By Benny Sun
In a region marred by poverty, death, and disease, Yemen hopelessly sinks further and further into chaos as both the Coronavirus and the deep-seated violence of war continue to fester within the country. Now in its sixth year of the war, Yemen’s crisis has been dubbed the “Worst Humanitarian Crisis” by the United Nations with reports indicating over 14 million Yemenis in deep poverty and 20 million civilians on the brink of starvation. Under this brutal conflict, in 2015, Saudi Arabia launched its air campaign over Yemen to protect the Sunni-backed Yemen government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. What started as a few skirmishes quickly escalated into an all-out war and now an all-out human catastrophe. However, as civilian casualty rates continue to increase and the economic effects take its toll on Saudi Arabia, the Yemen conflict is entering into a new chapter, one whose fate could be entirely decided by the United States.
Announced in April of 2020, Saudi Arabia declared a ceasefire in the Yemen region in order for the alliance to recoup their losses from the coronavirus. Soon after, in May of 2020, the United Nations declared comments on the success of the ceasefire, finding that recent attempts “significant progress on negotiations”. However, despite this progress, there are still extreme tensions between the Saudi air force and Houthi rebels. For instance, the port of Hodeida, the country’s main access to aid and food from other countries, was attacked despite the ongoing ceasefire. Even on April 24th, the Houthis accused Saudi Arabia of violating the ceasefire 241 times in 48 hours, demonstrating that the existing hostilities could easily boil back into an all-out war. Unfortunately, while tensions are near the boiling point, recent actions by the United States could intensify conflict in Yemen and re-ignite the fighting, destroying all progress seen in the last few months. Against the behest of Congress, Trump officials are planning again to sell billions of dollars more into Saudi Arabia in munitions, arms sales, and weaponry so that Saudi Arabia can continue its fight in Yemen. This is especially significant, as against the backdrop of 2019, where Trump vetoed a resolution to end arms sales which were supported by both the House and the Senate, existing defiances by the executive branch again could set more clashes between Trump and Congress. Specifically, Trump plans to add 478 million dollars in existing deals which would add more than 7,500 more precision-guided missiles and expand Saudi Arabia’s access to advanced weaponry. Overall, to better understand the geopolitical implications of recent actions, one must first understand the arguments on both sides.
Congress has drawn the human toll attributed to American weaponry by Saudi Arabian fighter jets over Yemen. Currently, 60% of Saudi Arabia’s arms deliveries originate from the United States. Not only does Saudi Arabia depend on external weapons, but America even provides a daily supply for maintenance, refueling, and logistical training. Therefore, many would argue that if the United States ended its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, they would be left unable to fly their planes and continue these campaigns. Essentially, on every level, current Saudi Arabian military equipment relies on American training and technology. Moreover, mere backing Saudi Arabia could push them towards fighting rather than strong diplomacy, as Foreign Policy Expert Trita Parsi explains that when the United States militarily backs Saudi Arabia up, they become emboldened to expand in conflict violence in the first place. This is because when a major world power like the United States backs up Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia perceives this support as greenlight for further action. And with Trump continuing to ignore many human rights violations done by Saudi Arabia, it definitely could be the case. On the other hand, in November 2019, when Saudi Arabia recognized that the US military was no longer at their disposal, Parsi concluded that Saudi Arabia “began exercising diplomatic talks”. Consequently, there was a miraculous 80% drop in airstrikes with little casualties two weeks after this incident. It is therefore understandable why Congress is so uneasy about Trump’s recent actions: if the United States continues to fund the war effort, the Yemen situation would quickly boil over. Problematically,, Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes have become synonymous with terror in Yemen repented by both the civilians and the international public. In fact, according to a report from the New York Times, nearly 4,600 civilians have been killed in the crossfire as a result of inaccurate bombing from Saudi Arabia. An especially tragic incident occurred when Saudi officers subverted their chain of command and struck a funeral hall mourning the deaths of Houthi rebels which killed over 155 people. To conclude this chapter simply, NJ Senator Bob Menendez finds that “since 2015, we have seen Saudi Arabia utilize American-made weapons in what started as a campaign to restore the legitimate Yemeni government but has degenerated into one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in the world and a wholly destabilizing campaign”.
Conversely, Trump’s decision to continue supporting Saudi Arabia only furthers America’s long track record with the United States. As early as the 1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt declared oil as a strategic resource, the federal government established a strong connection with Saudi Arabia. Since then, even with its bumpy relations including the oil embargo 1970s or later events of 9/11, America established strong economic ties which later flourished into a military alliance as well. To address existing concerns, many experts such as writer Tom Rogan predict that Trump is utilizing its leverage as a trusted ally to push Saudi Arabia towards ceasefires and better targeting practices. For example, in 2017, the Trump administration required Saudi Arabia to buy 750 million dollars worth of US training to further mitigate civilian casualties. Although the results have been mixed, these efforts could demonstrate the leverage the United States could have over Saudi Arabia's relationship. Therefore, if Trump ended the relationship with Saudi Arabia by cutting off these arms sales, they could lose this important leverage to control Saudi Arabia’s action, prompting Saudi Arabia to continue aggressively pushing in the area. This is especially important as the main reason why Saudi Arabia decided to launch its air campaign has always been to reduce Iranian or Shia influence in the Middle Eastern region. Thus, even without Trump’s arms sales, the war in Yemen could still theoretically continue. This is because as the Economist reports, the United States is competing with other major rivals in arms sales including Russia or China. Rostec, a state-owned Russian firm, sold over 13 billion dollars of weapons to the region of the Middle East with Chinese firms closely following behind. Thus, a common claim by the Trump administration has been that if they ended their relationship, Saudi Arabia could simply buy weapons from other countries like Russia or China.
Overall, despite popular protests from both Congress and most Americans, Trump will continue to aid Saudi Arabia in fighting the war in Yemen. While current negotiations are taking place, it is important to understand that America’s actions in the next few months will become vital in the outcomes of these events. Thus, Trump’s recent decision to expand arms sales could either become a curse for the people of Yemen or a signal of restraint for Saudi Arabia. Only time will tell.