Last month marked the sixth anniversary of the onset of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, an occasion marked by the publication by Foreign Affairs of a remarkably frank critique of U.S. policy by Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper, two senior advisors on Middle Eastern affairs in the Obama administration.
In their article entitled “Accomplice to Carnage,” they accurately described the war as “an open wound for the United States.” Acknowledging their government’s partial responsibility for the catastrophe, they analyzed the frantic diplomacy that took place in theU.S. National Security Council in 2015 after Saudi Arabia requested support for its military intervention in Yemen. The picture they drew spoke of the ambivalence of a superpower torn by its desire to leave behind interventionist policies while honoring long-term security commitments. As the authors point out, the near completion of the Iran nuclear deal that same year created a sense of vulnerability for the Saudis, and the Obama administration wished to “reassure” its long-time partner by offering support.
A latecomer to America’s drone wars, Yemen has been the first country to suffer the consequences of its policy of retrenchment — shifting responsibility for maintaining security in the region to its allies. Yet, Riyadh’s U.S.-backed military engagement in Yemen and the means by which it has been carried out — starvation as a weapon of war and the destruction of civilian infrastructure and ancient cities — bears comparison to Washington’s military misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. While Malley and Pomper’s reflections start with the period immediately preceding the war, revisiting earlier decades helps us understand how it unfolded within the context of America’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia.
Mohammad bin Salman’s Yemen expedition has certainly not occurred in a historical vacuum. Ambitious Saudi princes eager to prove their valor and fitness for rule have been conducting them for almost a century. During Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen in 1934, the troops of Ibn Saud’s son (and future king), Faisal, occupied the Yemeni Red seaport of Hodeida. Ibn Saud twice urged him to withdraw, reminding him of the past failures in Yemen of much stronger Ottoman armies. Faisal’s occupation was short-lived.
In 2009-10, Khalid bin Sultan, then assistant for military affairs at the ministry of defense, led a new intervention in support of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s operation against the Houthis that marked the beginning of a decidedly more assertive policy. Indeed, Saudi concern with events in its southern neighbor only intensified with the advent of Yemen’s “Arab Spring,” in which the Houthis played an important part, in 2011.
Having succeeded in taking the edge off Yemen’s protest movement by replacing the reviled Saleh with his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, in accordance with the transition agreement sponsored by the Gulf states, Riyadh’s leaders had hoped that the former political system would remain intact. However, taking advantage of the turmoil set off by the Arab Spring, the Houthis made sweeping territorial gain over the next four years by winning over several tribes through a combined strategy of using force, providing security, and resolving age-old feuds.
While Saudi Arabia’s leadership had long made its concern over Iranian influence on the Peninsula the cornerstone of its policy towards Yemen, these new developments — as well as the botched campaign by Khalid, which it saw as unfinished business — set the stage for MbS’s current war only weeks after his appointment as deputy crown prince and minister of defense in 2015.
As Malley and Pomper assert about Washington’s support for the 2015 Saudi campaign, “The United States has had a major hand in Yemen from the beginning and thus must answer for its part in the tragedy.”But that hand had arguably already been at work at least a decade before. It was in 2004 that the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, unsettled by anti-American slogans during protests organized by the Houthis against the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and Yemen’s close cooperation with Washington at the time, urged Saleh to nip the protest movement in the bud. Sensing an opportunity to mend fences with Washington after Yemen’s failure to offer support in the 1991 Gulf War, Saleh obliged by sending his troops to arrest the Houthi leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a move that sparked an armed conflict that engulfed much of the north.
Malley and Pomper’s description of the decision-making process at the National Security Council raises the question whether, in the aftermath of both the U.S. fiasco in Iraq and Khalid’s brutal campaign in northern Yemen, recent events in Yemen and its own vexed relationship with Saudi Arabia were sufficiently understood.
“The [U.S.] administration also hoped that… American advisors could professionalize their Saudi counterparts… and, when necessary, rein them in,” the authors observed. But if this was indeed the administration’s expectation, it was surely unrealistic as the authors themselves admit: “The coalition resorted to brass-knuckle tactics early on… It bombed critical infrastructure, such as container cranes and food-production facilities… U.S. officials… had no illusions that the Saudi armed forces, although well supplied with modern U.S. weapons, were a precision instrument.”
But this should have come as no surprise. There had been no shortage of warnings from U.S. diplomats on the ground. James B. Smith, Washington’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2009-13), observed during Khalid’s 2009-10 campaign that “the Saudi military has employed massively disproportionate force in its effort to repel and clear the lightly armed Houthi guerillas [sic] from the border area.” And, in what proved prescient, Stephen Seche, the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen between 2007 and 2010, noted, “We can think of few ways to more effectively encourage Iranian meddling in the Houthi rebellion than to have all of Yemen's Sunni neighbors line up to finance and outfit Ali Abdullah Saleh's self-described ‘Operation Scorched Earth’ against his country's Shia minority.”
Fast forward to 2015, one wonders whether Obama’s National Security Council undertook an appropriate threat assessment. Why did it not query Saudi Arabia’s professed anxiety over a rag-tag (albeit battle-hardened) militia? At that time, Iranian support was limited; it consisted mainly in providing diplomatic cover and assistance with media with a few militia leaders trained abroad. The Houthis did not need Iranian weapons; during the earlier wars, they obtained their weapons from army units and bases they had captured. After 2014, they gained access to ballistic missiles stored in Saleh’s arsenal. They were pursuing a purely domestic agenda, and their activities respected the Saudi border — a restraint that ended after the Saudis had bombed and blockaded civilian targets. Remarkably, the Saudi embassy’s press statement justifying the launch of military operations in Yemen on March 25, 2015 failed even to refer to Iran.
Malley and Pomper’s account leaves the impression that Iranian influence was key to the Saudi decision to launch their offensive in 2015. But Riyadh’s influence in northern Yemen was clearly already on the wane. Their patronage system among the tribes and the network of mostly Saudi-sponsored Salafi institutes had crumbled. It was the Saudi attempt to recover and to expand influence by force that provoked the Iranians, whose twin regional objectives have been to prevent Saudi Arabia from taking control of Yemen through military intervention and from interfering in Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, the Iranians understand that the Houthis are fighting for an independent, sovereign state and to preserve a version of Shi‘ism unique to Yemen. They also appreciate that the Houthis do not want Iran to merely supplant the Saudis. Unlike Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which occupy Yemeni territory never held by the Houthis, Iran has built neither institutions nor military bases there.
The Houthi conflict has its roots in local grievances, but the various attempts at making peace to date have failed to address them. The 2012 GCC-backed agreement in the wake of the Arab Spring denied the Houthis a stake in the new government, and their request to contribute 30,000 men into the national army was rejected outright. The U.N.-brokered Peace and National Partnership agreement of 2015 was intended to bring them into the political process, but, before the signing ceremony, MbS launched his air campaign – dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm” (a seemingly deliberate echo of George H.W. Bush’s 1991 “Operation Desert Storm”) — with the support of U.S. intelligence, inflight refuelling services, targeting information, and arms.
Washington was no doubt gratified that one of its allies was at last taking action for itself. However, following in America’s footsteps will not ameliorate entrenched enmities and conflicts that have their roots in local grievances. The six years of war in Yemen demonstrate the devastating consequences of the ambiguities of Obama’s attempt to step back while remaining militarily engaged.
Some parts of “Accomplice to Carnage,” despite the implications of its title, read like an attempt to exonerate the U.S. from potential accusations of complicity in war crimes. But it remains to be seen how (literally) fuelling the Saudi air campaign will be interpreted by human rights lawyers in the future. There can be no doubt that the Washington’s support kept Saudi planes from falling out of the sky. “For reasons both moral and strategic, the Biden administration should make it a priority to disentangle the United States from the war in Yemen and do what it can to bring the conflict to a long-overdue conclusion,” advise Malley, who now serves as Biden’s Special Envoy on Iran, and Pomper. While Biden indeed appears determined to negotiate an end to the conflict, he also seems reluctant to sever military ties with Riyadh, pledging to continue supplying the kingdom with “defensive” arms and assistance.
To persuade the Saudis that America’s renewed pursuit of détente with Iran will not come at their expense, and that they must cease their blockade of Yemen, the U.S. president will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope. If the April 9 exploratory talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Baghdad lead eventually to a gradual disengagement of foreign powers from Yemen, Biden’s hopes of ending that conflict and more generally of de-escalating tensions in the fractured Middle East might begin to bear fruit.
Correction by the author: The Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA) was brokered in September 2014, not 2015, with apologies. Due to earlier violations of the agreement by all signatories, then U.N. Envoy to Yemen and chief negotiator, Jamal Benomar, had just negotiated a new peace deal when the bombing started.
Gabriele vom Bruck is Senior Lecturer in the Social Anthropology of the Middle East at SOAS program, University of London. She is the author of Islam, Memory and Morality in Yemen, and Mirrored Loss: A Yemeni Woman's Life Story.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, center L, arrives a joint news conference at Riyadh Air Base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, May 7, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Harnik/Pool
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
keep readingShow less
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
Dear RS readers: It has been an extraordinary year and our editing team has been working overtime to make sure that we are covering the current conflicts with quality, fresh analysis that doesn’t cleave to the mainstream orthodoxy or take official Washington and the commentariat at face value. Our staff reporters, experts, and outside writers offer top-notch, independent work, daily. Please consider making a tax-exempt, year-end contribution to Responsible Statecraft so that we can continue this quality coverage — which you will find nowhere else — into 2024. Happy Holidays!
keep readingShow less
Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?