Celebrate the Facts!
Internal and external parties to the Yemen conflict have no political, military, or financial incentives to negotiate an end to the war and the attendant appalling human costs. Absent firm international leadership from the United States, the continued exposition of weapons systems will continue to injure millions of people.
Yemen’s humanitarian calamity is the worst in the world; about 80% of Yemen’s population needs some form of aid. Multiple factors aside from the war including loss of health services, food scarcity, and money depreciation have combined to put the most defenseless people at peril.
The numbers on the crisis:
A manufactured catastrophe in waiting is an oil-storage tanker moored off Yemen’s west coast north of the city of Hodeida in the Red Sea. The small juncture at the Gulf of Aden constrains the Red Sea so contaminants have much less dilution of oil spills or other contaminants so fisheries and sensitive marine environments are at significant risk. The 44-year-old floating storage and offloading (FSO) Vessel Safer (owned by the state-run Yemen Oil and Gas Corporation), stores about1.4 million barrels of crude oil and has been deteriorating for years and despite international discussion, there appears to be little hope for a resolution.
The quick facts:
The history of Yemen, like many of the countries in the area, was complicated by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Kingdom of Yemen (North Yemen) became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and in 1962 became the Yemen Arab Republic. The British had set up a protectorate area around the southern port of Aden in the 1800s but withdrew in 1967 and that area became the People's Republic of Southern Yemen (South Yemen). South Yemen became Marxist three years later and the country became the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.
The colossal migration of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis from the south to the north contributed to two decades of antagonism between the states but a political solution unified the two countries as the Republic of Yemen in 1990. Sporadic fighting in the northwest between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia Muslim minority, continued from 2004 to 2010, and then again from 2014 to the present.
There are two main affiliations in the war with one side the Houthi rebel forces, self-designated as Ansar Allah. On the other, the ‘pro-government,’ or more properly anti-Houthi coalition, are local political figures propped up by a Saudi-led coalition of nations consisting of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The United States and the United Kingdom provide logistical support and maintenance as well as arms supplies and the reward is substantial revenue to contractors located in those countries.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the major cast list on the government side of the fight. The UAE has a significant troop presence, but the chief number of external ground forces come from Sudan, which has had as many as 14,000 troops, including legionnaires recruited by Saudi Arabia. Sudan began to provide troops to the Saudi-led war effort in 2015 in return for a $2 billion cash payment from Saudi Arabia, help from the UAE to evade US sanctions by using Dubai as a gold-smuggling hub, and assistance in reinstating Sudan’s relations with the United States. The UAE has also sponsored mercenaries from around the world.
The claim Iran has been interfering in Yemen sponsoring the Houthis and using them as a means of undermining their Saudi rivals has been the primary justification by Saudi Arabia for involvement in the war. There is evidence of Iranian support in the form of funding, training, and arms provision but a close look at the evidence reveals Iran has been taking a distant auxiliary role at most, with the Houthis acting on their schema, rather than as an Iranian proxy.
For the Houthis, the longer they remain the de-facto authority in northern Yemen increases the potential for international recognition so they have little incentive to negotiate or compromise. Wealthy overseas patrons in the Saudi-led coalition supply and fund Yemeni government forces and they have no incentive to diminish their power by seeking peace. Western countries profit by supplying arms and testing military systems in field conditions and seemingly care little for the humanitarian crisis. Iran’s military support to the Houthis has expanded its regional influence and a withdraw from that arrangement would be a cost in image and influence. The Yemeni people seemingly have no voice in the matter.
On January 19, 2021, the final full day of the Trump Administration, a corpulent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity. Then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo claimed the Houthis were closely linked to Iran, a meaningless closing shot in the Trump Administration’s campaign against Iran. The designations had been under consideration for months, though aid organizations repeatedly cautioned that designations would worsen the world’s nastiest humanitarian crisis. On February 11, 2021, the Biden Administration Secretary of State Antony Blinken revoked the FTO and SDGT designations of the Houthis.
Additional Biden Administration changes seem largely symbolic but include:
Mitigating the United States showcasing of weapons systems and meddling in overseas conflicts will be complex. Article I of the Constitution grants Congress the exclusive authority to declare war, while Article II names the President as “Commander in Chief” of the army, navy, and militia. Largely in response to the Viet Nam War, the United States Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (also known as the War Powers Resolution of 1973 or the War Powers Act), a federal law intended to check the president's power to commit the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of the United States Congress. Since then, however, presidential war-making power has been in a state of constant expansion leading to ‘Forever Wars’ such as the War in Afghanistan.
There appears to be a bipartisan consensus in Congress to limit Presidential authority to commit the United States military forces overseas. How the Biden Administration responds to attempts at repealing or replacing existing AUMF authorizations and limit Presidential authority will shape American interventions in the future.
The Biden Administration did not cite any existing Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) for his February 25, 2021, military strike on Iranian-allied forces in Syria, instead citing Article II authorities and Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and Biden’s public statements support conventional American projection of force in line with the actions taken with the Obama Administration.
One may surmise the Biden Administration will curtail but not eliminate the worst excesses of the Trump Administration such as the engagement with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The War on Terror appears to be a Forever War with the only real result being a shower of death and destruction on the world’s people.
The Council on Foreign Relations provided a succinct picture of the humanitarian crisis at https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/how-severe-yemens-humanitarian-crisis. The United States Congress provided a thorough report on the war at https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R43960. Tufts University discussed the parties arming the side in the war at https://sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/2019/03/19/who-is-arming-the-yemen-war-an-update/. Lawfare presented an excellent primer on the War Powers Act at https://www.lawfareblog.com/topic/war-powers. The Washington Post provided a good summary of Joe Biden’s views of presidential authority to direct military intervention at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/03/09/war-powers-biden-has-pushed-both-more-congressional-oversight-broad-presidential-authority/.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.