The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (SCFA) on Thursday held its first hearing on the Yemen conflict, discussing a way to end the war and ease the humanitarian crisis while maintaining US interests.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, chair of the SCFA, began the meeting by saying that Yemen, whose political tumult began in 2011 with the Arab Spring and has since escalated into civil war and a Saudi intervention, is an important part of the Middle East “that doesn’t receive enough attention from policy makers”.
Iran’s increased power in the region and threats from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were hot topics at the discussion. The question of the day was the nature of the policy the Republican-dominated government will put in place.
The hearing was the first since 2015, the year that Yemen fell into civil war, pitting the Houthi alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, allegedly backed by Iran, against forces loyal to Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, whom the US recognises as president of Yemen.
It was also the first discussion on US policy in Yemen since Republicans swept the 2016 election and Donald Trump achieved a stunning victory over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton with a message of isolationism and right-wing populism.
An ally, at what cost?
Gerald Feierstein, US ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013 and one of the speakers at the hearing, was in Sanaa for the beginnings of the unrest. In his view, Washington must continue supporting its ally Saudi Arabia, and he said the Trump administration will likely do that.
“From what we’ve seen, I believe we’ll see a Trump administration that will be supportive of the Saudis in helping them achieve their objectives,” Feierstein told Middle East Eye after the hearing.
Yemen borders Saudi Arabia to the south, making it a constant national security concern for the Saudis. As such, Riyadh, along with an eight-nation coalition of Gulf Arab states, has pummelled Houthi-controlled areas for years.
Feierstein noted that the war has been costly for the Saudis and a price has been paid in money and public opinion.
Coalition air strikes are suspected to have killed thousands of civilians. A strike on a funeral home in October 2016 killed more than 150 people and caused the Obama administration to warn the Gulf kingdom that the coalition did not have a “blank cheque”.
When asked if there is a point at which the US might ask the Saudi coalition to halt its actions, Feierstein said that point doesn’t exist.
“[The Saudis] see the potential for Iran to establish itself on their southern border as something they can’t accept,” he said.
Houthi militant on roof of building overlooking anti-Saudi rally in Sanaa last week (Reuters)
The former ambassador was even in favour of delivering higher-grade precision guided arms to the Saudis, in hopes that civilian casualties would be minimised.
Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan, nonprofit policy research organisation, who has written extensively about the US-Saudi alliance, agreed with Feierstein.
In his view, the US-Saudi alliance is strategically indispensable. “There is no shift to make,” regarding the alliance, he told MEE.
Not only is the US in competition with Iran for influence in Iraq, where Shia militias are among the most effective in battling the Islamic State group, but arms sales totalling billions and military bases in the Arabian Peninsula make the relationship immovable. On top of this, Gulf states are responsible for a significant amount of the world’s oil, which remains a foundation for much of the global economy.
Putting aside concerns about human rights violations, Cordesman said that “views that are more oriented towards Western values than power realities don’t always explain what’s happening.”
‘A failed policy’
Kate Kiver, the director of policy and advocacy of the Yemen Peace Project (YPP), a Washington, DC-based organisation that advocates “for peaceful, constructive US policies towards Yemen” rejects the idea of ignoring human rights.
“It’s a reiteration of a failed policy” to continue arming Saudi Arabia, Kiver told MEE after she left the SCFA hearing.
Yemen has seen years of destructive air strikes, a blockade and lack of humanitarian supplies that have driven the country, which was already one of the poorest in the world, to the brink of famine.
There are conflicting totals of the human toll of the conflict, but they’re all substantial.
The United Nation’s humanitarian aid official in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, said in early 2017 that the death toll had surpassed 10,000. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said in an address to the Security Council that since March 2015, 10,000 Yemeni children under the age of five have perished from preventable diseases.
Kiver, who lobbies lawmakers on Capitol Hill, said there are two lines of thought on US policy in Yemen: “One is that Saudi is an ally, so we have to support them in whatever way possible. We saw that at the beginning of the conflict, and it caused mass casualties.”
Also, “there’s a vein” of Trump’s isolationist ideas in the Republican Party, Kiver continued, pointing to Libertarian-leaning Republican Senator Rand Paul and his stance against arming Saudi Arabia.
William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the left-leaning Center for International Policy, said in an interview that continued arms sales are “not in the interest of Saudi Arabia. They’re haemorrhaging resources and losing their reputation”.
He argued that a political approach to ending the conflict is in the interest of the Saudis: “Maybe some forward-looking Republicans will say this is weakening Saudi Arabia, and we shouldn’t be allowing a friend to do this.”
No end in sight
One thing that Kiver, Cordesman and Feierstein agreed on was that there is no end in sight. According to Feierstein, the conflict is easily extended with little cost to Iran, and Saudi Arabia has no choice but to continue.
The Houthi-Saleh alliance controls the majority of the population, and in spite of recent advances in the southern coast by the Saudi coalition, the conflict seems to be settling into a stalemate, Feierstein said.
The Hadi government could turn this to its advantage. “The longer the conflict goes on, the more dangerous it becomes for the Houthis,” Feierstein said.
AQAP, the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, is the long-term focus of US policy, according Feierstein. Currently, AQAP isn’t able to attack the US, but that “doesn’t change the fact that they aspire to global jihad. If we don’t check them they will be a threat.” AQAP have seen gains thanks to instability created by the war, he continued.
When Feierstein was asked whether an increase in firepower was a wise policy move for the US, he said: “I wouldn’t recommend that we see a lot of aggressive moves on the part of the coalition,” though he added that he is “sympathetic to the administration and the desire to start pushing back against the AQAP presence.” US support must continue, but hopefully with further diplomatic initiatives and support of UN efforts will reap benefits.
For Kiver, the YPP advocate, an end to arms sales is the answer. “You can’t call for a political settlement when you’re continuing to arm one side of the conflict,” she said.
However, no one MEE interviewed believed an end to the conflict was near.