It may be morally satisfying to demand that the U.S. cut off its military support of the Saudis for their disastrous involvement in Yemen’s civil war. But if the goal is to end the violence and provide some humanitarian assistance — and it should be — then that assistance may be the best leverage the U.S. has against Saudi Arabia’s recklessness.
The U.S. can hardly wash its hands of the conflict, which pits Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers against Yemen’s ousted government and its Saudi-led allies, and which has created a breeding ground for terrorists. So America needs to lead a more forceful diplomatic effort for peace.
The Saudi air war is enabled by U.S. arms sales and air refueling and has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, including an airstrike at a funeral last Saturday that killed more than 100 and wounded hundreds more. The Houthis, meanwhile, have committed their own abuses, indiscriminately shelling civilians in Taiz, Yemen’s second-largest city, and preventing them from receiving humanitarian supplies.
Neither the Houthis nor the rump government of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi has any real prospect of military victory. At the same time, both sides have hardened their negotiating positions. The Houthis insist that Hadi step down — something that neither he nor the Saudis will easily accept — and have created their own governing council. Hadi has responded, in part, by moving the country’s central bank to the south, making it harder for ordinary Yemenis to pay for imported foodstuffs and relief supplies.
The U.S. is not without influence in Saudi Arabia. A serious threat of withdrawing its military support for the Saudi air campaign could be enough to bring about a change in Saudi behavior, and the White House has said it is reviewing its cooperation with the Saudis.
The Houthis and their Iranian backers, meanwhile, would love to see the U.S. more deeply embroiled in their fight. After this week’s abortive missile attacks from rebel-controlled territory on a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Red Sea, the U.S. responded by destroying three Houthi radar sites with cruise missiles. Moving forward, the U.S. will need to continue to defend its long-held strategic principle — that attacks on shipping in the Gulf will not be tolerated — without becoming bogged down in a wider conflict.
The Saudis may prefer the military stalemate to the strategic and political costs of backing down to a group supported by their historic rival, not least a threat to their southern border. And as long as the Saudis are fighting, so will the rebels.
Both sides need to realize that their intransigence consigns Yemen to misery, from war as well as famine . It also threatens the stability of the entire region, especially as the war is exploited by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State. No nation or group — involved in this war or not — will benefit from that.