On Monday, ahead of a visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — the two monarchies leading a ruinous military intervention in Yemen — British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt demanded a cease-fire between their forces and the Iran-backed rebel group, the Houthis, which they are fighting.
“The human cost of war in Yemen is incalculable: With millions displaced, famine and disease rife, and years of bloodshed, the only solution is now a political decision to set aside arms and pursue peace,” Hunt said. His government is pushing for a new Security Council resolution denouncing the war.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Democratic victories in last week’s midterm elections have given more momentum to lawmakers opposed to the Trump administration’s ironclad support for the Saudis. When Democrats take control of the House in January, they probably will ramp up efforts to exercise greater oversight of the intervention, which is backed by American arms and support.
“We must send an unambiguous, immediate, and tangible message that we expect Riyadh to engage in good faith and urgent negotiations to end the civil war,” wrote Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), in a joint statement Friday. “Riyadh must also understand that we will not tolerate the continued indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians and civilian infrastructure that have helped put 14 million Yemenis on the verge of starvation.”
Over the weekend, 30 former senior Obama administration officials circulated a letter calling for President Trump to halt the American role in the conflict. They took responsibility for initiating U.S. support for the war but argued that the situation has deteriorated under Trump, for whom Middle East strategy has revolved largely around confronting Iran and embracing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
“We did not intend U.S. support to the coalition to become a blank check. But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened,” wrote the former officials, including former national security adviser Susan E. Rice and former CIA director John Brennan. “However, rather than learning from that failure, the Trump administration has doubled down on support for the Saudi leadership’s prosecution of the war, while removing restrictions we had put in place. It is past time for America’s role in this disastrous war in Yemen to end.”
The first sign of a concrete shift in policy came on Friday, when it emerged that the administration would stop refueling aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition, which have carried out thousands of sorties over Yemen.
“The U.S. refueling of coalition aircraft has long been controversial because of the large numbers of civilians that have been killed in coalition airstrikes,” my colleagues reported. “Coalition airstrikes have struck hospitals, health clinics, weddings, funerals, factories and other nonmilitary targets. Human rights groups and The Washington Post have observed fragments of U.S.-made munitions at numerous attack sites.”
The administration still provides a great deal of other assistance to the coalition, including intelligence sharing, and is reported to be carrying out its own covert missions in Yemen. Some experts nevertheless viewed the announcement as a sign of the shifting winds in Washington.
“This marks the first time that the United States has taken a concrete measure to rein in the Saudi war effort,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, to my colleagues. “Two administrations have basically given the Saudis a blank check to do whatever they wanted. Now it will be harder for the Saudis to carry out airstrikes deep into Yemeni territory, going after the capital, for instance.”
Others were less convinced. “The U.S. decision to stop refueling coalition aircraft is significant because it implies that the U.S. is trying to distance itself from the devastating impact on civilians of poorly targeted airstrikes,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen scholar at Oxford University, to The Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan. “But it is not a military game changer.”
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