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Yemen’s Terrible War Is About to Get Worse
Yemen’s Terrible War Is About to Get Worse
Six Steps to Make the Most of the U.S. Senate’s Yemen Vote
Six Steps to Make the Most of the U.S. Senate’s Yemen Vote

Yemen’s Terrible War Is About to Get Worse

Originally published in Foreign Policy

The bombing of a funeral has empowered the country's worst forces and could drag America into the fray.

On Saturday, Oct. 8, an airstrike from the Saudi-led coalition ripped through a crowded funeral in the heart of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. At least 140 mourners were killed and more than 500 injured. The unprecedented strike has killed peacemakers, empowered militants, and fueled the desire for revenge, making the prospects for peace in this conflict ever dimmer.

Yemenis are no strangers to horrific attacks on civilians. After 18 months of war, both the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led coalition and its adversaries, a combination of Houthi rebels and fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, stand accused of flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, perpetrated seemingly without consequence. The United Nations estimates the war has claimed more than 10,000 lives, including 4,000 civilians, with the majority of deaths caused by coalition airstrikes. Yet this strike stands out.

The attack is likely the single-most costly strike, in terms of civilian casualties, during the course of the war. While other violations have been shrouded in a fog of war, this one happened in the capital at a well-known landmark, reducing the chances of deniability or ambiguity about its legitimacy as a target. Many killed in the community hall were among the country’s political, tribal, and military elite, and their deaths have had significant political and social repercussions. It was also a clear violation of traditional norms that protect the sanctity of funerals, even between bitter enemies and warring parties.

As shock and sadness engulfs Sanaa, some Yemenis are hoping against all odds that the event could serve as a spur for a peace agreement. But this hope is likely misplaced. The bombing killed a number of important political and military personalities supporting a peace deal, among them the mayor of Sanaa, two Yemeni members of the U.N. cease-fire monitoring team, and a general expected to play an important post-conflict security role. Their deaths empower hard-liners over peacemakers while undercutting capacity to implement any future accord.

Yes, the carnage has drawn international condemnation from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has called for an international investigation. It also pushed the U.S. government, which has sold Saudi Arabia approximately $22.2 billion in weapons since the war began, to launch a review of its support to the coalition.

But it is not clear what impact, if any, these statements will have. The U.N. has thus far been a helpless bystander, unable to broker peace or even secure an independent investigation into violations of international humanitarian law by both sides. The United States and Britain, both coalition supporters and arms suppliers, have repeatedly demonstrated a high level of tolerance for potential war crimes by their allies. It is unclear what red lines they have.

The U.N. has thus far been a helpless bystander

In the absence of a negotiated settlement, the country is poised to spiral further into chaos. Since U.N. peace talks collapsed in August, both sides have engaged in a series of tit-for-tat escalations. Houthi fighters, along with those loyal to Saleh, have increased cross-border rocket attacks and raids into Saudi territory. On Oct. 1, they attacked an Emirati vessel in the Red Sea off the coast of Mokha, approximately 50 miles north of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, through which millions of barrels of oil pass daily. The Saudi-backed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, meanwhile, moved to put the financial squeeze on his opponents by announcing it would move the Central Bank of Yemen from rebel-controlled Sanaa to the government’s temporary capital in Aden. Only days before the funeral attack, Hadi-aligned forces launched a major military offensive northeast of Sanaa, at which their highest-ranking military commander to date was killed.

Now the funeral attack will likely produce an even more significant military escalation by Houthi forces along the Yemeni-Saudi border. This, in turn, will confirm Riyadh’s worst fears and secure U.S. support in defense of Saudi territorial integrity. Already Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and Saleh have issued impassioned calls for mobilization along the border — a call that is being met by enraged tribesmen throughout the north. Their forces have already fired two ballistic missiles — one toward Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province and the other, for the first time, deep into the kingdom, toward the city of Taif in Mecca province. It remains to be seen if they have the ability to make good on their threats to push into Saudi territory, especially into Jizan, Asir, and Najran provinces, mostly mountainous areas that many Yemenis consider part of historic Yemen.

The growing violence may endanger American lives as well.

The growing violence may endanger American lives as well. On Oct. 9, the U.S. military reported two missiles were fired at the guided-missile destroyer USS Masonfrom Houthi-controlled territory just north of Bab el-Mandeb. U.S. official claimed that the USS Mason was targeted again in a failed missile attack on Oct. 12. The Houthis denied the Oct. 9 strike, and the United States has yet to confirm their responsibility, but if confirmed, it constitutes a major escalation near the strategic strait.

The anger and hostility directed toward the Saudi-led coalition in the aftermath of the funeral hall strike will make it harder to contain the regional rivalries unleashed across the Middle East and to convince Yemen’s domestic parties to reach a negotiated settlement. Indeed, the premonitions of Abdul-Qader Hilal, the Sanaa mayor who was killed in Saturday’s attack, are ones that deserve our attention now.

Two and a half years ago, I sat with Hilal in his home on the outskirts of Sanaa as he received rounds of Salafi, tribal, and Houthi mediators in an attempt to solidify a truce between warring factions in Yemen’s north. A politician with connections to all sides of the country’s complicated political and tribal mosaic, he predicted a conflagration if violence in the north was not contained by integrating the Houthis into the political system. When the military tide was unleashed, he warned, it would be hard to stop. “If the Houthis take Amran [a city north of Sanaa], they will take Sanaa,” he said. “If they take Sanaa, we will be talking about [stability in] Riyadh a year later.”

At the time, his concerns seemed inflated, even outlandish. In light of recent developments, they appear ever more prescient.

Members of the Yemeni pro-government forces walk through destruction in an industrial district in the eastern outskirts of the port city of Hodeida on November 18, 2018, during the ongoing battle for control of the city from the Huthi rebels. STRINGER / AFP

Six Steps to Make the Most of the U.S. Senate’s Yemen Vote

By an unexpectedly large margin, the U.S. Senate voted on 29 November to move ahead with a bill to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war. Crisis Group calls on the key actors to seize this opportunity to suspend the fighting and pursue peace in earnest.

The U.S. Congress is notoriously reluctant to take tough decisions on matters of war and peace, which makes the Senate’s 29 November vote on the conflict in Yemen all the more remarkable.

The Senate voted by a 63-37 margin to advance a resolution that would require the Trump administration to “remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen”. In doing so, it sent a clear message to both the administration and its allies intervening in Yemen, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The message: a large, bipartisan group of senators is deeply troubled by both the war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist killed by the kingdom’s agents in Istanbul, and correspondingly dissatisfied with the administration’s business-as-usual backing of the Saudis. Efforts by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to defuse frustrations by reminding the Senate of the U.S.-Saudi partnership’s importance right before the vote fell flat; the administration’s failure to produce CIA Director Gina Haspel as a witness to speak about the Khashoggi affair only made things worse.

The Yemen war is moving quickly toward an inflection point.

The Trump administration and the Saudi leadership may be tempted to wait for the Senate’s moment of anger to pass. But that could be a serious miscalculation. With peace talks slated to begin in Sweden in early December, the Yemen war is moving quickly toward an inflection point. In the coming weeks and months, there is a modest but real opportunity to build trust between the warring parties and prevent what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis from descending into famine. The alternative – a brutal fight for the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida, the collapse of the incipient peace process and starvation on an unprecedented scale – is, unfortunately, more likely. Beyond its profound humanitarian costs, this outcome would further stain the reputations of the Saudi-led coalition and its Western supporters. The Senate vote, which staffers say represents the lowest ebb in sentiment toward Riyadh since the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, is just a taste of what could be in store if the coalition barrels blithely ahead.

The worst need not happen. Instead, the Trump administration and its Gulf allies should treat the 29 November vote as a spur to correct the course they have been on to date. To maximise the odds of a course correction, and to end the war, Crisis Group suggests the following six steps.

Congress Should Keep Up the Pressure

Congress should not let up on the Trump administration and its Gulf Arab allies. The Senate’s procedural vote sent a strong signal, albeit at this point a largely symbolic one. It would lose much of its force if the same or a similar resolution fails to gain sufficient support when it comes to the floor for adoption next week.

Moreover, the legislation’s sceptics argue that even if it becomes law (which would require a companion House of Representatives bill to pass and either presidential signature or a Congressional veto override), the bill’s broad reference to withdrawal from hostilities will be insufficient to secure the administration’s compliance. The White House has said it does not consider the U.S. to be engaged in the coalition’s war effort in Yemen, and the judiciary would be highly unlikely to take a position on this issue should Congress attempt to force the administration’s hand in court.

But these considerations miss the bigger picture. The Senate has telegraphed bipartisan revulsion at the war and at the U.S.’s complicity in it, along with a growing willingness to expend political capital in order to distance Washington from Riyadh. Saudi leaders with an eye on the long-term bilateral relationship should see cause for real concern.

Some of the technical issues in the resolution that would weaken its impact should it become law (notably the fact that the White House has already argued that the U.S. is not engaged in hostilities in Yemen and thus that the law would be without effect) could still be addressed. If the Senate wants to amend the resolution before a floor vote, it can do so. A source of inspiration could be another draft bill, the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act sponsored by three Democrats and three Republicans. The Senate did not plan to debate this bill until a new Congress is seated in January. But senators could borrow some of its specifics, which arguably would make the current bill more effective. Among other things, they could incorporate a suspension of both offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, a prohibition on refuelling coalition aircraft, and provisions requiring sanctions for those blocking humanitarian aid access, circumventing some of the current resolution’s shortcomings. They could also use the current bill to block spare parts transfers. 

The Senate should impress upon Riyadh and the White House that the withdrawal resolution is just the beginning if things do not change. A strong Senate vote in favour of the withdrawal resolution – whether amended or not – will put the new Congress (including a new Democratic majority in the House) in position to ratchet up the pressure still more if need be.

The White House Should Prioritise Preventing a Battle for Hodeida

As Crisis Group has repeatedly argued, a battle between UAE-backed Yemeni forces and Huthi rebels for the Red Sea port and city of Hodeida would be catastrophic in terms of both the human cost – the UN says fourteen million Yemenis are on the verge of famine – and the peace process. Yet the Trump administration baulks at decisive action to rein in the coalition whose proxies sit impatiently outside Hodeida. A reprieve in military pressure, it argues, could give the Huthis new confidence in their position going in to forthcoming consultative talks in Sweden. The administration used this argument in an attempt to peel supporters away from the Senate withdrawal bill and to freeze a UN Security Council resolution calling for a halt to the Hodeida campaign. It is mistaken.

The talks would be an important step, but they are not designed to produce a peace deal.

The administration’s position seems to underestimate both the likelihood and the gravity of an assault on Hodeida. Crisis Group’s field reporting points clearly to such an offensive, either before or after the consultative talks, unless something happens to change the coalition’s calculations. Such a fight would be devastating. It would take months, be horrendously destructive, induce famine and set back the peace process, all probably without changing the Huthis’ attitude as the UAE hopes.

The argument that pressure on the coalition could jeopardise the outcome of the Sweden talks and therefore should be avoided is equally misplaced. The talks would be an important step, but they are not designed to produce a peace deal; their purpose is to develop a framework on how to proceed with future talks. To mortgage the lives at stake in Hodeida and the country at large in the name of advancing the coalition’s negotiating position at these talks would be wrong, given that all previous rounds of talks have collapsed, and that anything achieved in Sweden would be utterly undone by a battle for the port and city.

The White House Should Not Suggest That It Can Protect the Coalition from the Political Fallout of Its Actions

The White House message to the coalition should be simple: you saw the Senate vote. Congress is furious, and we cannot do anything about it. Help us help you by calling off the Hodeida offensive, agreeing to a cessation of hostilities, and genuinely seeking a negotiated end to the war.

The Saudi-led Coalition Should Halt Any Plans for a Hodeida Offensive, Agree to a Cessation of Hostilities and Negotiate in Good Faith

The Senate vote is just the latest signal of Riyadh’s fraying relationships on Capitol Hill, and its reputation in the U.S. more broadly. The coalition ought to consider what it needs to do to repair the damage before it is too late. The UAE, which is leading the Red Sea campaign, has so far escaped the opprobrium directed toward Saudi Arabia but should be mindful that this could change and that a collapse of its most important regional partner’s standing in Washington would be costly for it as well.

A good first step would be for the UAE and Saudi Arabia to abandon plans to take over Hodeida and enter in good faith into detailed conversations with the UN over an acceptable way of moving the port to UN management – something the Gulf powers have thus far resisted. More broadly, the coalition should agree to a cessation of hostilities and in particular halt all airstrikes.

An unconditional Huthi surrender is not realistic.

Finally, the UAE and Saudi Arabia should also be clear in laying out what they see as an acceptable deal with the Huthis, and express willingness to compromise, rather than pushing for maximalist demands framed by UN Security Council Resolution 2216, in particular that the Huthis disarm completely without receiving anything in return. An unconditional Huthi surrender is not realistic. Instead, the coalition could offer a phased integration of the Huthis into Yemen’s security sector; a detailed plan for the integration of coalition-supported fighters, including hardline Salafis; and guarantees that they will accept a future meaningful political role for the Huthis.

The Saudi-led Coalition Should Prioritise Humanitarian Aid Access

Separate from the political process, the coalition should work closely with UN agencies – as it has begun to do – to reestablish full humanitarian access and capacity in and around Hodeida. The battle front lines in recent months have nudged up against key storage and grain milling sites that house the bulk of the UN’s surplus supplies. One of them is the Red Sea Mills, a wheat storage and milling facility near Hodeida that it took over from the Huthis in October and that is crucial for the UN to maintain its humanitarian operations. The coalition should provide the UN with access to the mills, clear and secure routes of entry and egress, and help remove mines and other hazardous materiel left in the mills by the Huthis.

The coalition should also guarantee that it will not cut off the last road connecting Hodeida port and city to the rest of the country, the loss of which would be commensurate in humanitarian impact to a battle inside the port or city.

The Coalition Should Give Peace Talks a Chance

The coalition should also give the talks set to begin in Sweden time and space to succeed. While the Saudis and Emiratis publicly support the peace process, they seem to expect the consultations to collapse, to end inconclusively or not to take place at all – and appear to be doing little to steer clear of those outcomes. Riyadh’s agreement to allow for the evacuation of injured Huthi fighters was one small step in the right direction. To further build confidence, the coalition should agree to other UN suggestions, such as the mutual release of prisoners and, optimally, to a nationwide cessation of hostilities.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi argue that the Huthis and their Iranian backers are unlikely to reciprocate any coalition good-will; rather, they can be expected to take advantage of it, bolster their military position, and bank on time and growing U.S. war fatigue to consolidate their position. This is a risk, and it is a reason why, as Crisis Group has previously argued, all who have ties to the Huthis need to exert pressure on them as well.

But at this point, the priority must be to halt the slide toward famine and do whatever is possible to end a war that has ravaged Yemen. The Senate vote offers a renewed opportunity to do so. It must be seized.