“The two separate issues—the Yemen conflict and the Jamal Khashoggi murder—have become conflated,” said Gerald Feierstein, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2016. Legislators, Feierstein said, “are looking at Yemen as a way of putting pressure on the Saudi government.”
In many ways, American entanglement in Yemen mirrors the conflict itself: What started as an ostensibly local and limited engagement has since spiraled into something with no apparent end in sight.
The Obama administration began, somewhat reluctantly, to provide logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led air campaign in the spring of 2015. At the time, the White House cited the “instability and chaos” wrought by the Houthi rebellion, as well as the separate threat of al-Qaeda’s branch in the country. The Trump administration, by contrast, has portrayed the U.S. interest in the conflict as fundamentally about containing Iran, which backs the Houthis, and denying it a foothold on the Arabian peninsula.
Amid the outcry over Khashoggi’s killing last month, the United States suspended air-refueling support to the Saudis, but continues to provide intelligence and sell weapons to the country. It also, in late October, began pushing for talks to end the conflict.
“Fundamentally, I think the military campaign isn’t really going to resolve this matter,” Feierstein said. “The Houthis aren’t going to throw in the towel. So the only real play is to try to get the parties to the table and see whether they can’t come up with a political way forward.”
To hear aid workers on the ground tell it, though, the current situation isn’t just untenable—it’s bound to get worse. “It’s entire communities who have exhausted their coping capacities, not just families,” Scott Paul, who oversees Oxfam America’s policy advocacy in Yemen, said following his latest trip to the country last month.
The reason behind each and every one of the individual crises in Yemen—including a strangled economy, widespread food insecurity, and the largest cholera outbreak in modern history—is the political crisis that started it all. In September 2014, the Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa, ultimately forcing the country’s leader, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, into exile. Six months later, a Gulf coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States and the United Kingdom, launched a military campaign with the aim of restoring Hadi’s internationally recognized government and countering what it saw as Iranian influence in the region. The Houthis, backed by Tehran, fought back.
Read: The war in Yemen and the making of a chaos state
Now, nearly four years on, the conflict is at a stalemate. Though the Saudi-led coalition has been able to wrest back some of the Yemeni government’s lost territory, Sanaa and the key port city of Hodeidah remain under Houthi control.