The US Should Push for Peace in Yemen
In early July, the Saudi Arabian-led coalition halted its siege of the Yemeni port of Hodeidah to allow space for UN efforts to negotiate a political settlement. After three plus years of conflict, the United States, through its support of the coalition, has not achieved its strategic goals in the region, while also suffering harm to its international reputation. The Trump Administration should take this opportunity to press its allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to negotiate an end to the civil war in Yemen.
The United States has actively supported the Saudi-led coalition since March 2015, providing combat support to its campaign of airstrikes in the form of mid-flight aerial refueling, targeting assistance, and other forms of logistical support and intelligence. American officials have also provided diplomatic cover to the coalition at the United Nations; the UN Security Council, where the United States holds a veto-wielding permanent seat, has been noticeably quiet about the unfolding crisis in Yemen. The United States’ silence is notable given that the Saudi-led coalition has been called out by the United Nations and international human rights groups for its indiscriminate targeting practices which frequently kill civilians.
However, the war has failed to accomplish the United States’ goal of restricting Iran’s influence in the region. Instead, while there is little publicly available data, Iranian assistance to the Houthi rebels has likely escalated as the conflict has worn on. The war has therefore only further entrenched Iranian influence over the Arabian Peninsula. In the meantime, the humanitarian fallout of the fighting has left more than 10,000 dead and millions in need of humanitarian aid, generating the largest cholera epidemic in history. Thus, the conflict has eroded the United States’ international reputation while simultaneously hindering US efforts to push back against human rights violations committed by the Syrian government.
The past year has confirmed that the Trump administration does have the ability to affect the behavior of the Saudi-led coalition, with particular influence over Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In November 2017, the coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen that experts warned could lead to widespread famine. After three weeks, the coalition yielded to international pressure—including an unusually direct statement from President Trump—by easing the blockade and allowing four US-funded cranes to be installed at the port of Hodeidah.
The Trump administration also has personal ties to the coalition, in a region where personal relationships are at the core of diplomacy. President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner has reportedly built strong relationships with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and the UAE’s ambassador to the United States Yousef Otaiba. Furthermore, the Trump administration has reoriented US policy in the Middle East in a way that Saudi Arabia and other coalition members look upon favorably, including doubling down on hard-line rhetoric about Iran and signing a $1.4 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia after a trip to the region in May 2017. These relationships could constitute an important source of leverage for the Trump administration to encourage Saudi Arabia and the UAE to engage in good-faith negotiations.
The pause in fighting over Hodeidah has opened a window of opportunity for negotiations to end the conflict with a political settlement. Martin Griffiths, the recently appointed UN envoy to Yemen, has presented a peace plan that would include a phased withdrawal of both sides from Hodeidah, with the port facility falling under UN control. This would create the framework for a broader national ceasefire and return to peace negotiations. Yet, the deal is unlikely to succeed without the backing of the United States and the Saudi-led coalition.
The United States should use the considerable leverage that it holds over the coalition to pressure them to adhere to stricter rules of engagement while participating in good-faith peace negotiations over the fate of Hodeidah, and the country more broadly. Negotiations could help bring an end to a war that has damaged US strategic interests and reputation in the Middle East while generating a great deal of needless human suffering.