Excessive and Avoidable Harm in Yemen

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (US Embassy Seoul)

Over the past few months, the Trump administration has settled on a strategy for the ongoing conflict in Yemen that it knows will lead to more suffering and violence in the country. Rather than trying to bring an immediate end to the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 civilians, administration officials have decided to help the Saudi-led coalition continue its efforts to pressure Houthi-led rebels into surrendering on Saudi terms, even if it means more violence.

Previous U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition has already had devastating consequences for the people of Yemen. Since the conflict began in early 2015, the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition has killed countless civilians in airstrikes on homes, schools, factories, markets, hospitals, and even a funeral. “The strike on the funeral was really, really hard to swallow,” a senior official in the Obama administration said.

In recent months, the situation has grown worse. Cholera has begun spreading throughout the country, killing hundreds of people. Millions of Yemenis are also facing the risk of famine because ongoing fighting has made it impossible for people to get access to food. There are “millions of people on the brink of starvation, because of the impact of the fighting,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has acknowledged.

Given these circumstances, some dissension has emerged in Washington about the U.S. role in the war. Some former officials say that the time has come to reduce U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition and begin final negotiations with the Houthi-led rebels. Others argue that it is necessary to maintain U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign.

As the discussion continues, the Trump administration, which has said little publicly about the war, has begun taking a series of steps that indicate that it is going to continue U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. Although officials in the Trump administration are well aware of the terrible risks that continued fighting poses to the people of Yemen, they have begun moving to resupply the Saudi-led coalition with weapons and help it continue its military campaign against the Houthis.

The Debate in Washington

The emerging dissension in Washington has largely played out in Congress. In March, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing in which two former U.S. officials debated different ways for the Trump administration to proceed with the war.

Former State Department official Dafna Rand argued that it no longer made sense to help the Saudi-led coalition launch offensive military operations against the Houthis. “Helping the coalition launch new assaults on Houthi-controlled territory may allow for the capture of new cities, but it will result in even more bloodshed and is unlikely to change the negotiation calculus of either side,” Rand said. Convinced that more fighting would lead to more suffering, Rand called for a negotiated settlement. “The Houthis are looking for guarantees of political inclusion in the formal government process,” she said. “These issues would be worked out whether or not the coalition retakes a few more cities.”

Taking a different position, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein argued that the Saudi-led coalition needed to maintain military pressure on the Houthis. Although he agreed with Rand that the ultimate resolution would come in the form of a negotiated settlement, Feierstein insisted that the Saudis needed to ensure that they would be negotiating from a position of power. The final outcome, he said, must be one in which the Saudis achieve the installation of “a friendly government” in Yemen.

Notably, the two former officials agreed that the fighting had reached a stalemate and that the people of Yemen were facing tremendous hardships, including the risk of starvation. But they could not agree on whether the time had come for the Saudi-led coalition to hold final negotiations with the Houthis to end the war.

Rand, for her part, remained convinced that it was time to stop launching offensive military operations against the Houthis, believing that they would only prolong needless suffering. “We’ve already tried for two years this strategy of offenses to retake areas to allow for the political dynamics to change and there are significant costs to our relationships, to the civilians of Yemen, to our reputation,” she said. “We’ve tried that approach for two years and I just don’t believe that the risks are worth it anymore.”

Tactical Concerns

The discussion in Congress has also extended into more specific aspects of the Saudi-led military campaign. In particular, various observers have disagreed over the extent to which U.S. officials should support military tactics that will significantly harm civilians.

One of the key issues concerns the port of Hodeidah, a major commercial hub located in Houthi-controlled territory along the Red Sea. About 70 percent of Yemen’s food imports and 90 percent of U.N food assistance pass through the city, making it a vital lifeline for the Yemeni people.

During the congressional hearing last March, Feierstein argued that the Saudi-led coalition should launch an offensive to seize the port. “The U.S. should back Government/Coalition efforts to capture the port,” as long as the Saudis agree to certain conditions, Feierstein argued.

Rand disagreed, saying that any attempt to take the city through force “would be a serious mistake.” She warned that “the fighting itself will just make it difficult for the humanitarian access that’s needed.” In addition, Rand suggested that the Saudi-led coalition might use the port to punish people living in Houthi-controlled territory by blocking their access to food. “Even in the long term,” Rand said, “we would be banking on the Saudis being able to reestablish port access and distribution networks in a better way than the current system which is not 100 percent but is working – working, it’s not ideal but it’s working.”

Another key issue concerns precision-guided munitions (PGMs), which the Saudi government has used in Yemen. In December 2016, the Obama administration announced that it was temporarily halting a planned sale of the weapons to the Saudi government because the Saudi-led coalition kept striking targets on a no-strike list.

During a congressional hearing earlier this month, Feierstein argued that the Trump administration should reverse the Obama administration’s decision and begin resupplying the Saudi government with the weapons. “I believe that we should move forward on the PGM sale,” he said, before adding that he still wanted to see the Saudis fulfill certain conditions.

Former State Department official Tom Malinowski disagreed, saying that it made no sense to move forward with the sale.

In his written statement to the congressional committee, Malinowski provided his reasons for his opposition. First, Malinowski explained that “the Saudis have used US-provided weapons in ways that have caused excessive and avoidable harm to civilians, and exacerbated a terrible humanitarian crisis.” During military operations, “the Saudis continued to hit targets on a humanitarian no-strike list,” he said. In addition, Malinowski insisted that the sale of precision-guided munitions would do nothing to alleviate the suffering of civilians. “While precision weapons are often helpful in avoiding civilian casualties, this was not the case in Yemen – precision does not protect civilians when one is deliberately aiming at the wrong targets,” he said.

In short, there has emerged some significant dissension among former U.S. officials about various aspects of the U.S. role in the war. Although some want to see the Trump administration take a more aggressive stance, there is growing awareness that a more aggressive military policy will cause more needless harm to the people of Yemen.

The Decision

In spite of the growing awareness, the Trump administration has begun taking the more aggressive position on the various matters under discussion.

In the first place, the Trump administration has decided to support new efforts to capture the port of Hodeidah. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained to a congressional committee earlier this month, “we’re working with both the Emirates and the Saudis to gain agreement over how we might gain control of that port.” Although administration officials appear to have backed away from a military plan in favor of a new diplomatic strategy, they have decided to help the Saudi government gain control of the port. “We believe we can gain control of the port under some other third authority’s control,” Tillerson said.

Second, the Trump administration has decided to provide the Saudi government with the precision-guided munitions. It most clearly revealed its decision earlier this month, when it made a major effort to get the U.S. Senate to approve a future sale of the weapons to the Saudi government. “Trump administration officials spent the hours before the vote frantically making phone calls and holding briefings with lawmakers to stave off a defeat,” The New York Times reported. In the process, the Trump administration informed congressional officials that it would soon begin providing the weapons to the Saudi government by adhering to the previous weapons deal.

More broadly, the Trump administration has also decided to continue helping the Saudi-led coalition maintain its military operations against the Houthis. Although administration officials know perfectly well that they are increasing the risk of famine in Yemen, they have decided that military operations are necessary to keep pressure on the Houthis. The rebels in Yemen “have to know that they will never – they will never prevail militarily,” Tillerson explained. “But they’re only going to feel that when they feel the resistance militarily, so it’s important we keep the pressure on them.”

Indeed, the Trump administration has decided to take the hardline position on many key aspects of the war. Rather than trying to minimize civilian casualties by blocking the sale of munitions, keeping food distribution networks open by backing off of Hodeidah, and trying to prevent famine by ending its support of the the Saudi-led military operations, the Trump administration has adopted some of the most extreme positions in Washington, ensuring that the people of Yemen will continue to suffer.

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.