Congress: support Senator Murphy’s resolution to make American funding of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen conditional

In a report entitled, “Bombing of schools by Saudi Arabia-led coalition a flagrant attack on future of Yemen’s children,” Amnesty International Senior Crisis Advisor Lama Fakih was quoted as saying, “it is appalling that the USA and other allies of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition have continued to authorize arms transfers to members of the coalition despite the clear evidence that they are not complying with the laws of war.” In fact, the United States has been backing Saudi Arabia and its allies with both arms (including cluster munitions and other inherently indiscriminate weapons) and intelligence, without serious criticism, no matter what the coalition targets — schools, wedding parties, marketplaces, etc. Moreover, according to William Picard, Executive Director of the Yemen Peace Project, “It’s very likely that the US navy has also been involved in enforcing the Saudi blockade that has slowed the flow of food, fuel, and other aid into Yemen.” The Saudi-led coalition has been pounding Yemen since March of 2015 in an effort to restore President ‘Abd Rabbuh Mansour Haadi to power after he was forced to flee the capital city of Sana’a by the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi militia. Saudi Arabia has long considered holding influence over Yemen a key security priority, especially given the long shared border between the two countries, and the Kingdom sees Houthi insurgents, allied with troops loyal to former Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saaleh, as severely threatening that control. American support for the coalition has been challenged on both moral and legal grounds, not only by Amnesty International and other human rights groups but also by American officials such as Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), who correctly notes that American law forbids security funding to countries that commit “gross human rights abuses.” A couple of months ago, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Ct) proposed a resolution demanding that the US put conditions on its funding of the campaign. Senator Murphy has pointed out many of the moral and some of the strategic issues with the campaign. This article will elaborate on the latter type of concern in particular. Unconditional American backing for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen is harmful to American strategic priorities in Southwest Asia, and therefore it is the patriotic duty of all Members of Congress to support Senator Murphy’s resolution.

A destroyed home in Sana’a, 2015 - Ibrahem Qasim

Combating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the most lethal branch of Al Qaeda, is a high priority foreign policy objective for the United States. AQAP formed when members of the Saudi branch of Al Qaeda, decimated by government crackdowns, fled to Yemen, where they merged with the local Qaeda branch that then-President Saaleh, ostensibly an ally in the “war on terror” but in practice keen to use the militants as a counterweight to communist influences in Yemen’s south, had for decades allowed to thrive. As a result of the ongoing civil war, the US interest of confronting AQAP has been essentially abandoned. While drone strikes (which are anyway problematic, immoral, and ineffective) continue, the terrorist group is thriving as a result of the conflict. As journalist and Al Qaeda expert Gregory Johnsen wrote in January, “Prior to the Saudi-led bombing campaign, AQAP appeared to be in trouble. This is no longer the case. The group is acquiring more territory and, once again, is growing.”

According to Hunter College Professor Jillian Schwedler, the Saudi-led coalition intentionally avoids bombing AQAP-controlled areas in the hopes that an empowered AQAP will be useful in the fight against the Shi’a Houthis. The recent Saudi-backed operation to retake Mukallah, while its significance should not be underestimated, came only after Senator Murphy’s resolution was introduced and US experts began to more publicly question American backing for the war. Meanwhile, the power vacuum created by the war has allowed AQAP to gobble up land, and even Daesh has gained a foothold in the country. Moreover, according to Professor Schwedler, “Animosity toward Saudi Arabia and the United States has grown, and that can only feed into Al Qaeda’s narrative.” Al Qaeda, which presents itself as an anti-imperial and anti-“Western” group, is able to use not only the Saudi-led bombardments in general, but also specifically US support for those bombardments, to strengthen its position, attract members, and form new alliances. Even after the war, Mr. Picard predicted that, “without a stable and functional state in Yemen, the US will have a very hard time waging any kind of effective counterterrorism effort.” Saudi and American involvement in Yemen has undercut the key US policy objective of fighting terrorist groups within the country. Senator Murphy’s resolution may be the first step in crafting an effective policy against such groups.

In this war, however, American policymakers are focused less on AQAP or Daesh than on Iran, and on the threat of Iranian expansionism to American interests both in Yemen and across the region. Many Members of Congress will bring up Iran as a counter-point to Senator Murphy’s resolution. They will be right to note the threat of Iranian influence — it is very real and very dangerous — but they will be wrong to oppose the resolution, because the Iranian threat cannot be addressed by supporting the Saudi-led coalition. Unlike Iranian proxies such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist faction and the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Houthis are an independent group. “They’re very proud and don’t want anyone telling them what to do,” Professor Schwedler said, but she also warned that, “The Iranians are the only friends the Houthis have” and that, “The Saudi war on them is only cementing that relationship.” The Houthis are inclined to fight this war domestically, but the involvement of the United States and its allies has forced the Houthis to seek an ally in Iran, in effect inviting Iranian influence into Yemen.

Rather than keeping Iranian influence out of Yemen, the Saudi war effort, with American support, has inadvertently brought Iranian influence in.

In an interview on the “Brookings Cafeteria” podcast, Director of the Brookings Institute Intelligence Project Bruce Riedel said he was concerned that the Houthi movement was becoming “increasingly radicalized.” “Before the war they flirted with the Iranians,” he said. “I think when this war is over, they’re going to be fully partners with the Iranians.” While the Houthis do receive weapons, money, and training from Iran, and have for years, they have not always been as beholden to the Islamic Republic as they are today. Rather than keeping Iranian influence out of Yemen, the Saudi war effort, with American support, has inadvertently brought Iranian influence in. Any Member of Congress who is truly concerned about Iran, then, must support Senator Murphy’s resolution to halt this dangerous trend.

It might also be argued that the United States has an obligation to stand by its Saudi ally, even when the Kingdom pursues policies that are antithetical to US interests. Such a claim fails to take into account the nuances of the US-Saudi relationship. King Salmaan bin ‘Abdul’aziz ascended the throne barely a year ago, and he and his brazen son, Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salmaan, are still testing their boundaries in the region. American policymakers must decide what kind of a message they want to send King Salmaan at the beginning of his reign. “The tendency has been to try to appease the Saudis, let them do what they want to do in Yemen, because we need them in other places,” Mr. Riedel said in his Brookings Cafeteria interview. “That’s a mistake.”

Indeed, how useful could Saudi Arabia be as an ally if its leaders do not feel beholden to the US? If the United States lets Saudi Arabia get away with such a brutal military campaign and with such flagrant disregard for American interests such as the battle against AQAP, why would the Kingdom abide by American requests regarding its activities in Syria, or, for that matter, the oil industry? Increasingly, American demands of, and threats against, the Saudis have, in Professor Schwedler’s words, “no substance.” American support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, then, does not make the US-Saudi relationship stronger, but rather more lopsided, demonstrating to King Salmaan and the increasingly powerful Prince Mohammad bin Salmaan that America will support them whether or not they promote American interests.

Prince Mohammad bin Salmaan - Mazen Al Darrab

Moreover, the ongoing war plays importantly into Saudi royal family dynamics. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salmaan, who is the architect of the war, is vying for power with the more moderate (and more vehemently anti-AQAP) Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naayef. American conditions on aid to the Saudi campaign would bolster Prince Mohammad bin Naayef’s position, helping to pave the way for a more moderate Saudi foreign policy in the future. An aggressive Saudi Arabia is hugely disruptive to American efforts to balance different actors in an increasingly complex region.

According to Mr. Picard, “America’s position in this war will seriously damage its long-term interests in the region.” Certainly, America’s virtually unconditional support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is bad policy, not only morally and legally but also strategically. AQAP and even Daesh have benefited tremendously from the power vacuum created by the war and from increased resentment toward the United States. The massive and indiscriminate intervention has driven the Houthis toward Iran, even though they would prefer to fight without external backing. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has gained leverage in its relationship with the United States as King Salmaan and Prince Mohammad bin Salmaan find themselves unpunished for ignoring American interests. Without such enormous American backing, the Saudi-led coalition would have to seriously scale back its campaign, and possibly even terminate it. If American leaders want to protect US interests in Yemen and in the region more broadly, they will call into question support for the coalition and will consider playing a more productive role in bringing all parties to the negotiating table and seeking a peaceable resolution to the conflict. For Members of Congress, the first step is supporting Senator Murphy’s resolution.

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