Ending U.S. Military Support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen Would Trigger Dangerous Consequences

In a new resolution, a bipartisan group of senators is calling for the United States to end its involvement—specifically its support of Saudi Arabia—in the Yemen conflict.

The Senate has voted 63-37 to pass a procedural measure that will clear the way for a floor debate on the issue afterwards. The push comes largely in response to the recent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Trump administration has banned 21 Saudi suspects in that murder from entering the U.S., imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials, and expressed its willingness to take further action if warranted by ongoing investigations. Many senators seek to do more to punish the Saudis, even if it means sacrificing the interests of the Yemeni government and making a negotiated settlement of the conflict more difficult.

The killing of Khashoggi was certainly abhorrent, but ending U.S. support for the multinational coalition in Yemen is not the proper solution. It risks dangerously conflating two separate issues and would inevitably trigger unintended consequences that would undermine U.S. national security interests in the region.

Senators must remember that Saudi Arabia is not the only belligerent in Yemen. A cutoff of U.S. support would also hurt the elected and internationally recognized government of Yemen, which was ousted by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in 2015 in a bloody coup that violated a U.N.-brokered ceasefire.

Withdrawing U.S. support would also harm the interests of other U.S. allies fighting in Yemen, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The war in Yemen is complex. Those who rush to blame Saudi Arabia entirely for the suffering of the Yemeni people ignore the war crimes and heavy-handed treatment meted out by the Houthis to their opponents and the ruthless role that Iran plays in supporting the Houthi Ansar Allah (“Supporters of Allah”) movement, a Shia Islamist extremist group.

The Saudis are rightly criticized for not doing more to prevent civilian casualties as they target Ansar Allah positions. But the Houthis should not be given a free pass for deliberately targeting civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with increasingly sophisticated Iranian ballistic missiles.

Ansar Allah also deserves criticism for its violent role in destabilizing Yemen and creating the conditions that led to the current humanitarian disaster. Ansar Allah regularly attacks the Saudi border, launches missiles strikes into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and diverts international medical and food aid to favor its own supporters and sell on the black market.

Ansar Allah also has targeted U.S. Navy vessels, those of allied nations, and civilian shipping in the Red Sea with Iranian-supplied missiles, gunboat attacks, and boat bombs. Undermining the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen risks exacerbating this threat to international shipping and giving Iran the opportunity to threaten oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, just as it has threatened to do in the Strait of Hormuz.

Those who advocate withdrawing support for Saudi Arabia apparently believe that they can somehow end the current conflict in Yemen through a one-sided strategy that penalizes allies and boosts Ansar Allah, a group that chants “Death to America” and looks more like Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy group, every day.

Never mind that Saudi Arabia is supporting the internationally recognized government of Yemen in this effort. Never mind that leaving Ansar Allah to run amuck will not bring an end to the humanitarian suffering, but only prolong it.

The U.S. currently extends only limited support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen centered on intelligence and information sharing. There are no U.S. troops involved in combat operations, except for occasional commando raids and air strikes against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Sunni terrorist group that continues to target the U.S. homeland, as well as Saudi Arabia, France, and other countries.

The Trump administration already has stopped the aerial refueling of Saudi warplanes involved in the Yemen conflict and called for a negotiated settlement. But the United States cannot afford to abandon its allies and hope for the best. Undermining the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition would make an acceptable political settlement impossible.

The Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia will continue to fight this war with or without U.S. support. Those who would connect two unrelated issues, condemn Saudi involvement, and ignore Iran’s hostile role inside Yemen will only do more harm to innocent Yemeni civilians and empower Iran and its Yemeni proxies.

By: James Phillips, Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation, and Madyson Hutchinson Posey, Research and Administrative Assistant. This article was published in The Heritage Foundation on Dec. 6, 2018.