther north, and with good reason; it’s the one generating today’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, and the one that still could plunge millions into famine. But ending that war will not end Yemen’s war.
The U.S. contribution to this tragedy has been a step removed from the battlefield. The task of fighting and bombing has been carried out by locals, America’s Gulf allies, and others paid by the coalition for their labors.
But however indirectly the U.S. might be culpable for the calamity befalling Yemen, it is culpable nonetheless. The roots of the country’s failure go deep: from Sanaa’s repeated neglect of Houthi and southern grievances, to Yemeni elites’ betrayal of the promises of the 2011 uprising, to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s ineffective and corrupt governance before the war, to the Houthis’ toppling of the government in late 2014 and subsequent conquest of the rest of the country, and finally to the Saudi-led coalition’s reaction to that move in the aftermath. At so many of these turns, the U.S. arguably mishandled its response. From the outset, it focused on the fight against al-Qaeda. That blurred its vision of Hadi’s failings and helped it miss the fact that, however obliging a counterterrorism partner he might have been, he widely was perceived by Yemenis as having let them down as their nation’s leader. But at none of those turns was the price ultimately to be paid higher than in the American decision to support the coalition’s battle.
Why the U.S. got entangled in this war—and why a president so determined to keep the country out of another Mideast military mess nonetheless got caught in this one—makes for a painful story. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia came to the U.S. with a request for support in a campaign it vowed to conduct regardless. After that, and although events took place a mere four years ago, memories blur. In our conversations, many former U.S. officials found it hard to recall what precisely the Saudis asked for, what specific commitments the administration made in response, and when certain types of assistance started to flow. Some, including one of us who attended the deliberations, recall a deeply ambivalent president who green-lit U.S. support but insisted it be confined to the defense of Saudi territory and not extend to the war against the Houthis. Others don’t recall hearing about that instruction, and struggle to reconcile it with what the U.S. actually did during the war—including refueling coalition sorties and replenishing weapons stocks.
Yet all agree the decision ultimately came without much debate. The reason, at bottom, was straightforward: Here was a partner (Saudi Arabia) seeking help in restoring a government (President Hadi’s) that the U.S. regarded as legitimate and a loyal ally in the war against al-Qaeda. That government had been toppled by an insurgent group (the Houthis or Ansar Allah); although the extent of its ties to Iran was debatable and debated, their existence was indisputable. Plus, all this came at a time when relations between Washington and Riyadh already were deeply damaged by disagreements over the Obama administration’s response to the Arab uprisings and, even more so, its negotiations over a nuclear deal with Tehran. As Riyadh saw it, doing nothing would mean permitting control by a Hezbollah-like organization of its southern border, ensconcing a perpetual threat. Rebuffing the Saudi request at any time likely would have provoked a serious crisis in Saudi-U.S. bilateral relations. Doing so while the U.S. was seeking a landmark agreement with the kingdom’s sworn enemy could have brought them to a breaking point. That was a risk even a president skeptical of the wisdom of Saudi policies and willing to call into question elements of the relationship was not prepared to take.
Had he known how long the war would last, and how costly it would be, perhaps Obama would have reached a different decision. As his presidency came to a close, the U.S. took a limited and belated step to mark its distance, halting the provision to Saudi Arabia of certain weapons. Even these modest qualms are not, apparently, shared by his successor. If, under Obama, support assumed the form of enabling the campaign, under President Donald Trump, it has taken the costlier shape of encouraging and emboldening those who prosecute it, framing the conflict as just one more front in the battle against Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that the deaths in Yemen are not “because of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Days later, the Saudi Air Force hit a Save the Children–backed hospital in northern Yemen, killing seven.
While some members of Congress initially criticized the Obama administration for not doing more to help the coalition, the legislature has since lost its patience for the war. With each congressional vote, the clamor for an end to U.S. backing for the coalition (which includes intelligence sharing, arms sales, the sustainment of weapons systems, and—until it was recently suspended—refueling aircraft) becomes louder. Both houses of Congress have passed with bipartisan support a bill that would require the U.S. to withdraw its forces from hostilities in Yemen, the first time this has happened since Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution in 1973. It will almost certainly face a presidential veto, so it likely will go no further. Still, it would be hard to argue that it was for naught. Congressional sentiment was a principal reason that then–Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pressured Saudi Arabia and the UAE to get their Yemeni allies to sign on to the United Nation–brokered Stockholm Agreement, halting what would have been a catastrophic coalition-backed attack to retake the Red Sea port of Hodeidah from the Houthis.
Judging from our conversations in Aden and Riyadh, the message sent by Congress has not been well received. In both places, it is simultaneously dismissed as a symptom of anti-Trump fervor and denounced as counterproductive. Officials in those countries don’t understand how Americans cannot comprehend that such signals will embolden the Houthis and Iran, convincing them that they need only wait for U.S. pressure to force an end to the coalition’s military effort, thereby handing Tehran a victory when it was on the cusp of a major defeat. Sitting around qat chews in Aden, Yemenis speak angrily of the Houthi threat and of their zeal to eliminate it. They say this with the intent of persuading their American guests to stay the course and help them destroy their enemy, when their every word conjures the sort of bloodbath that most Americans would find abhorrent.
As Saudi officials see it, to let the Houthis prevail would send shock waves across the Arab world; to repulse them would hand Iran a major military defeat. But they can’t explain how continuing the war will bring them any closer to that goal, when four years of fighting has only solidified and deepened the partnership between Tehran and the Houthis. They find it hard to accept that, for many Americans, enabling “victory” in this country where 20 million already are food insecure and 80 percent live below the poverty line looks a lot like provoking mass starvation. And they have trouble understanding that a growing number in Congress no longer wish to be complicit.
The question today is less how the U.S. got into this mess than how it can end this war even if the coalition’s original ambitions (militarily defeating the Houthis, eliminating all Iranian influence in the country) will not be achieved. Step one is to avoid a battle for Hodeidah. The coalition long has believed that seizing the port city would deal the insurgents a decisive blow, depriving them of the money they collect in taxes and of smuggled weapons. But the most crushing blow would be to Yemeni civilians, 10 million of whom depend on goods arriving in the port city.
In December 2018, under international pressure and still reeling from the aftershocks of the Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the coalition assented to a pause; the UN special envoy negotiated an agreement between the Houthis and the Yemeni government in Stockholm, with both sides committing to withdraw from the port city and its environs. Today, that agreement is on life support, as all sides exploit ambiguities in the text as to who would run the city once military forces evacuate. The same pressure that was used to reach the Stockholm Agreement in the first place will be needed to ensure that the parties immediately implement its most important part—getting fighters to withdraw so that humanitarian goods can flow and the risk of a confrontation ebbs, if need be postponing the question of who will rule the city and the port until later.
A deal on Hodeidah would mitigate the war’s impact, but it would not end the conflict between the coalition and the Houthis. That would require, for starters, an understanding between Saudi Arabia and the insurgent group on principles governing their future relationship. Is it possible? To listen to some Houthis, the answer is: Yes. Their response may well be deceptive, but they sound a remarkably reassuring note. Asked about Saudi concerns regarding their ties to Iran and threats to Saudi territory, they don’t miss a beat; those ties are an outgrowth of the war and will loosen once the war with Riyadh is over, they insist, and any attacks they waged on Saudi Arabia are a direct reaction to Saudi operations and will end the moment the airstrikes do. They acknowledge the kingdom’s special role as Yemen’s neighbor and say they are prepared to forge privileged ties with it.
To listen to the Saudis, the answer is a skeptical no, at least for now. They have heard Houthi promises before, they say, far too many of which were not kept. They feel that a different balance of power first needs to be established—by pressuring the Houthis militarily and politically; by turning some of their supporters against them—before talks might yield fruit. They say the time is not right.
Houthis expect cracks within the coalition. Saudis anticipate cracks among the Houthis. They both can afford to wait. Yemen cannot.
The Houthis may well be dissembling about how they view the kingdom, but this much seems true: The long-term future of their northern Yemeni stronghold will depend on Saudi Arabia’s contribution, not Iran’s. When guns fall silent, Riyadh will possess the benefits of geographic proximity, abundant financial resources, and tribal and familial ties. A proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia plays to Tehran’s advantage; it can invest little and, so long as the Houthis survive, enjoy handsome returns as it watches Riyadh expend blood, treasure, and reputation on a protracted conflict.
An economic tug-of-war between the two, though, plays to Riyadh’s benefit. It can dangle before the Houthis and their constituents the prospect of reconstruction in a way that Tehran simply cannot. If the Saudis want more pragmatic Houthis to stand up to more militant ones, they are far likelier to achieve that goal through their economic leverage than by waging a battle that unites the insurgent group in opposition. Alliances fluctuate. In the 1960s, the kingdom helped the Zaydi-Shiite rulers of northern Yemen against Egyptian-backed revolutionaries who sought to overthrow their rule. In war, Iran has the advantage; in peace, it cannot compete.
Alongside a Saudi-Houthi negotiating track will need to be an intra-Yemeni one. The Houthis will need to relinquish control over areas presently under their sway, in exchange for a political and security role disproportionate to their modest demographic weight. Those talks cannot be reduced to a Yemeni government–Houthi tête-à-tête. The southerners one of us recently met in Aden are not going away, nor are the political parties and members of civil society shoved aside after the 2011 uprising. They, too, will have to be part of inclusive peace negotiations. A relatively loose, federal, decentralized Yemen likely lies at the other end.
There are echoes of Afghanistan in these imagined Yemeni negotiations, with Saudis playing the U.S. role and Houthis cast as the Taliban. In both cases, the insurgents do not wish to negotiate with a local government they deem puppets of a foreign master (never mind the irony of the Houthis vehemently rejecting the notion that they are Iranian proxies while labeling all their Yemeni opponents stooges). In both, they want to talk with the more powerful country they claim pulls the strings. But in neither case can those talks be a substitute for negotiations among national parties.
Perhaps the smartest thing Saudi Arabia could do would be to spearhead such a process, talking with the Houthis, convening broader intra-Yemeni discussions, and together with the UN and others, steering those toward a compromise outcome. And the smartest thing the U.S. could do would be to press the kingdom to take that route, making plain that while it is prepared to help defend Saudi Arabia against threats of sufficient gravity, it will have no more part of this conflict. The war will not end the way Saudi Arabia envisaged it, but it can still end in a way that Saudi Arabia can live with.
The United States is left with painful questions: What would have happened if it had rejected the Saudis’ original pleas, or set tighter limits on its support, or exerted earlier and more meaningful pressure on its partners? Whatever the answers, it has now become party to a terrible war, and it is past time for the U.S. to do all it can to stop it.