The Middle East’s Vietnam

Casie Slaybaugh, Staff Writer 

 The civil war occurring in the country of Yemen since 2014 has harbored the most overlooked and devastating civilian tragedy since the Vietnam War. This fight between the Hadi government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition; Houthi rebels, backed by Iran; and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an uncharacteristically bold terrorist organization, has killed over 1,600 soldiers and led to the loss of countless military assets. However, the true victims of this brutal war are the Yemeni civilians caught in the crossfire. Some see the war as a struggle by the Houthis to be treated fairly by the government, while others perceive it as a power play by both Iran and Saudi Arabia to gain control over the Middle East. The United States has been supplying the Saudis with weapons, refueling their planes mid-flight, and providing intelligence on potential enemy strongholds. The United States intervening in this conflict is—for both practical and reputational reasons—a risky move.

An Iranian-controlled Yemen, granted, would be very detrimental to the interests of the United States. Yemen has control over the Bab al Mandab Strait, a narrow body of water connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. 3.8 million barrels of oil pass through this strait daily. If Iran were to gain control of Yemen and of this strait, the Middle East would become even more unstable, oil prices would rise dramatically, and the strength of the United States would be undermined. Additionally, Iran has historically been supported by Russia, which plays a similar role as the United States in Yemen, albeit supporting Iran instead of Saudi Arabia. The long-lasting tension between Russia and the United States has manifested in multiple similar proxy wars and other smaller conflicts in the Middle East, including Syria, Turkey, and Egypt. For these reasons, it is understandable why America feels the need to remain involved in supporting whichever side is not Iran and whichever side does not promote terrorism. The only problem is that the only remaining faction happens to be committing heinous war crimes and displacing millions of civilians.

This third combatant, Saudi Arabia and its coalition, has been condemned by the Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and even the United States House of Representatives, as of November 13th. Despite this, the United States still remains embroiled in the conflict. While the threat of an Iranian-controlled Yemen is certainly strong, the threat of the formation of anti-American terrorists and the loss of American lives should vastly outweigh this, in terms of US interest. By allying ourselves with the group mainly responsible for countless civilian deaths and human rights violations, America opens itself up to the hatred and antagonism of the people of Yemen. Lack of food, medical supplies, and other basic necessities has led to struggling civilians gladly taking such resources from anti-West terrorist organizations in exchange for service. What does it say about the United States that it fights a “War on Terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan, but allows for terrorists to be recruited in Yemen on the means of its own actions?

The war crimes committed by the Saudi coalition are numerous and have been officially recognized and condemned by many organizations and governing bodies. These war crimes include deliberate attacks on civilians—bombings of schools throughout the war, a large funeral procession in October of 2016, three civilian apartment buildings in August of 2017—denying transport of humanitarian aid by bombing and blockading Yemeni ports, failing to protect innocent children from attacks, and many other offenses. By refueling Saudi planes in the air, the United States allows for extended missile-dropping flights, letting the Saudis perform “double tap” strikes, one example being in October of 2016, where one bomb is dropped on civilians and a second is dropped after rescuers come to those wounded in the first strike, wiping out civilians in two savage strings of attack. The bombs dropped on Yemen by the Saudis are typically of US manufacturing, acquired more readily, now, through increases in weapon sales to the country brought on by the Trump administration. By directly aiding in these war crimes, the United States could be maligned on the world stage for aiding and abetting the coalition’s crimes. The implications of these charges could be catastrophic to the global authority and reputation of the United States.

Completely withdrawing US support of the Saudis in this conflict could irreparably damage the relations between the two countries. However, one must ask if this would truly be a bad thing. Surely, all relations would not truly end, as trade between the two nations is vital to each economy—the US is largely dependent on Saudi oil and the Saudis are largely dependent on US weapons sales—but American support of every Saudi action should certainly be ceased. The difference of fundamental values between the two countries is so vast that one can wonder why the US even began supporting Saudi Arabia in the first place. Saudi Arabia is an absolute, theocratic monarchy which adheres to strict Sharia law and tolerates no kind of opposition or disapproval from its citizens. Everything the United States has fought to spread and support—democracy, civilian freedom, human rights—are completely ignored and neglected by Saudi Arabia. Additionally, the Saudis have opposed the United States numerous times in Middle Eastern diplomacy, including during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011 and, more recently, the Arab isolation of Qatar, in which Saudi Arabia held a leading position. For these reasons, it is completely reasonable for American military and political support of Saudi Arabia to end. Pulling US support of the Saudi coalition may weaken bilateral relations between the two countries, but these are ties that warrant weakening.

While some reasons to withdraw from the Yemeni conflict directly benefit the United States, the most substantial argument for complete disengagement is simply to protect the innocent people of Yemen. Saudi airstrikes and blockades, Houthi landmines and artillery rocket attacks, and hostile AQAP action in the region have all contributed to what has been deemed by many the “worst humanitarian crisis in decades”. Millions are displaced, cholera is sweeping through medical camps, children are malnourished and suffering from treatable diseases, and freedom of speech is being violently oppressed. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has placed the Saudi coalition, the Houthis, and AQAP on the annual “list of shame,” yet nothing has been done to end the violations against children in conflict that earned each group this placement. The United States’ Congress has passed a resolution stating that the Saudis are fighting an unlawful war and that America should withdraw from it, but the American political atmosphere at the moment is so divided that bipartisan support can’t be reached on a law to pull out all support. The people of Yemen have been utterly failed by the international community, populated by citizens who barely know that the country exists. These innocent civilians deserve to have someone stand up for them for they cannot stand up for themselves. Yemen is too small a country to be the fighting ground of a proxy war between two of the greatest powers in the Middle East and, ultimately, two of the greatest powers in the world. Something more needs to be done on an international scale, but must begin with the end of American support of the Saudi coalition.