What Yemen Needs Now
In December 2022, a Yemen war powers resolution was offered for consideration in the U.S. Senate. Bipartisan majorities in Congress supported similar legislation in 2019 but declined to advance the measure last year. What changed?
Since 2015, we have played leading roles in a coalition of humanitarian, human rights, peace, and conflict resolution organizations that pushed to put the perspectives of Yemenis, rather than those of Saudi, Emirati, or Iranian governments, at the center of the America’s Yemen policy. As part of these efforts, this coalition and various members of Congress have sought to limit U.S. support to the Saudi-led forces fighting in Yemen. During the early years of the conflict, these efforts aimed to end U.S. complicity in the suffering of Yemeni civilians and steer the conflict towards a political rather than military solution. Aggressive congressional intervention, including the historic passage of a War Powers Resolution in 2019, was justified given America’s expansive support for the Saudi-led coalition’s maximalist and reckless approach. By reducing U.S. support, Congress successfully encouraged a belligerent to de-escalate and re-oriented the U.S. toward a more constructive approach to Yemen’s conflict and humanitarian crisis.
Over the last three administrations, we have argued that cutting off U.S. support and weapons for Saudi and Emirati military operations in Yemen was a strategic and moral imperative. We still hold this belief, but we also believe that continuing to address Yemen through the lens of congressional war powers is out of touch with the current realities of U.S. involvement and is counterproductive to efforts to resolve the conflict.
It’s time for Congress to update its understanding of Yemen’s conflict and the U.S. role in it. Rather than attempting yet another war powers resolution, Congress should center promoting accountability for all parties’ violations of international law during the conflict — including the United States — in its policy toward Yemen, while pursuing separate, alternative means to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Emirati relationships through the enforcement of U.S. and international human rights law more broadly.
The Evolution of Efforts to Limit U.S. Assistance to the Saudi-Led Coalition
When the Saudi-led coalition entered the Yemen conflict in 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates requested U.S. support. The administration of President Barack Obama complied. It set up a joint combined planning cell to offer real-time advice to coalition operations. It provided intelligence and logistical support, including through mid-air refueling of the United Arab Emirates Air Force and Royal Saudi Air Force aircraft carrying out airstrikes in Yemen. It dramatically expanded weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, including air-to-ground munitions and precision guidance kits, and it helped pass U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, which legitimized the coalition’s intervention.
Many analysts and political observers in Yemen were alarmed by military advances by the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh but felt that Yemeni-Yemeni negotiations, rather than international military intervention, provided the most likely path back toward an uneasy peace and democratic transition. The entry of the U.S.-supported Saudi-led coalition into the war cut off avenues for reconciliation and sparked an acute humanitarian crisis. The airstrikes themselves took a disproportionate toll on the country’s critical civilian infrastructure, destroying institutions like health centers, schools, private factories, and food production facilities. Their indiscriminate nature — and the lack of any meaningful accountability for obvious violations of international humanitarian law — fomented a race to the bottom among Yemeni parties from the local to the national level.
As the conflict and humanitarian crisis deepened, Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized government that it supported insisted on unilateral Houthi disarmament, as enshrined in Resolution 2216, as a precondition to a political settlement. Saudi Arabia also misapplied Resolution 2216 to set up a blanket clearance and inspection regime, which at times has been utilized as a de facto blockade, severing or substantially delaying vital humanitarian and commercial imports. The coalition’s intervention allowed the Houthi-Saleh alliance to position themselves as defenders against foreign aggression and dismiss other Yemeni constituencies as foreign puppets.
Unconditional and open-ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition lent further credibility to this narrative. Yet in the early days of the conflict in Yemen, Congress was unaware of the scope of U.S. support to the coalition or the horrific and repeated violations of international humanitarian law in which the United States was therefore complicit. If they were aware, members of Congress mostly perceived the conflict as a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, dismissing the specific perspectives and aspirations of the warring parties in Yemen as insignificant. Against the backdrop of the Obama administration’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran, policymakers were focused on currying favor with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, particularly when it came to Iranian influence in the region.
Our opposition to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition aimed to reverse this reductive and callous approach. The few in Congress who shared this view at the time, such as Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Ted Lieu shared their concerns with the Obama administration in 2015. By the end of 2016, their advocacy and increasingly deadly airstrikes had prompted Obama to place an informal hold on a proposed sale of precision-guided munition kits.
The beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration marked a turning point. Some career officials regretted America’s role in the conflict, while others remained supportive of unconditional U.S. assistance to the coalition, believing that the Saudi and Emirati relationships were important enough to justify any consequence to Yemen. The Trump administration ultimately adopted the view of the latter group, supercharging U.S. support just as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates doubled down on its effort to win the war by any means necessary.
The outsourcing of U.S. Yemen policy during such an acute humanitarian crisis led to a virtual cornucopia of congressional oversight. The Senate nearly succeeded in blocking the administration’s first proposed bomb sale to Saudi Arabia in 2017, reversing Obama administration policy. During a hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren learned that U.S. Central Command did not know where coalition jets were flying after the United States refueled them. Senate Armed Service ranking member Jack Reed found out that neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates had paid for the refueling — eventually revealing over $330 million in unpaid expenses, and Sen. Todd Young leveraged an underutilized provision in the Foreign Assistance Act to doggedly pursue the delivery of U.S.-purchased port cranes vital to staving off an even worse humanitarian crisis.
Congressional anger reached a fever pitch after coalition jets bombed a school bus full of children in August 2018 and, in particular, when Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo published statements of unconditional support for Riyadh, defending Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amidst revelations that he directed the assassination of U.S. resident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After Pompeo cynically certified to Congress that Saudi Arabia was complying with international humanitarian law and was not interfering with imports to Yemen, Congress took its boldest step yet. In December 2018, the Senate passed legislation directing the removal of U.S. troops from hostilities. We heartily supported this action.
At the time, Emirati-led forces were close to cutting off the port city of Hodeidah, and Saudi airstrikes along with import restrictions were playing a significant role in the nationwide humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, we believed that mid-air refueling, which had been halted just weeks before without guarantees of non-repetition, constituted the kind of “participat[ion] in the movement of” foreign forces that required congressional authorization under the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Act of 1973. More immediately, we believed America’s complicity in the humanitarian impact of the coalition’s conduct justified extraordinary congressional action.
The same day of the Senate’s first passage of the war powers legislation, the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, pushed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, signed the Stockholm Agreement. The core of the agreement was a U.N.-monitored ceasefire in Hodeidah, effectively ending the Emirati-backed effort to take the city. It was also the first written agreement between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, creating optimism for a broader peace.
Congress’ unprecedented involvement left leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates acutely aware of risks to their relationship with the United States. Though the coalition’s duplicative inspection regime remained, it began processing shipments of food and fuel through Hodeidah port with minimal delays in 2019. The United Arab Emirates withdrew most of its forces from southern Yemen, even while continuing to support and shape the activities of Yemeni armed groups. On average, the frequency of coalition airstrikes has drastically declined since the agreement. While their interference in Yemeni affairs continues and they have not unilaterally withdrawn from the conflict, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have effectively abandoned their ambition of battlefield victory against the Houthis.
For their part, the Houthis have been credibly accused of violating the Stockholm Agreement, including by unilaterally diverting Hodeidah port revenues that were meant to be administered jointly with the internationally recognized government for the payment of civil service salaries. Believing the Houthis used these funds to support their military campaigns, the internationally recognized government ordered a virtual halt to fuel imports to Hodeidah, precipitating a fuel crisis that lasted until the April 2022 truce. Just as the Saudi-led coalition and internationally recognized government has been credibly accused of collective punishment, using food as a weapon of war, so too have the Houthis shown a willingness to subject its population to continued suffering by continually moving the political goal posts so as to extract maximum concessions. Pursuing an international military solution to the coup for seven years has unfortunately — and predictably — encouraged the Houthis to take a maximalist approach. No longer facing the threat of military setbacks in Hodeidah and other points west of Sana’a — their most vulnerable front — the Houthis were able to shift their focus and resources to accelerate their offensive campaign to capture Marib: Their advance on a city hosting between 800,000 and 2.2 million displaced people threatens the same kind of carnage that the Stockholm Agreement spared the residents of Hodeidah in 2018. Secure in their position and with their foreign adversaries seeking a face-saving exit from the conflict, the Houthis appear to have emerged from Stockholm better equipped to expand their military gains and less interested in an inclusive political settlement.
Years later, with the benefit of hindsight, we remain convinced that the effort we joined to press for a political solution in Hodeidah was the right one. It spared 250,000 civilians from deadly urban warfare and the entire country from an import disruption that would have imperiled the whole country, in particular the 14 million people who were just one step away from famine. More broadly, our advocacy for a political solution in Hodeidah and across the country reflects our conviction that an internationally imposed military solution to this conflict is not and has never been available. It also reflects our conviction that open-ended U.S. support capacitated and enabled repeated violations of international law, many of which have amounted to war crimes. We are proud to have played a role in opposing these legal violations and challenging one of the most morally reprehensible dimensions of U.S. foreign policy in recent years. That said, we also believe that we cannot claim a part in these achievements if we do not also own a stake in the unintended consequences of our work. It is with this mindset that we approach the public debate about the merits and risks of a Yemen War Powers Resolution in 2023.
Same Legislative Tool, Different Context
In his first foreign policy speech as president, Joe Biden announced an end to any U.S. support for offensive operations inside Yemen. This led to an immediate pause and then ban on the sale of bombs and precision guidance kits to Saudi Arabia. He also reversed the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, which aimed to punish the Houthis and accommodate Saudi and Emirati requests regardless of the costs to Yemenis. With these policy changes, Biden effectively ended the era of unconditional and unlimited U.S. support to the coalition.
Biden also announced the appointment of a special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, signifying an end to the outsourcing of Yemen policy to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Lenderking helped secure a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in April 2022: Though its narrow scope did not prevent ongoing violence against civilians or between government factions, the truce did prevent the resumption of large-scale fighting between the Houthis, the internationally recognized government, and the Saudi-led coalition. It is remarkable that as of writing, months after the truce’s expiration, fighting has still not resumed. The government, with Saudi support, has also allowed fuel to enter the Houthi-controlled Hodeidah port and limited commercial air travel in and out of Sana’a International Airport, both during and after the expiration of the truce period.
The internationally recognized government and Saudi Arabia deserve no plaudits for merely dialing back their own harmful policies, but it must be noted that they have effectively done so unilaterally. The Houthis have refused to make even minor concessions to save lives, bolster the economy, or build trust: In October 2022, they declined to renew the U.N. ceasefire when Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized government agreed to pay government salaries but refused to include the military personnel answerable to the Houthis who only became Defense Ministry employees in 2015. The Houthis now appear less willing than ever to work toward an inclusive political settlement, opting instead for targeted drone attacks to prevent the government from exporting oil — risking further economic collapse and humanitarian suffering in the process.
Current advocacy for a Yemen War Powers Resolution fails to take account of these substantial changes in U.S. policy and Yemen conflict dynamics. The arguments we once made no longer apply: Today, with refueling conditionally banned by statute and the joint combined planning cells abandoned, the only remaining U.S. support for coalition operations in Yemen is maintenance, sustainment, and provision of spare parts for the Royal Saudi Air Force and United Arab Emirates Air Force by third-party contractors — activities governed not by the War Powers Resolution but by the Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act. These activities also predate the conflict in Yemen and could have implications beyond Yemen that the full Congress has not debated. While maintenance and sustainment have supported offensive airstrikes and could support them again, the argument that this constitutes participation in hostilities — particularly since it has been more than 10 months since the last coalition bomb fell in Yemen — strains credulity.
The notion that such muscular congressional intervention could positively impact the situation on-the-ground right now is not only incorrect, it risks legitimizing and amplifying partisan propaganda in Yemen that inflates America’s role in the war and pins overwhelming responsibility for the humanitarian crisis on Saudi Arabia. It downplays the reality of a now-fragmented conflict between Yemeni groups, many of them opposed to the Houthis, and focuses instead on a “Saudi war on Yemen,” which features prominently in Houthi messaging to distort their own role in the conflict. Ironically, by erasing Yemeni perspectives or reducing them to Saudi or Emirati puppets, War Powers Resolution proponents are committing the same error as policymakers who so casually dismissed the Houthis and their supporters as Iranian proxies.
Focusing on Accountability
Biden made improvements to U.S. policy in Yemen, but his administration has failed to advance the accountability agenda. In late 2021, Saudi Arabia successfully lobbied against the extension of the U.N. Group of Eminent Experts, which was tasked with documenting violations of international law and abuses by all parties to the conflict. The United States has also maintained and expanded its relationship with Riyadh despite campaign promises to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” and put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. In short, it has not met the standards it set for itself.
To specifically promote peace and relief in Yemen, Congress should support the diplomatic efforts of the president’s special envoy for Yemen while continuing flexible funding for peace-building and humanitarian needs. Appropriations should prioritize long-term, flexible investments in local-level capacity building and direct cash assistance. This should also include efforts to ensure the Biden administration remains focused on outcomes for Yemenis, but should not imply — as applying the War Powers Resolution does — that the U.S. military’s current level of security cooperation with its Gulf partners fundamentally compromises its credibility to conduct principled diplomacy.
Holding the parties to the Yemen conflict accountable for their abuses — as well as former U.S. officials for the war crimes they may have committed by enabling coalition airstrikes — must be a top U.S. priority. Congress can address this in three different ways. First, Congress should urge the Departments of Justice and Defense to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute violations of U.S. and international law committed in relation to support for the coalition, particularly at senior levels of policymaking and the military chain of command. U.S. officials may argue that they facilitated apparent Saudi and Emirati abuses against the backdrop of competing political demands, but this does not differentiate their acts from other war crimes and presents no legitimate defense for them. That they were indirectly rather than directly responsible for the carnage and may have intended to alleviate civilian harm should mitigate the consequences they face, not shield them from accountability altogether. The notion that justice for war crimes is only for monstrous villains and not ordinary people who fail to respect the law is a principal driver of impunity around the world.
Second, Congress should demand that Departments of Defense and State implement the recommendations of the Government Accountability Office’s June 2022 report — and apply new guidance globally. That report identified that the administration failed to submit legally required reporting to Congress regarding the impact of the coalition’s operations in Yemen. It also found that neither the Defense Department nor the State Department have guidance for investigating or reporting on the misuse of U.S.-origin defense articles, even when credible evidence of widespread misuse is publicly available. Congress should insist on a more proactive and operationalized commitment to ensuring that U.S. defense assistance does not enable violations of U.S. and international law.
Credible investigations and prosecutions are critical not only from a transitional justice perspective but also from a strategic standpoint. A U.S. failure to acknowledge and create accountability for the role of U.S. military advising, training, and weapons provision in facilitating the commission of war crimes in Yemen risks repeating mistakes of the past. America’s willingness to ignore human rights violations in favor of security cooperation was a central feature of its engagement with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Its endorsement of immunity for Saleh after his ouster and its tolerance of grave Saudi violations of international humanitarian law have enabled Yemen’s spiral into state failure and uncontrolled violence. It is difficult to imagine a sustainable peace taking hold in Yemen as long as those most responsible for harm avoid responsibility for their actions.
Though it may not have future bearing on Yemen, Congress must reassert itself in future decisions on arms transfers in light of flagrant misuse of U.S.-manufactured weapons by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to annual appropriations, the Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act each provide for strong congressional oversight and, if necessary, a privileged vote in the Senate to prevent U.S. complicity in human rights abuses. Using these tools could initiate a needed recalibration with these two monarchies, taking account of their repressive governance and failure to deliver on key U.S. priorities — all without instrumentalizing Yemenis as the War Powers Resolution would do.
Nearly eight years ago, U.S. policymakers sacrificed Yemen in order to recalibrate U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Emirati relations. Today, proponents of the Yemen War Powers Resolution risk doing the same. In seeking distance from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi now as fervently as Obama- and Trump-era officials sought their favor, advocates of more Yemen war powers resolutions would relegate the reality in Yemen to the periphery of decision-making. Distorting facts to maintain political momentum isn’t justified just because a brutal dictator is on the other side.
Kate Kizer is senior fellow for security at the Center for International Policy.
Scott Paul is senior manager for humanitarian policy at Oxfam America.