On Feb. 28, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation aimed at ending the U.S. military’s role in Yemen’s civil war unless Congress authorizes otherwise.
Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) are working to bring the attention of the world to the horrific humanitarian crisis unfolding every day in Yemen’s so-called “forgotten war”. Their resolution calls for an immediate end to informal U.S. military involvement in the conflict, which includes targeting assistance and mid-air refueling for Saudi coalition warplanes conducting airstrikes in Yemen.
Just days ago, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that “conditions are catastrophic” on the ground, with a “record 22.2 million people (requiring) humanitarian assistance or protection, 2 million remained displaced, 1.1 million were suspected to have cholera and famine was a real threat.” Of the 2 million displaced people, 90 percent fled their homes over a year ago. UNICEF reported that a child dies of starvation every 10 minutes in Yemen.
This situation has developed from Iran-backed Houthi rebels (who are Zaydi Muslim, a branch of Shia Islam) destabilizing Yemen and seizing control of the capital as well as many major population centers, resulting in viscous fighting between pro-government and Houthi forces which has often occurred in densely populated neighborhoods near schools and hospitals with little to no regard for innocent civilians.
The entrance of the Saudi-led coalition in 2015 has only made the humanitarian situation worse. The subsequent Saudi blockade of food and fuel weaponized human suffering in an unacceptable manner. President Donald Trump has called for the end to the blockade of Yemen, yet so far Saudi Arabia has failed to do so.
It is critical that we do not forget the history that brought us to this point if we are serious about ending it. North and South Yemen united in 1990 and ever since the country has seen recurring conflict between Houthi groups and the central government, as well as small scale Saudi interventions. The current round of violence began as protests against corruption and oppression in 2011 that spurred a movement calling for regime change, instaling Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi as president.
The situation did not improve under Hadi. In 2014, the Houthi seized Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. In a bid for peace, President Hadi invited the Houthi’s to form a coalition government, and both sides would eventually sign a tenuous UN negotiated peace deal, with which the rebels would not comply, continuing their conquest of Yemen including the capture of the strategic port of Hodeida. In early 2015, President Hadi would flee to Saudi Arabia, maintaining he was the legitimate leader of Yemen, and Saudi airstrikes would begin.
In the intervening years, the U.S. has informally stepped in to support the Saudi-led coalition while Iran has begun giving aid to the rebels, seeing Yemen as an opportunity to expand their regional influence through yet another proxy, right on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep.
While U.S. disengagement from Saudi Arabia’s military campaign is an important first step in ending the humanitarian crisis, the U.S. and its international partners must force the Gulf States (including Saudi Arabia) and Iran into negotiations in order to truly to see an end to the unspeakable human suffering in Yemen and various proxy wars in the region.
The United States Congress and the Trump administration should work to facilitate a political resolution to the conflict, without which the humanitarian crisis will never truly be addressed. Our organization, In Defense of Christians in the Middle East, supports any legislation that works to end the escalating proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. In Lebanon, Syria ,and Iraq, we see the proxy conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia destabilizing countries and exacerbating conflicts for their own interests, leading to the decimation for the minority communities we fight for.
The United States has the leverage to pressure our ally Saudi Arabia to work on an agreement in Yemen and guide them to play a stabilizing and constructive role in the Middle East, which would benefit all of the region’s peoples. As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is set to visit the United States from March 19-22, the president and policy makers he meets with should press him on long-term solutions on how to end the humanitarian crisis and war in Yemen.
Separately, the U.S. can also pressure our European allies to bring Iran and the Iran-backed Houthis to the negotiating table. Finally, we must also immediately work with the UN to implement a disaster relief plan to save the people of Yemen.
Philippe Nassif is the executive director of In Defense of Christians in the Middle East (IDC). Philippe has worked in issue-based advocacy and political organizing for over a decade.