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The U.S. is making the humanitarian crisis in Yemen worse — and it’s not even clear why we’re involved there

U.S. justification for backing the Saudis in Yemen has never been clearly explained, either by the Obama or Trump administration.

People walk past a house destroyed by an air strike in the old quarter of Sanaa, Yemen, on August 8.
REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The United States is helping to create what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and could be abetting war crimes as well. What’s worse, it’s not really clear why.

For most of the past three and a half years, the conflict in Yemen has seemed like troubling background noise almost no one wanted to hear. Even among those sympathetic to global human rights issues, it has had to compete for attention with the plight of millions of Syrians, of refugees clinging to leaky boats in the Mediterranean Sea, of Central Americans fleeing gang violence, and of Myanmar’s Rohingya population.

The deaths of 54 people — 44 of them schoolboys — earlier this month in an airstrike conducted by a Saudi-led military alliance got the attention of Congress, which now is requiring the Trump administration to certify that the Saudis and their allies are trying to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen. The conflict has left 75 percent of the population in need of assistance, more than 8 million at risk of starvation and created the world’s largest cholera outbreak.

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All in all, the U.N. says Yemen — not Syria or Myanmar — is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

So who’s responsible? How is the United States involved? And why?

Yemen, ancestral home of Osama bin Laden and location of one of Al Qaeda’s most potent branches, has long been an unstable place. The current conflict is rooted in that history of instability — and in the larger conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance in the Middle East. In 2015, Houthi rebels, members of a minority belonging to a branch of Shiite Islam, seized Yemen’s capital and threw out the pro-Saudi president. Here, courtesy of the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel, is all you’ll ever need to know about the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia regards the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, and launched a military campaign to try to dislodge them. The Obama administration, even while negotiating its nuclear deal with Iran, threw in with the Saudis. President Trump, who has improved Obama’s often testy relations with Saudi Arabia, has continued that policy. The United States, a major arms supplier to the Saudis, also shares intelligence, and helps with targeting and mid-flight refueling for aircraft from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Riedel reports that the Saudis are spending $6 billion a month on the war. They seem no closer to success than they were three years ago. It’s an open question how close the Houthis are to Tehran, but not unreasonable to think that the conflict has pushed them closer together. The Houthis have fired missiles at Saudi Arabia, and targeted U.S. warships in international waters with missiles three times in 2016. They missed.

Most observers have concluded that both sides have committed war crimes. But it is the Saudis and their allies who have deployed the far heavier firepower. Amnesty International says at least 36 air strikes by the Saudis and their allies, killing more than 500 people, appear to have violated international law.

U.S. justification for backing the Saudis has never been clearly explained, either by the Obama or Trump administration. The most logical explanations are that the Saudis are our friends and the Iranians are not; or that the Saudis and their allies would be acting even worse if they were on their own. Secretary of Defense James Mattis argued in a letter to Congress in March that U.S. involvement helps limit civilian casualties. Last summer, the Senate narrowly approved the sale of $500 million of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Selling bombs is mighty profitable.

The U.S. has allocated a lot of money for humanitarian assistance in Yemen, as well.

Foreign Policy columnist Micah Zenko suggests that because administrations of both parties have followed the same policy, there is no partisan advantage to challenging it. So even though many in Congress are unhappy with the policy, it goes on.

Human Rights Watch says that U.S. officials may be guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes if they are aware of a “substantial likelihood” U.S. aid would assist unlawful attacks, and that Saudis and their allies were intending to commit war crimes. It quotes the State Department’s top human rights officer in the Obama administration as acknowledging the possibility U.S. officials could face legal jeopardy.

Few Americans have an appetite these days for involvement in regional conflicts. Perhaps a conflict involving Saudi Arabia and Iran is serious enough to be an exception.

If so, Washington is helping the Saudis destroy Yemen, and at the same time spending millions to ameliorate the suffering. It would be far better to recognize the Saudi quagmire for what it is, and focus exclusively on finding a way to end the conflict. If the U.S. is going to be involved, can we at least try not to make things worse?