When it comes to Yemen, there are dual realities. For Yemeni civilians living through the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, relief can’t come soon enough; along with the bombing and shelling from combatants, torture, cholera, and starvation are now bearing down with previously unthinkable urgency. But for those with power over the conflict—both in Yemen and abroad—“world’s worst humanitarian crisis” is less concrete. It’s an epithet to ignore, or a bargaining chip, or a distant problem, rather than a matter of life and death.
For much of the past year, as desperation reached new heights in Yemen, the gulf between these realities widened. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia, a major player in the conflict, made a strategic decision to tighten its stranglehold on the country, further restricting civilian access to food and aid; a year later, in November 2018, Yemen likely had its deadliest month of the war.
But over the past few weeks, much of that changed. In an opportune coincidence, parties to Yemen’s conflict convened on Capitol Hill and in a castle in Sweden—and in a matter of days, the military and geopolitical conditions were realigned, allowing room for hope. Now Yemen’s war is at a critical moment, and the fate of 28 million people hangs in the balance.
Breaking Through to the Warring Parties
On December 6, in Rimbo, Sweden, the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, began a week-long process of shuttling back and forth between meetings with representatives from Yemen’s two main warring parties. It was the first time a mediator had successfully brought officials from the internationally recognized government and the rebel movement known as the Houthis to the negotiating table since 2016, and, surprisingly, they embraced each other warmly—with kisses, smiles, and photo ops. These awkward pleasantries alone were critical symbolic victories. But in war and peace, symbolic victories are only as meaningful as the material victories they beget.
The agenda was ambitious. Heading into the negotiations, Griffiths had a list of goals that would build confidence between the parties, provide much-needed relief to ill and starving civilians, and ultimately lay the groundwork for future efforts to establish peace. The grand prize was the final goal: the revitalization—most likely via some kind of UN takeover—of Yemen’s main port in the city of Hodeida, where about three-quarters of the country’s food normally enters. Though the Houthis have controlled the port since 2014, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervening on behalf of the Yemeni government, has imposed a suffocating naval blockade—a main driver of the humanitarian crisis—and ground troops have been preparing to launch a third bloody assault on the city.
Leading up to the talks, most Yemen analysts were careful not to overpromise, and some were downright fatalistic. Considering the failure of past negotiations—and the Houthis’ tendency to renege on promises—significant steps toward humanitarian relief and peace seemed far off. “Unfortunately, the odds are high that the consultations will break down amid mutual recriminations, as has happened during all previous rounds,” Peter Salisbury, a Yemen analyst, wrote for the International Crisis Group.
But somehow Griffiths fostered an atmosphere of good faith in Sweden. In addition to smiles and handshakes, the negotiations kicked off with word of a “confidence-building” prisoner swap—at first about 5,000 people were to be released, but by the end of the talks, the government and the Houthis agreed to release more than 16,000 fighters, teachers, tribal and religious leaders, and even children. Then, after some intense back and forth, the two sides agreed to reopen the country’s largest airport, thus reestablishing a crucial channel for aid.
With these positive developments, pessimism seemed to melt away over the course of negotiations, and the grand prize—a Hodeida agreement—appeared to be within reach.
Finding Daylight in Congress
The war in Yemen began as an internal insurrection stemming from Arab Spring unrest; and in Sweden, the only players directly at the negotiating table (other than mediators) were Yemenis. But since March 2015, when Saudi Arabia organized a military coalition to intervene on behalf of the government, Yemen has ballooned into a regional, even global war, with second and third parties inflicting a majority of the civilian casualties. Therefore, even though the Houthis have committed horrifying atrocities and are responsible for their own share of civilian casualties, much anti-war activism has been focused on Saudi Arabia and its main backer, the United States.
According to several international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Washington’s material support for the Saudi-led coalition could make the United States complicit in war crimes. Yet US leaders—and, for what it’s worth, mainstream media—have been painfully slow to acknowledge their culpability in Yemen’s disaster. During his tenure, President Obama backed the Saudi intervention through arms sales, intelligence, and logistical support—largely to temper Saudi leaders’ discomfort with his administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. And the Trump administration’s unsettling intimacy with Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman has all but ensured the current commander in chief’s unwavering support for the Yemen operation. So it’s up to Congress to check the US role in Yemen.
Though a few lawmakers have railed against US support for the Saudi-led coalition from the start of its intervention, it was two and a half years before someone took concrete action. In September 2017, and again in September 2018, freshman Democratic representative Ro Khanna introduced legislation invoking the War Powers Resolution—a 1973 act asserting Congress’s exclusive power to authorize military action—to compel Trump to end US support for the coalition. In both cases, it was quashed in the House—first by both the Republican and Democratic leadership, then just by the Republicans—before it had a chance to make it to the floor for debate. And in the Senate, efforts from the cross-partisan trio of Bernie Sanders (I), Chris Murphy (D), and Mike Lee (R) met a similar fate in March. Apparently Congress didn’t think addressing the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe was important enough to run the risk of damaging US relations with Saudi Arabia.
But then came a breakthrough: When it became clear to the world—particularly to Congress—that Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, everything about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, including the situation in Yemen, was called into question. Taking advantage of the moment, Sanders revived his tabled War Powers legislation, and on November 28, the Senate voted by a wide margin—63 to 37—to move forward with a debate. For the first time, there was a viable route to ending US involvement in Yemen.
On December 13, the sagas in both Washington and Sweden reached their climaxes.
First, Griffiths, the UN envoy, announced that he had successfully brokered a cease-fire for Hodeida. Both government/coalition and Houthi fighters agreed to withdraw from the city, and international monitors were arranged to facilitate the revitalization of the port and ensure that both sides were adhering to the agreement.
Then, after fending off procedural attacks and amendment proposals, 56 US senators, including six Republicans, voted to pass the Sanders-Murphy-Lee legislation aimed at compelling President Trump to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition. It was the first affirmative vote invoking the War Powers Resolution in its 45-year history.
The word “historic” has been thrown around a lot in recent days. The signing of the Hodeida truce was “historic.” Handshakes between government and Houthi officials were “historic.” The Senate held a “historic vote” on a “historic resolution.” These statements are all undoubtedly true, insofar as “historic” means pertinent to history. However, considering all that’s happened in the past three and a half years, and considering that tens of millions of Yemenis are staring down a whole new level of desperation, it’s vitally important for advocates and citizens to avoid confusing “historic” with “final.”
For one, the Sweden negotiations are still on shaky ground. On December 17, Griffiths announced that the cease-fire in Hodeida was set to commence the following day. But for a few hours after implementation, there was still intense fighting between government and Houthi forces around the city. And even if the Hodeida truce holds, some analysts question whether it will actually function as a step toward peace. As Nadwa Al-Dawsari, an expert in the internal dynamics of Yemen, has pointed out, temporary, internationally brokered political settlements have collapsed before. “The devil is in the details,” she wrote; as long as the international community sees temporary agreements like Hodeida as the end goal, and as long as the internal political conflicts remain unaddressed, Yemen is doomed to further turmoil.
On the UN side, there’s also the issue of the Security Council, which is often overlooked in conversations about Yemen. The current Security Council resolution pertaining to the war—passed in April 2015, just weeks after the start of the Saudi-led intervention—is inadequate and severely outdated. It calls on the Houthis, who have controlled Yemen’s capital city for more than four years, to effectively give up, and doesn’t provide enforcement mechanisms for future treaties. In late November, the United States and other Security Council members blocked a new Yemen resolution, proposed by the United Kingdom, that would have specifically addressed Hodeida. In light of the aggressive, and effective, lobbying by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it’s hard to know when another resolution might have a chance at passing.
On the US side, although it sent an encouraging message, the December 13 Senate vote was not nearly enough to effect material change. In order to force a real showdown with the Trump administration, War Powers legislation has to pass both the Senate and the House. And thanks to House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Republicans, and five Democrats, the House will almost certainly not vote on significant Yemen legislation this session. That means that both the House and the Senate will have to redo the “historic” voting process after the new Congress takes over on January 3.
Luckily, Democrats—for whom Yemen has mostly become a party-line issue—have won a majority in the House and only lost a couple of seats in the Senate. But there’s more than whip math at play in the coming Congress. Many of the senators who supported the Sanders-Murphy-Lee Yemen legislation appear to have done so for reasons other than concern for imperiled Yemenis. The Khashoggi assassination was undoubtedly a main motivation: Democrat Bob Menendez, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced his support for the resolution after hearing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis brief the Senate on Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia. “It’s time to send Saudi Arabia a message,” he told reporters. Similarly, after the same briefing, Republican Lindsey Graham said, “I get Yemen, I understand the strategic relationship between us and Saudi Arabia, but I’m not going to blow past” the Khashoggi murder. (Graham voted for the legislation in late November, but abstained the second time around.)
The question of Iran was also hanging over Capitol Hill in the run-up to the Sanders-Murphy-Lee votes. Though Iran’s role in the war is debatable—and has been exaggerated by Riyadh—Saudi leaders and some in the United States see the war against the Houthis as an important proxy battle with Iran, since the Houthis and Iran are verbally allied, and Iran is alleged to be smuggling weapons into Yemen. For some lawmakers, like Republican Senator Todd Young, the question of whether to support the Saudi-led coalition is all about how the offensive affects Iranian power. “Does Iran have more or less influence in Yemen now than it did a year ago—or when the civil war started?” he asked on the Senate floor.
These senators and others aligned with them have spoken out about the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, but it’s clear that they are mostly concerned about regional power struggles. If anger over Khashoggi’s murder subsides, or if the calculations of Iran hawks change, sentiment might turn against War Powers legislation.
‘The Life I Deserve to Live’
Whatever the reality in the minds of Houthi leaders, Yemeni government officials, Mohammed bin Salman, or US lawmakers, the crisis in Yemen is dire. Recently, the UN’s top humanitarian official warned of a “great big famine”—entirely man-made—that could threaten the lives of half the country’s population in 2019.
“This isn’t the life I deserve to live,” a Yemeni woman named Nour tweeted recently. Let’s hope that those with power over the conflict agree, and soon come to realize that peace followed by inclusive political dialogue is the only way to ensure that Yemenis have a future.