dAs the Obama administration debates internally whether to move towards more militarily engagement against the Syrian regime in order to pressure it to cease committing atrocities on its own people, Americans are largely overlooking a war that already has active U.S. involvement: the civil war in Yemen.
For most Americans, active U.S. military engagement often means American combat aircraft bombing or strafing the enemy’s positions or U.S. ground forces going door to door to search for high-value targets or clear insurgents from neighborhoods. This is very much the kind of war the U.S. has been fighting over the past fifteen years: conducting airstrikes on Saddam Hussein’s military chain-of-command, dropping the Green Berets into northern Afghanistan and helping anti-Taliban militias take territory, and engaging in counterinsurgency operations to route out Al-Qaeda and sectarian Shia militias from Baghdad.
But just because American pilots aren’t bombing or American soldiers aren’t on the ground shooting doesn’t mean the U.S. cannot be at war in other ways.
In Yemen, where Washington is providing valuable military and intelligence assistance to the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis and soldiers loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. military is a hidden protagonist in an armed conflict largely pitting Yemenis against one other. The mid-air refueling of Saudi and Emirati jets, the billions of dollars in aircraft, tank, and munition sales to Riyadh, and the satellite coverage of the country — all to the benefit of the Saudis and their coalition partners — effectively makes the U.S. a party to an internal civil war that is tearing that nation apart. According to the Pentagon, at the U.S. Air Force has conducted at least 1,000 mid-air refueling missions offloading tens of millions of pounds in fuel to Saudi aircraft doing most of the bombing. The U.S., in other words, is enabling a civil war that isn’t a national security threat to the United States nor particularly constructive for the campaign against Al-Qaeda.
The United States is indirectly assisting the Saudi war effort in Yemen in other ways as well. Diplomacy, Washington — often in partnership with London — have blocked Security Council resolutions or Human Rights Council resolutions that would coerce Riyadh into accepting some degree of culpability for civilian casualties. With backing from the United States, a resolution in the Human Rights Council last year that would have established an independent commission of inquiry on all of the war’s human rights abuses was squashed. This year, the U.S. and British provided the Saudis with a similar degree of diplomatic support; an independent inquiry was once again watered down in favor of U.N. technical support to a largely discredited Yemeni national inquiry. With these actions, the U.S. has given Saudi officials comfort in knowing that impartial, independent investigations on civilian casualties will limited and that any strikes on civilian infrastructure won’t result in significant censure.
The fact that the civil war in Yemen has produced so much tragedy in terms of civilian lives lost, health indicators, economic development, and lack of accountability for human rights abuses are further facts that lead one to ask a pivotal question: what purpose does it serve for the U.S. to be involved in a war that generates so much hardship for the civilian population? According to Stephen O’Brian, the U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Yemen is getting closer to the cliff of a full-born humanitarian and human rights abomination, where mothers unable to feed their children and hospitals are increasingly bombed out of service. None of this is good for the security of the region, for the hard work at revitalizing U.N.-mediated negotiations to end the war, or for U.S. national security interests in the Middle East.
If there is any bright light from the Yemen conflict, it will hopefully include U.S. officials questioning their assumptions and reviewing whether unconditional military and diplomatic support to a friend or strategic ally — regardless of that ally’s actions during a time of war — helps improve the health and durability of the alliance or relationship. More likely, it decreases the leverage that America already has.
Dainel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.