by Eric Eikenberry and Will Picard
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing Tuesday morning on US policy in Yemen, the first such hearing in over a year. To help prepare committee members for today’s hearing, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) produced a special report on the situation in Yemen, authored by the CRS’ long-time Yemen specialist, Jeremy Sharp. The report begins with a sober overview of the war in Yemen and a measured assessment of Iran’s limited role as the Houthis’ main foreign supporter, which is a welcome contrast from the rhetoric both the Trump administration and the Saudi-led coalition employ concerning Iran’s involvement. However, the analysis, while couched in the voice of objective expertise for which the CRS is known, has several shortcomings that, perhaps unintentionally, obscure the nature of Yemen’s crisis and the context of increasing congressional dissatisfaction over US participation in the conflict.
First, the report foregrounds concerns over Houthi ballistic missile activity. Those attacks on Saudi Arabia (and potentially the UAE) are certainly dangerous, unjustifiable, and should be condemned. Generally, they also are likely to garner disproportionate attention from US officials, given the government’s overriding concern for the stability of Saudi Arabia and the presence of US citizens in the country. However, this focus does little to explain the conflict on the ground: ballistic missile strikes did not cause the civil war, nor are they accelerating the warring parties’ fragmentation or driving the war profiteering that disincentivizes armed actors from negotiating. This focus also elevates Saudi domestic security concerns over the violence being committed by all parties against Yemeni civilians. While a mention of a recent deadly strike against civilians in Hudaydah is welcome, a greater focus on the war’s frontlines, including the decimation of civilian infrastructure in Sa’dah or the Houthis’ ongoing siege of Ta’iz, would have provided a clearer snapshot of the warring parties’ inexcusable human rights and law of war violations.
The report also, unjustifiably, downplays the civilian casualties resulting from coalition attacks, failing to mention that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has identified the coalition’s airstrikes as the leading cause of civilian casualties. The report helpfully cites the work of the Yemen Data Project in writing that the coalition has conducted 16,000 air raids over the course of the war, but it fails to mention the Project’s more disturbing conclusion, that these raids target non-military sites almost one-third of the time. The report mentions briefly the fact that many members of Congress have opposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia and military support for the coalition, but without stopping to underline these casualties, or to highlight the absolute destruction these attacks have done to much of the country’s infrastructure, the congressional action described makes little sense in the context of the report. This omission gives the reader the false sense that congressional attention to the coalition’s (and, by extension, the United States’) complicity in civilian deaths is arbitrary, rather than well-grounded in concern for three years of ongoing violations.
Similarly, Sharp’s report downplays the coalition’s role in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, only directly apportioning Saudi Arabia responsibility when discussing the full blockade of last November and December. Reading this, a congressional office would get no sense that the coalition has maintained a partial blockade throughout the conflict. While the UN, foreign governments, and humanitarian agencies (as well as concerned members of Congress) have long demanded that the coalition allow access to San’a Airport, the report only mentions the airport once, in the context of indirectly praising Saudi Arabia’s unilateral aid plan (which has been criticized, if not outright rejected, by a number of humanitarian organizations operating in Yemen). Indeed, the report devotes more space to the Saudi humanitarian response than it does to the humanitarian crisis as a whole. The section titled “Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen” is just a brief regurgitation of UN humanitarian statistics with no analysis of how these figures came to be, followed by an overview of international pledges to the UN humanitarian appeal, highlighting in particular the donations of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States.
The report has a section on US foreign aid to Yemen, but fails to mention the tens of millions of dollars in security assistance the US gave to the transitional government, or the $500 million worth of weapons gifted to the Yemeni central government that the US “lost track of” in 2015. The US security partnership, first with the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and then with the transitional government, should be meticulously scrutinized and heavily criticized for the ways it contributed to Yemen’s pre-war instability, not swept under the rug. Meanwhile, the section on US counterterrorism in Yemen under Trump doesn’t mention the escalating civilian casualties resulting from ground raids and the increased tempo of poorly-planned drone strikes.
In its final paragraphs, the report presents US involvement in Yemen’s civil war as an unfortunate situation for which the US has “few good choices.” In discussing the difficulties facing the peace process, Sharp seems to acknowledge the limitations of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (which established unrealistic preconditions for negotiations), before warning that negotiating outside of its framework is a “risk”that will “alienate” the coalition “while also boosting Iranian legitimacy” (without explaining what this latter claim means). The report appears to endorse the current US non-strategy of “balanc[ing] national security interests with concern for the humanitarian dimensions of Yemen’s conflict.” Though it may not have been its intended effect, the report ends up presenting the status quo as the least worst option, understating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in order to do so.
In contrast to the CRS report, today’s SFRC hearing itself showed that some senators do not view the status quo as acceptable, and are particularly concerned by an intervention backed by US weapons, fuel, and intelligence support. Most of the questions, from Republican and Democratic members alike, focused on the rising civilian death toll from coalition airstrikes, and the coalition’s responsibility for the humanitarian crisis. The witnesses — Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield, Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Karem, and Deputy Assistant Administrator Robert Jenkins of USAID — generally stuck to well-worn talking points: US assistance and arms sales are preventing much worse behavior by the coalition, and if the United States doesn’t continue to support coalition efforts, Saudi Arabia will buy bombs from Russia, which doesn’t care at all about civilians; the coalition’s targeting practices are improving, thanks to US guidance; the Houthis and Iran pose an existential threat to America’s allies, who have a right to defend themselves. Several committee members poked holes in each of these arguments, and in doing so exhibited a level of frustration and incredulity that one rarely sees in hearings on military policy.
Senators Paul, Menendez, and Cardin all questioned why the administration continues to claim — without providing any evidence — that US support is improving the coalition’s targeting performance and civilian protection. In response, Mr. Karem first tried to obfuscate, then appeared to concede that there is no quantitative evidence of improvement, before finally claiming that evidence does exist, but it’s classified. Senator Young went a step further, essentially calling for the conditioning of US military assistance on certain clear concessions from the coalition. Young focused in particular on the threat of a coalition offensive against the port of Hudaydah, which would severely exacerbate the humanitarian disaster. Mr. Satterfield assured the committee that the administration has “made clear” to the Saudi and UAE governments that such an offensive would be unacceptable, but admitted (if not in so many words) that the US had not gone so far as to threaten to cut off assistance. Their responses summed up one of the core problems with the US position: the administration says it has to keep supporting the coalition in order to exert influence, but also that the coalition will go elsewhere for its arms if the US tries to exert too much influence.
Will Picard is Executive Director of the Yemen Peace Project. Eric Eikenberry is Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Yemen Peace Project. Republished, with permission, from the Yemen Peace Project.