On the way to this week’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was asked what the Trump administration would do to bolster its ally in the war in Yemen.
His answer was surprising.
Instead of touting new military measures, as might have been expected, Mattis stated that “in regards to the Saudi and Emirati campaign in Yemen, our goal, ladies and gentleman, is for that crisis down there, that ongoing fight, be put in front of a U.N.-brokered negotiating team and try to resolve this politically as soon as possible.”
Mattis has the right goal. The war in Yemen has sparked one of the greatest humanitarian emergencies in the world, with famine a real possibility if there isn’t a ceasefire that allows large-scale aid shipments to be brought into the country soon.
And a bad situation will get worse if the Saudi-led coalition, led on the ground by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), proceeds with plans to attempt to take the port of Hodeidah from the Houthi-led forces that currently control it.
A prolonged battle for the port could end up blocking food shipments that are urgently needed to stave off famine for millions of Yemenis, and the preventable deaths that will result.
Unfortunately, according to a new report from the Associated Press, the Trump Administration’s strategy for getting the two sides in Yemen’s civil war back to the negotiating table is to increase U.S military aid to the Saudi-backed coalition that has been fighting an alliance of convenience between Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But the U.S. is already providing crucial aid to the Saudi-led effort, including the sale and maintenance of planes, bombs, ammunition, tanks and other weaponry being used in the conflict, plus refueling of Saudi aircraft that have killed thousands of civilians in indiscriminate bombing attacks. These actions led Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) to state that by supporting the Saudi bombing effort, the U.S. “is aiding and abetting what appears to be war crimes in Yemen.”
Congress has expressed growing concern about the direction of the Trump administration’s policy in Yemen.
Earlier this month Rep. Lieu organized and sent a bipartisan letter to the White House calling on the administration to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is taking strong measures to avoid civilian casualties before approving a sale of precision-guided munitions that had been suspended at the end of the Obama administration.
Fifty members of the House joined Representatives Mark PocanMark PocanDems unveil bill targeting LGBT harassment on college campuses US pressure on Saudis can help promote peace in Yemen Lawmakers tell Trump to get approval for military action in Yemen MORE (D-Wisc.), Justin AmashJustin AmashThe Hill's Whip List: 21 GOP no votes on new ObamaCare replacement bill Oversight Dems want vote on Trump tax return bill Greens take climate fight to GOP town halls MORE (R-Mich), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) in demanding that the Trump administration come to Congress for approval before escalating the war in Yemen through actions like supporting a Saudi-Emirati attack on the port at Hodeida.
As Rep. Pocan has pointed out, “Such an attack could push the country into full-blown famine, where nearly half a million children in Yemen are facing starvation.”
Given the devastating, counterproductive results of the Saudi bombings and a potential attack on Hodeidah, why would the Trump administration double down on military support for the Saudi-led coalition in the name of peace in Yemen?
According to the New York Times, it is because “American officials . . . said both sides would be more likely to compromise after one more round of bombing.” In fact, more bombing will lead to more unnecessary casualties, making a settlement of the conflict even more difficult than it is already.
The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, underscored this point in an address to the U.N. Security Council late last month when he noted that "further military escalation and humanitarian suffering will not bring the parties closer together."
Instead of increasing military support for Saudi Arabia at this critical moment in the Yemen war, when a war-induced famine threatens millions of people with starvation, the Trump administration should use its considerable leverage with Saudi Arabia to press for an end to its bombing campaign and a ceasefire that will clear the way for unhindered deliveries of humanitarian aid.
The Houthi alliance can likely be brought to the table through a ceasefire that leads to peace talks without preconditions aimed at some sort of power sharing arrangement. The details may take time to work out, but the time to restart the peace process is now. Increasing military aid to Saudi Arabia will only make it harder to achieve this urgent objective.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. You can find him on Twitter: @WilliamHartung.
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