More than seven years after the first airstrikes were launched on Yemen by the U.S.-supported Saudi-UAE coalition, a two-month truce with Yemen’s Ansar Allah (also referred to as Houthis) was announced at the beginning of this month. This UN-mediated truce comes after weeks of negotiations in Oman and marks the first pause in airstrikes on Yemen since March 2015. As part of the truce, the first fuel ships were allowed entry into the port of Hodeidah, and limited flights were allowed to enter Sanaa airport from Egypt and Jordan.
Despite these positive developments, however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain entangled in Yemen — militarily and politically. Days after the truce was announced, the Saudi-led coalition dismissed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who had hitherto been touted as justification for occupying and intervening in Yemen’s conflict, and replaced him with a Presidential Leadership Council. With the so-called “legitimate” president now reportedly confined to his Riyadh home, the coalition’s plan for Yemen appears to be entering a new phase.
The Saudi-led coalition’s latest actions will likely sow further chaos in Yemen, thereby underscoring the urgency of legally disentangling the bloc’s largest supporter, the United States, from any further military actions in Yemen. In a letter released April 20, nearly 70 progressive organizations called on Congress to “cosponsor and publicly support” a War Powers Resolution, soon to be introduced by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), aimed at compelling an end to U.S. involvement in the Yemen War. “We urge all members of Congress to say ‘no’ to Saudi Arabia’s war of aggression,” states the letter, “by fully ending all U.S. support for a conflict that has caused such immense bloodshed and human suffering.
Uptick in Violence
Last year, a UN-led investigation into human rights abuses in Yemen dissolved due to Saudi “threats and incentives,” in the words of John Fisher, the Geneva director of Human Rights Watch. This was followed by a perceptible uptick in air raids. Without any semblance of accountability, the Saudi-led coalition increased its attacks on civilians, going as far as targeting Yemen’s telecommunications infrastructure, killing three children nearby, and causing a four-day blackout of the country’s internet in January. In the early months of this year, U.S.-supported attacks on civilians also included an airstrike on a detention center that killed 91 people, most of whom were migrants.
On the ground, the Houthis remained the de facto government in much of northern Yemen, but were unsuccessful in wresting the gas-rich province of Marib from the coalition’s control. And as Saudi-led air raids increased in frequency, Houthis scored a rare incursion against Saudi Arabia and the UAE by successfully striking both countries.
Houthis fire back
As the seven-year anniversary of the Saudi-UAE war on Yemen approached, Yemen’s Houthis launched several missile and drone attacks on both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. While many of these attempts were intercepted, a fuel tank in the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, came under a Houthi drone attack. The Houthis followed this with a missile attack on an Aramco oil facility in the Saudi city of Jeddah just as the city was preparing to host the Formula One race.
With both countries’ stability now threatened, and with the Houthis’ unsuccessful bid to capture Marib, warring parties participated in UN-mediated negotiations in neighboring Oman and subsequently agreed to a truce. Shortly after the truce was announced, however, Saudi Arabia assembled a council of eight Yemeni men who now lead Yemen instead of President Hadi and his vice president of five years (and a longtime Houthi foe), Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar.
The eight-member council is led by the Riyadh-based Rashad Al-Alimi, a former minister and Hadi adviser with close ties to Saudi Arabia, and a member of the Islamist Islah Party. He and three other members are allied with and backed by Saudi Arabia: Riyadh-based Abdullah Al-Alimi is a member of the Islah; Riyadh-based Othman Majli is a tribal leader from Saadah and a member of Hadi’s party, the General People’s Congress; and Sultan Al-Aradah is the governor of Marib, which is the Riyadh-based government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen and where ground battles continue despite the truce. He is also allied with the Islah Party.
The remaining four members are backed (and funded) by the UAE: Aidarous Al-Zubaidi heads the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist group; Tareq Saleh is former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nephew, who switched from fighting alongside the Houthis to fighting against them after his uncle was killed in 2017; Faraj Al-Bahsani is the governor of Hadramout; and Abdulrahman Abu Zara’a Al-Muharrami is a Salafist commander of the UAE-funded Giants Brigades militia that defeated the Houthis in the southern, oil-rich province of Shabwa.
While they are tasked with leading negotiations with the Houthis, all were hand-selected for their allegiance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Nearly all have fought the Houthis at various battlefronts, and some have a history of fighting each other. The appointment of this war council may mark a new, chaotic phase in the war on Yemen: one that involves a smaller Saudi and UAE military footprint, but nonetheless furthers both countries’ agendas through their anti-Houthi coalition of warlords.
The military conflict in Yemen left the majority of Yemeni civilians in dire conditions. To end their suffering, a diplomatic approach is essential, coupled with an end to foreign involvement through bombardment, the imposition of the blockade, and financing local warlords and political parties. The latest political reshuffling by foreign governments that took place away from the negotiating table in Oman will likely lead to continued fighting on the ground, and may even serve to shield Saudi Arabia and its allies from accountability.
The U.S. war on Yemen
The truce in Yemen may or may not hold. Regardless of the outcome, however, the United States must legislate an end to its illegal involvement in the war on Yemen. Thus, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to further their agendas in Yemen by financing local warlords, Congress must ensure that the current (or future) U.S. administration does not follow a similar policy.
Despite calling the truce a “long-awaited reprieve for the Yemeni people,” President Biden’s administration has mirrored both Trump and Obama administration policies in Yemen by continuing to provide assistance and arms to the Saudi-UAE coalition. One year ago, in his first major foreign policy speech as president, Biden announced an end to U.S. support for “offensive” operations in the war on Yemen. Questions about the distinction between offensive and defensive involvement remained unanswered, and the U.S. policy appeared to be nothing more than a rebranding of Obama and Trump’s policies in Yemen. This prompted Jayapal and DeFazio to announce in February their intention to introduce a War Powers Resolution, a federal law that places war-making under Congressional, not executive, powers. The measure would therefore force President Biden to end the unconstitutional U.S. intervention in Yemen, which has ensured the smooth operation of Saudi war jets through spare parts and maintenance, supplied weapons, and provided diplomatic, as well as logistical and intelligence, support to the coalition.
With a War Powers bill at his desk, it would be unlikely — or at least unpopular — for Biden to veto the bill as his predecessor had done. If nothing else, a veto would contradict his publicly stated intention to end the U.S. role in the war. With the future of this fragile truce uncertain, a likelihood of continued foreign entanglement in Yemen, and a mounting civilian death toll that now nears 400,000 and involves a Yemeni child dying every 75 seconds, passing a War Powers bill and ending all forms of support for the Saudi and UAE coalition and their allies should be the top priority for Congress.
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Shireen Al-Adeimi is an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University. Since 2015, she has played an active role in raising awareness about the Saudi-led war on her country of birth, Yemen, and works to encourage political action to end U.S. support. She is a non-resident fellow at Quincy Institute.