Denouncing rivals is easy. The true challenge is critiquing a friend.
While the larger enemy in the ongoing Yemeni civil war is certainly Iran and its proxies, the air campaign of the Saudi-led coalition has been devastating in its own right. American allies, as members of the predominantly Sunni Arab coalition, have killed scores of civilians since the war began. The United States has both the ability and a responsibility to substantially limit such atrocities by pressuring its partners into taking precautions to minimize the civilian toll.
The civil war began last year, when the Iran-backed Houthi militia occupied Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a. Yemen’s former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in 2012 in a popular revolution after decades of corrupt rule, backs the insurgency. The internationally recognized government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, which replaced the Saleh regime but which the Houthis have since hurled into exile, is supported by volunteer resistance fighters and by the Saudi-led coalition.
While the coalition’s objectives, to return Hadi to power and restore Yemeni stability, are legitimate, its tactics are often brutal. Saudi Arabia has not valued human life in this conflict. The United States, as an involved power with influence over the coalition, can and should pressure Saudi Arabia into taking precautions that will minimize the cost in human life and civilian infrastructure during this painful war.
The Saudi-led coalition is not taking sufficient measures to protect Yemeni civilians during its air raids.
In May, Amnesty International condemned Saudi Arabia for this, citing “international humanitarian law” and saying that all parties are legally obligated to take civilian suffering into account and seek to minimize it. The Saudi government has failed to do that.
Amnesty was not alone in accusing the Saudi-led coalition of such violations. Human Rights Watch had similar concerns, and focused specifically on United States-supplied cluster bombs. While those bombs are designed for use against armored vehicles, they sometimes fail to detonate and instead sit dormant until triggered by an unwitting civilian. The organization’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, Joe Stork, also called out the coalition for launching air strikes against “heavily populated areas,” causing casualties among women and children.
A blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations discussed some particularly harrowing incidents. On March 31, a coalition air strike on a dairy factory killed 31 civilians, and 76 died in twin strikes on marketplaces in two separate provinces on July 6.
On July 24, coalition airstrikes killed more than 60 civilians in the port city of Mokha.
There are steps that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners could be taking to minimize this damage, as demonstrated by another regional ally of the United States: Israel. Every few years, the Jewish State finds itself at war with Iran’s proxy groups on its southern border – Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Unlike Saudi Arabia, however, Israel uses carefully targeted missiles and goes to extraordinary pains to avoid civilian casualties, dropping Arabic-language leaflets and making phone calls to warn residents of targeted buildings before carrying out strikes.
Already, more people have died in this civil war alone than in the three major Israel-Hamas conflicts in Gaza combined. If Saudi Arabia were to take similar precautions to Israel’s, the civilian death toll could be much lower. That American allies are choosing not to employ those tactics in Yemen is morally reprehensible.
In addition to the moral imperative of preventing civilian casualties, there is also a strategic risk to the United States in alienating the Yemeni population. Saudi Arabia’s callous choice of targets forms the basis of the anti-American narrative in the Middle East’s most impoverished country. In the words of Houthi leader Abdel Malik Al-Houthi:
The Americans determine targeting of every child, residential compound, house, home, shop, market, or mosque targeted in this country … Therefore, the Saudi regime is a soldier and servant of the Americans.
Although Al-Houthi’s assessment is exaggerated, it contains more than a kernel of truth in that the United States does facilitate Saudi military operations, even those that lead to arbitrary civilian deaths. The American failure to intervene on the behalf of Yemen’s citizens, then, strengthens the Houthi narrative.
Hassan Nasrallah, who heads Iran’s Lebanese proxy terror army, Hezbollah, made a similar point in April when he publicly condemned, “Saudi-American aggression against Yemen and its people.” While a more responsible American role in the civil war would unlikely stop figures like Nasrallah from making such accusations, it would certainly undermine their credibility.
Yemen’s Houthi-controlled state media outlet Saba has an entire section on “Saudi Aggression on Yemen,” and Iran’s state media outlet, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), frequently publishes articles on the topic as well. One such article paraphrased Iranian Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaei as saying that, “The cruel assault of the Saudis on Yemen is taking place to maintain interests of the Zionists and the US.” Another article, about an Iranian student protest against the Saudi-led intervention, suggested that, “The House of Saud is pursuing policies of the US and those of the Zionist regime in provoking division among the Muslim world.”
American support for, and facilitation of, Saudi bombardments that result in many civilian deaths partially legitimize Iran’s and the Houthis’ statements, motivating anti-American sentiments. Yemeni Civil Servant Hisham al-Jawfi, quoted in The Telegraph, articulated a very rational position held by many in his country: “I support the airstrikes if they target only the Houthis’ forces, but I am against them if they target … civilians.”
Concerns that the actions of America’s allies may negatively affect the way that the United States is perceived have historical precedent within the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. America’s reputation has been tarnished before by its support for brutal and unpopular actors in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and even Yemen itself.
In Iran, the United States invested for decades in the regime of the autocratic Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) brought him to power in 1953 by overthrowing the popular, democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in a coup that created a special Iranian political culture of distrust for the United States. By the time various parties, weary of Pahlavi’s despotic leadership and of the climate of fear he created through his Savak secret police force (also built with CIA assistance), revolted in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was able to dominate the political scene by capitalizing on widely felt resentment toward the United States. American support for a brutal ally was enough to generate the anti-American feelings that led to the ascendancy of today’s Islamic Republic.
American foreign policy strategists made a similar mistake in central Asia, particularly Afghanistan, in the 1980s. The Reagan administration reignited a militant interpretation of Islam that had been dead for centuries in its effort to generate an effective proxy force against the Soviet Union, and, in doing so, created a radical movement that ravaged Afghanistan and neighboring countries. The devastation of central Asia at the hands of United States-backed terror groups and their ideological descendants has bred a widespread cynical view of American influence, yet another example of America’s image suffering due to the brutality of its allies.
More recently, the United States earned the ire of many Yemeni Arab Spring protesters by hesitating to condemn Saleh, its then ally, who had long been a vicious dictator. Saleh had cooperated with American forces in their battle against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but had also been endlessly corrupt, repressive, and self-interested (this is the same Saleh who was ousted in 2012 by a popular revolution and is now supporting the Houthi insurgency in an effort to reclaim his former position of power). In April 2011, the New York Times reported on feelings of anger and betrayal among student protesters in Sana’a at America’s hesitation to abandon Saleh. The United States has a history even within Yemen itself of generating resentment by backing an oppressive ally.
The United States has a long history of supporting brutal and oppressive forces, and its image has often suffered as a result of that practice. America risks generating the same resentment among Yemenis today. The Houthis’ anti-American narrative, rooted in legitimate concerns about civilian casualties of coalition attacks, has precedent in Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, and should be a source of concern for American policymakers.
American policy makers should recognize not only that there is a clear moral imperative and strategic value in ending Saudi Arabia’s and its coalition partners’ arbitrary bombardments of civilian areas, but also that the United States is uniquely positioned to take action. In a report in April, the Congressional Research Service’s Christopher M. Blanchard described coalition airstrikes as “Saudi-led” and “U.S. facilitated,” clarifying that the United States is charged with vetting Saudi-chosen targets. Moreover, Saudi Arabia makes those choices based on intelligence provided by the United States – live feeds from drones allow Saudi decision makers to assess their options. The American military has also provided the means for Saudi warplanes to refuel in flight.
In these ways, the United States is directly involved in the coalition’s military operation. American forces have not only failed to step in, but have also actively participated in the ruthless intervention. This gives American politicians leverage that they often do not have with their Middle Eastern allies – they can condition aspects of their support on more responsible Saudi policies, and can order the American military to refuse to provide the intelligence that the Saudi military requires to carry out its air campaign except when it is clear that all targets are legitimate. American officials need not (and must not) stand by; they have concrete options for action.
Moreover, aside from coercing Saudi Arabia by threatening to withdraw military support, American officials can make a persuasive case to the Saudi government in terms of the Saudis’ own interests. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen because its government was afraid of the strategic threat that an Iran-backed Houthi state would pose to the kingdom’s south, particularly as it is already concerned about the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the north. Saudi Arabia has been deeply involved in Yemeni internal affairs for decades in its effort to keep that border secure. Those concerns give Saudi Arabia a similar interest to that of the United States in maintaining a positive image among Yemeni citizens, and Saudi officials therefore may be open to American suggestions of ways to improve their reputation.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in Yemen’s perpetually floundering economy. Saudi money has paid for Yemen’s security, education, health care, and other functions of government for years. Bombardments of civilian areas, therefore, destroy infrastructure that was built on the Saudi dime, and contribute to the utter collapse of an economy that Saudi analysts have long regarded as a high priority. Because Saudi Arabia clearly has an interest in a strong Yemeni economy, Saudi officials would likely be receptive to strategic reforms that could better facilitate an economic revival after the ongoing civil war is over.
The United States is well positioned to both compel Saudi compliance and convince Saudi authorities that it is in their own interest to take greater care for civilians.
The United States should, for both moral and strategic reasons, pressure Saudi Arabia and the coalition it leads into taking precautions to minimize civilian casualties throughout the military campaign in Yemen. The cost in civilian lives and infrastructure to this point has been atrocious, and has run counter to both American and Saudi interests.
As Israel has demonstrated during past wars between its military and Iran’s proxy groups in the Gaza Strip, effective airstrikes can be carried out along with a deliberate effort to avoid civilian casualties. Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have not taken similar measures, but should do so on moral grounds and in order to avoid the ire of the Yemeni people toward themselves and their American backers. The United States, which is directly involved in the military operation and which can make a compelling case to Saudi officials, is well positioned to bring about this change.
While the American government is uniquely positioned to step in against Saudi atrocities, it should also be noted that irresponsible American policies have endangered Yemeni civilians in other ways as well. The recently signed nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia), for example, releases billions of dollars to the Iranian government and eases restrictions on military activities in ways that will empower the Islamic Republic to redouble its efforts, strengthening the Houthi militia that began the civil war and resulting in much suffering. The Houthis are both a terrorist organization and an Iranian imperial army. They are the most serious threat to Yemeni wellbeing of any involved party. In order to truly earn the respect and support of the Yemeni people, therefore, America must take their needs into account when dealing with Iran as well.
If the United States is to establish a positive image for itself in the Middle East, it will have to begin placing a far greater emphasis on civilian life than it has to date. Given the significant level of American involvement in the Saudi-led military campaign and in negotiations with Iran, Yemen is a good place to start.