Recently, UN-sponsored peace talks between the Houthi movement and the internationally recognized Yemeni government failed after members of the Houthi delegation did not attend. The talks should have ended the brutal three-year Yemeni civil war. Violence began when the Houthis, a Shia movement supported by Iran, took over the city of Sana’a and announced their plan to take over the rest of the Yemeni government. When the internationally recognized government began to falter, Saudi Arabia came to their aid by establishing a coalition of Arab states to stop the Houthi revolt and restore the Hadi government.
Saudi-led coalition air strikes have led to the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians. Many of these strikes use imprecise munitions such as cluster bombs that deliberately target civilian sites such as hospitals, schools, markets, and mosques. These weapons that unnecessarily harm civilians are made and sold by the United States to Saudi Arabia for use in this conflict. The United States needs to re-evaluate, and limit, its strategy and instead focus its efforts on protecting suffering civilians through ending Saudi arms sales.
Millions of Yemenis have become displaced due to the Yemeni civil war. These refugees strain an already destabilized Middle East region and increase the severity of the migrant crisis that began with the Syrian civil war. Displacement will put pressure on U.S. allies in Europe and spread across the Middle East and Africa. In addition, the famine caused by the civil war led to the deaths of 50,000 children and a cholera outbreak that killed over 2,000 Yemenis.
The United States has been involved in this conflict from the outset because this conflict is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Many, if not all, of these strikes used American-made munitions and equipment. Under President Obama, arms exports increased significantly, and Saudi Arabia was the second largest customer. Under President Trump, the arms trade with Saudi Arabia has increased again, including an agreement to sell the Saudi government over $100 billion worth of military equipment. The United States also has helped the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen by sharing intelligence, assisting with air strikes, and even putting U.S. troops on the ground.
Other U.S. interventions in the Middle East to promote democracy and state-building have proven ineffective at best. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were intended to end the threat of terrorism and build democratic states but have not achieved their goals. The Taliban is still controls a great deal of Afghanistan. In Iraq, Al-Qaeda and ISIS continue their incursion. Both of the latter groups have become widespread in Yemen because of the war. Although it is reasonable that the United States would want to prevent these groups from gaining more power in the region, similar U.S. interventions in the Middle East have failed. Ground troops, special forces operations, and air strikes are not long-term solutions for preventing the spread of these non-state actors.
The United States should end its current level of military involvement and instead focus on humanitarian efforts and stabilizing Yemen. Yemen’s civil war has led to immense destruction and instability in what is essentially a Shia and Sunni proxy war. Additionally, the United States should limit its role in this conflict by suspending current and future arms sales and instead, increase its humanitarian presence. It is time to re-evaluate what role the United States will play, since its current strategy in Yemen and the Middle East is not working.
In 2016 the United States canceled a million-dollar weapons sale to Saudi Arabia as a result of a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a funeral that killed over a hundred Yemeni civilians. Even though the United States had already sold Saudi Arabia millions of dollars’ worth of weapons by that point, the canceled sale demonstrated consequences for the Saudis’ complete disregard of civilian casualties. It also showed that a country’s ability to pay for weapons was not the only factor the United States would consider when selling arms.
The United States should continue suspending current arms sales and abandon any promise of future arms sales to Saudi Arabia while this proxy war in Yemen continues. The United States should consider foreign arms sales on a case by case basis, instead of offering a “blank check” to a government without considering their foreign policy and human rights record.
U.S. supporters of arms deals with Saudi Arabia argue that the revenue generated from these sales are too beneficial to end. However, the arms sales and continued conflict create larger and farther-reaching costs. The U.S. government should redirect its involvement towards humanitarian actions in Yemen. This policy would help to stabilize Yemen and enhance U.S. soft power in the region.
Additionally, the United States should focus on relieving the famine and disease ubiquitous throughout the country. The danger from both Saudi forces and terrorist organizations makes aidwork nearly impossible. The United States should try to create safe zones for aid organizations. These zones would be in a few areas throughout the country providing food and medical care to civilians caught in the crossfire. These areas would allow the United States to target aid depending on civilians’ changing needs. Since the UN already provides designated refugee areas, safe zones could use existing UN aid management infrastructure.
By limiting its interventions in Yemen to delivering humanitarian aid, the United States would create more stabilization in the region and work more effectively to end the civil war. U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia along with U.S.- led military interventions create chaos and unnecessarily involve the United States in a proxy war. Ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia would improve relations with other countries in the Middle East and would force other countries we consider our allies to ensure their actions were in line with international and U.S. norms. Overall, this action would improve our entire strategy for managing conflicts across the region.
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Emily Weber is an M.A. candidate in International Affairs focusing on International Security Studies and U.S. Foreign Policy at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She currently works in government relations.