President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia concerned a variety of issues centered on strengthening the strategic U.S.-Saudi partnership and containing their shared rivals in Tehran. While the ongoing war in neighboring Yemen certainly came up, it is unlikely that any meaningful discussion on the humanitarian aspects of the conflict took place. In fact, President Trump announced a massive $110 billion arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which actually represents a softening of the US position on the Saudi-led coalition’s role in Yemen’s humanitarian disaster.
Despite the urgency of the Yemeni crisis, which may at any time take a turn for the worse with the imminent Saudi attack upon the port of Hodeida, the conflict in Syria has occupied U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Comparing and contrasting U.S. involvement in Syria and Yemen not only highlights the duplicity of U.S. foreign policy in the region, but also undermines the ostensible humanitarian justifications for U.S. engagement in Syria
On April 6, citing humanitarian concerns after chemical attacks allegedly carried out by the Assad regime killed dozens of civilians, the Trump administration bombed the al-Shayrat airbase in western Syria. “I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me – big impact,” Trump told reporters in the rose garden. “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” But the U.S. response did not end the suffering of millions of Syrians, nor did it alter the conflict in any significant aspect. What it did alter was the perception that the Trump administration is too close to Russia and President Putin at a time when congressional investigations into the Trump campaign and administration’s ties to Russia were dominating the news cycle.
The hypocrisy of the Trump administration’s claims of a humanitarian basis for taking action against the Assad regime becomes even more evident when one looks at Yemen. Trapped in a three-year civil war between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Houthi rebels, 19 million people are in need of emergency assistance in a country of only 26 million. Considering the situation has been described by the United Nations as “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” why has this not had a “big impact” on President Trump the same way as the crisis in Syria?
So far, the U.S. military has engaged in strikes against groups linked to terrorist organizations and provided military intelligence to Saudi forces, but the crisis persists unmitigated. The largest U.S. contribution to the conflict has been the supply of billions of dollars of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, whose offensive, many international organizations agree, has both caused and exacerbated civilian suffering. The massive arms deal Trump recently announced in Saudi Arabia suggests that the U.S. position has not been swayed by humanitarian concerns, and actually emboldens the kingdom’s actions.
Furthermore, the situation in Yemen is expected to get worse. The Saudi-led coalition is reportedly planning an attack on Hodeida, the entry point for about 80 percent of all humanitarian assistance into Yemen. Despite procedures in place to inspect incoming shipments, the Yemeni government believes that Iran is using the port to supply weapons to Houthi rebels. If the Saudis go through with their plan, international organizations warn that the consequences will be catastrophic: an attack on Hodeida is likely to cause widespread starvation, displacement, and death in a population where 7.7 million people are already food insecure.
The United States must not participate in such devastation. To the contrary, it must do everything in its power to prevent Saudi Arabia’s ongoing bludgeoning of Yemen. Yet, dissuading the Saudis of their plans may not be a realistic option for the United States since it will not want to abandon its long-term, strategic ally in the region. So long as the conventional wisdom in the United States remains that countering Iran’s influence in the region through military aid to the Saudis is paramount, the U.S. government will likely continue its willfully blind support of Saudi actions in Yemen and beyond.
Though the U.S. government may have a valid interest in limiting Iran’s influence in the region, remaining silent on the brink of a devastating attack will delegitimize the underpinnings of its engagements in the Middle East, including its most recent intervention in Syria. Further U.S. inaction in Yemen will expose the baselessness of its humanitarian justifications in Syria. More importantly, it will cause the United States to be an accomplice in cutting off the food supply for a nation desperately in need of humanitarian assistance
Merve Demirel is the International Law & Governance Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She earned her JD from American University in 2012. Merve has a background in foreign policy and international law.