The Case for U.S. Disengagement in Yemen
Almost nine years ago, the dramatic self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi ignited the Arab Spring. The wave of protests that followed spread across the Middle East and North Africa, bringing chaos and violence that fundamentally transformed the region. In Yemen, what started as successful protests soon devolved into open hostilities between the country’s various factions. Zaidi Shia Houthi rebels, long a thorn in the side of the Yemeni state, seized the initiative and orchestrated an insurgency that by 2015 had successfully swept into the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and took control of the government.
Today, Yemen remains embroiled in this brutal civil war, pitting the Houthis and their allies against forces loyal to the ousted Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Complicating matters is the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who exert significant influence and control in Yemen’s southern provinces. The Houthi takeover in 2015 was met with widespread international opposition with the notable exception of Iran, who is thought by many to be covertly supporting the Houthi cause. Seeking to blunt Iranian influence and mitigate their exposure to spillover violence in its own backyard, Saudi Arabia, with backing by the Gulf Cooperation Council, cobbled together an international coalition of nearly a dozen Middle Eastern and African countries to lead a military intervention in the Yemeni conflict.
In the ensuing years, the conflict has devastated the country and brought about what is often considered to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Saudi-led coalition has been widely denounced for its conduct of the war, with prominent aid groups criticizing the coalition for undermining humanitarian aid efforts and for targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. As the crisis has intensified, the United States, who has provided the Saudi-led coalition with significant military, intelligence, and logistical support, is now facing growing domestic and international pressure to moderate or end involvement in the conflict. In the wake of Saudi Arabia’s apparent murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, this pressure has only intensified.
With the war nearing its fourth year and no obvious end in sight despite multiple rounds of peace talks, the United States must come to a policy consensus on Yemen going forward that can stem the conflict’s mounting humanitarian toll while protecting U.S. interests. The time has come to accept that the dynamic of the U.S.-Saudi alliance has changed, and that U.S. involvement in this war can no longer be justified on strategic grounds..
The decades-long relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is deeply rooted in the countries’ many shared interests and regional goals. From containing and balancing Iranian power, to counterterrorism efforts, to the protection of shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, Saudi Arabia remains a valuable strategic ally of the United States. Nonetheless, the nature of the relationship has evolved in the past decade. As the world’s top energy producer, the United States is no longer as dependent on Saudi control of the oil market as it once was. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on U.S. arms imports and support, especially in the conduct of its military intervention in Yemen. With little domestic arms production to speak of and no other comparable benefactor to turn to, the United States retains significant political leverage over the Saudis.
In Yemen, the United States can and should to exercise this leverage to end U.S. involvement in the conflict by suspending arms sales to the Saudis and scaling back intelligence cooperation not related to counterterrorism efforts. While a decisive military victory on part of the Saudi-led forces was already unlikely, the removal of U.S. support will end any lingering hope for a clear-cut win in Riyadh. Likewise, the reduction in the coalition’s military capacity should not be enough to dramatically turn the tide in favor of Houthi forces either. With careful U.S. diplomacy, the ensuing reality of a prolonged stalemate will help work to increase incentives for both sides to honor a ceasefire and continue stalled U.N.-mediated peace talks in Geneva.
The risk of serious fallout between the United States and Saudi Arabia is low, as are the risks for economic repercussions on the United States. Newfound energy independence and a strong economy insulate the United States from any Saudi retaliation in the oil markets or the effects of shelved arms deals. The interests that bind the two countries together are too salient, and Saudi standing in the international community too diminished in the wake of the Khashoggi Affair, such that a major rupture in the alliance is highly unlikely.
Though there is no guarantee this reorientation in policy will lead to a lasting peace in Yemen, the status quo is not sustainable or acceptable. An enduring ceasefire will allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to reach civilians and ultimately increase the odds that successful confidence-building measures between the two parties might lead to a political resolution.