Opinion guest column

The Yemeni war and its implications for the U.S.

How an American multifaceted approach has both failed and created hope, and how the Khashoggi killing presents a grave complication to the war in Yemen

In the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi assassination, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution on Dec. 13 dictating that the U.S. should withdraw its support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. On Feb. 13, the House of Representatives voted to directly restrict aid to Saudi Arabia in the conflict with Yemen. This includes limiting the presence of U.S. forces and halting the sale of arms to the Saudis, coming in opposition to President Trump’s historical policy towards the conflict some call the largest humanitarian crisis on earth.

Here at MIT, we understand the tension of U.S.-Saudi relations. Numerous research projects on campus have Saudi sponsors, with participants hopeful that Saudi Arabia was developing a more progressive society — only to become largely disenchanted following Khashoggi's demise. For us, the outcome of this battle will reverberate in our community just as it will across the globe.

The recommendations made by Congress are not ultimately out of place. Their premise is to limit the devastation occurring in Yemen and to rebuke the actions of the Saudi Arabian crown prince; however, they will soon find that these goals may unfortunately act in opposition to one another. History has taught us about the dangers of power vacuums, and the reproachful actions of Saudi Arabia challenge the U.S. to rebalance its alliance with the kingdom. With important stakeholders looming over the warzone in Yemen, the U.S. cannot afford the loss of strategic allies.

History of the war

After the Yemeni revolution of 2011, Zaidi Islamic militants of the Houthi insurgency besieged the capital of Sana’a in September 2014. Following the fall of military bases north of the port city of Aden, the Saudi government launched an intervention in March 2015 to curtail the advance of the Houthi insurgents throughout Yemen and restore the government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The U.S. actively supplies the Saudi forces with weapons which, in turn, are used in the Saudi strikes against their opposition in Yemen, with a total in arms deliveries of nearly $18 billion at the end of 2017. The United Nations alleges that Iran is the primary supplier of weapons to the Houthis given the models of weapons discovered in Yemen, and Iranian proxies have demonstrated support for the Houthi movement through technical assistance in weapons procurement.

The U.S. has a strong interest in maintaining stability in Saudi Arabia, as the country has been a historical ally and one of the only Middle Eastern nations willing to negotiate with the U.S.; however, the recent killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi presents a profound complication to policy-making towards Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

A human rights crisis has arisen in Yemen as a result of the war, with civilians being routinely killed by coalition forces on both sides and those displaced suffering starvation and death.

The conflict is a multifaceted one — contending with both the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the obscure future of U.S.-Saudi relations — so, too, must be the American response to this policy reconfiguration.

Role of the United States

There was a time when the U.S. could more easily balance the repercussions of the damage of war in two primary ways: revising the sale of arms to the Saudis and their role in the conflict or reconfiguring U.S. troops as well as preventing attacks on populated locations in Yemen. With the recent congressional decisions, the U.S. will be pushed to pursue some measure of all options with little left to balance.

While the legislation presents hope for reducing the amount of blood on American hands in Yemen, ceasing to arm the Saudis will not necessarily avert the humanitarian crisis. Allied Emirati forces employ Colombian mercenaries to fight in Yemen as well, meaning that the combat waged by these forces will also arguably result in civilian harm, even if less. Saudi forces are known to leverage the service of Sudanese mercenaries — many of whom are only children — as well, meaning that the void left from U.S. arms sales could be filled by an increased use of foreign fighters.  

However, to curtail American complicity in the horrors of strikes harming the Yemeni people and rebel against the actions undertaken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the U.S. should significantly reduce the quantity of arms it sells to Saudi Arabia. Although potentially weakening the counterinsurgent coalition, this demonstrably decreases outward U.S. support for the Saudi government and presents hope for limiting the suffering experienced in Yemen.

However, drone strikes coming directly from the U.S. serve as an action not corrupted by influence from external parties such as the Saudis and therefore maintain explicit American initiative instead of that from proxies. If the U.S. ceases all drone strikes, then the protective force in the Arabian Peninsula will be weakened, enabling the insurgent threat to proliferate and the Houthi and Iranian influence to spread throughout the peninsula if left unchecked. If Iranian influence develops in the Arabian Peninsula, then the strength of U.S. allies will be compromised, making complete withdrawal a poor choice.

While the missile strikes by Saudi Arabia are damaging to both enemies and civilians in Yemen, drone strikes directly from the U.S. are, while imperfect, more efficient and precise. These have the potential to extinguish more of the Houthi violence as well as continue to prevent its expansion. Simultaneously, the U.S. provided more than $39.7 million in aid to Yemen in FY2017, which the U.S. should increase to continue aiding the nation’s distressed population without changing the mechanics of Saudi relations.

Looking to the future

There is no perfect solution to this conflict, and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi presents possibly the greatest complexity to the ensuing Yemeni war thus far. If the U.S. were to retaliate against the despicable actions of the Saudi government by changing the course of the Yemeni war, then it would risk destabilizing the entire balance of power in the Middle East. Although the Saudi leadership has demonstrated a heavy degree of worrisome corruption in recent times, the U.S. should not ignore its significance as a crucial strategic ally during a time where the scars of Middle Eastern war continue to haunt nearly every corner of its geopolitical territory.

In such times, necessary compromises are challenging to reach — but no less required. The Trump administration should, in part, pursue the recommendations of the recent Senate resolution. Nevertheless, while curbing the sale of arms to the Saudis, the Trump administration should not remove American troops from Yemen, nor should it stop the drone strikes against Houthi militants so as to maintain a militaristic bulwark against the Houthis. Abandoning support for current allies in the conflict will do more harm than good for U.S. interests — Saudi Arabia’s unscrupulous tendencies should be altered to foster a healthy diplomatic relationship with the U.S.

As battlefield conditions worsen in Yemen, the United Nations hopes to catalyze peace talks between the parties involved. Although diplomatic resolutions have thus far failed to bring peace to Yemen, pursuit of the proper policy should ultimately work in hopes of making a peaceful resolution the final step to successful problem solving in the Arabian peninsula. In a reflection of every conflict transpiring in the Middle East, the Yemeni war’s influence echoes far beyond its borders — especially for the U.S.

Octavio Vega is a member of the MIT Class of 2022 studying systems neuroscience, as well as electrical engineering and computer science.