The House of Representatives narrowly approved two amendments on September 23 that if included in the final version of the annual defense authorization bill, would prohibit US logistical support, including maintenance or transferring spare parts, to Saudi aircraft engaged in the war in Yemen. Rather than decreasing violence in Yemen, this one-sided approach will engender more human suffering and encourage intransigence on the part of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The Yemeni civil war started in late 2014, when the Houthis marched on the country’s capital, Sanaa, forcing the head of Yemen’s recognized government, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to flee. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia, with US approval, intervened at the head of a coalition including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, with the aim of reinstating Hadi’s government. The war has helped produce one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises, with roughly half the population requiring aid, according to the United Nations. Civilian casualties have numbered in the tens of thousands and have rightfully drawn intense criticism and action from the international community.
For Iran, the conflict represents an opportunity to pressure Saudi Arabia. Tehran has armed the Houthis since at least 2009 and significantly increased its support in 2015. Small arms, anti-tank missiles, anti-ship missiles, drones, and ballistic missiles flow from Iran to Yemen. The Houthis have employed longer-ranged weaponry to bombard Saudi cities as well as to attack commercial and military vessels and oil installations. The rebels have used Iranian-provided small arms to kill civilians and arm child soldiers. Tehran, meanwhile, hopes that perpetuating the conflict will allow Iran to create a Hezbollah-style proxy that can threaten Saudi Arabia and project power into the Red Sea. The threat of such a group forming on Saudi Arabia’s borders is why Riyadh has been unable to make peace.
Iranian support for the Houthis complicates efforts to end the conflict, as shown by events earlier this year. After Washington terminated support for Saudi offensive operations, suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, delisted the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and appointed a special envoy for Yemen, Saudi Arabia proposed a peace deal on March 22 that allowed humanitarian supplies to reach Yemen by air and sea. Yet the Houthis responded by dismissing the Saudi proposal as “nothing new,” refusing to take part in negotiations, and firing a barrage of missiles at Saudi Arabia days later. To strengthen their bargaining position, the Houthis also escalated their attack on Marib, a strategically important city housing approximately 1 million refugees. In other words, the Houthis dismissed the peace offer out of hand despite Saudi concessions and intensified the conflict to signal their resolve.
Congressional efforts to double down on this one-sided approach will yield the same results, as they fail to recognize that the Houthis’ main objective is to rule all of Yemen. There is no reason for the Houthis to compromise if Washington condemns only Riyadh while Tehran continues to arm the rebels. Case in point, while the House was debating its two amendments, the Houthis continued their attempt to capture Marib, a battle that has already killed thousands.
Ending logistical support for the Saudis could also incentivize Riyadh to buy even more weapons from US adversaries such as Russia and China, which do not take into account humanitarian concerns when selling arms. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have bought Chinese Wing Loong II drones, which they already use to conduct strikes in Yemen. Russia has sold fighter jets to Egypt and would likely seize the opportunity to expand sales to the Gulf. If Chinese and Russian sales displace US arms, there will be less oversight regarding civilian casualties, not to mention the benefits for those country’s respective defense industries.
Controversial as coalition strikes have sometimes been, it is myopic to demand accountability from only one side, given the Houthis’ intransigence and attacks on Saudi civilian targets, not to mention the gruesome torture in Houthi prisons. Severely damaging the US-Saudi relationship is a disproportionate and counter-productive response that will not end the war but will undermine US efforts to stop Iranian aggression across the region.
Finding a solution to the war in Yemen is imperative given the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, for which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do deserve criticism. However, punishing Riyadh while ignoring Houthi misconduct will not end the conflict; it will only embolden the Houthis and decrease US leverage with the Saudis over the long-term. Iran’s weapons fuel the conflict, and as long as the Houthis receive external support, they will continue fighting. A more effective strategy would focus on disrupting the flow of Iranian arms to the Houthis as well as providing positive incentives for both sides to cease hostilities. Ending support for Saudi Arabia is intended to ameliorate the humanitarian situation in Yemen, but will only intensify the very harms it seeks to redress, since it takes two sides to make peace.