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Contradicting Narratives: The U.S. And The War In Yemen

Despite international calls for conflict resolution in Yemen, the United States has played a significant and damaging role in its current crisis.

More than ten years ago, the world witnessed the beginning of the Arab Spring, signaling a new era of democracy blossoming within the Middle East. However,  expectations fell short as peaceful political transitions failed to occur, with one igniting the long-standing civil war in Yemen. With many of Yemen’s citizens struggling with food shortages, lack of healthcare, and an economic disaster, Biden’s decision to revoke the United States’ support for offensive action is a first step in American foreign policy towards undoing years of injustice. 

On February 4, 2021, President Joe Biden made his first speech outlining American foreign policy’s new trajectories. With regard to the  Middle East, there was no mention of Iran. During his time as president, Donald Trump described Iran as a key foreign policy concern, targeting its people through heavy sanctions and threats of war. Early in 2020, he authorized the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, which ignited fears over increased tensions, and pushed for the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, which has American officials concerned over nuclear proliferation within the country. Even in his last days in office, Trump had to be dissuaded by senior officials from striking a nuclear facility in Iran. While tensions and questions over the two nations’ relations have been unanswered, Biden instead focused on Yemen. 

While many consider this to be a dismissive action, Biden ceasing arms support for Saudi-backed offenses in Yemen is a necessary shift in foreign policy. Under the last two presidencies, the nation has aided in the destruction of Yemen, resulting in 3.6 million internally displaced Yemenis and 233,000 casualties. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the war has left 22 million, or 75% of the population, in desperate need of humanitarian aid. In 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Council put out a statement on the state of the Yemen civil war: 

“Six years into this unnecessary war, we need states to take practical and resolute steps to advance the cause of accountability…The conflict escalated with the military intervention of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition on March 26, 2015. Since that time, fighting has continued, with each new round of violence increasing the suffering of civilians.”

Despite international calls for conflict resolution in Yemen, the United States has played a significant and damaging role in its current crisis. Washington has authorized numerous drone strikes within the nation. While these were aimed at militants, many of them hit civilians, contributing to the region’s destabilization, as 374 strikes have totaled in roughly 1,300 to 1,700 deaths as of 2017. Additionally, the United States government has consistently backed the Saudi and UAE-led coalition using the region as a proxy war against Iran. Donald Trump has also bought into this sentiment “that a military win in Yemen for the kingdom and its allies would be a defeat for Iran, while a negotiated settlement with the Houthis would be a victory for Tehran.” It seemed unrealistic that the United States would change its stance on the matter for some time now. The Saudi-United States arms deal signed in May 2017 was worth 350 billion dollars over the next ten years and 110 billion dollars within the same year. Countless indiscriminate strikes by Saudi forces on civilians and civilian infrastructure had used weapons traced back to the American arms deal. There has been devastation laid out across Yemeni hospitals, schools, weddings, funerals, and so much more. While Saudi Arabia and the United States have stated they are only attacking rebels or militants, civilians have been stripped of stability, their safety, and now struggle for basic survival. 

Considering the humanitarian crisis, Biden’s decision to withdraw American support for Saudi forces in the region could provide some level of relief to Yemen. The United States will no longer back the offensive operations and will cease the arms sale. This greatly contrasts not only the narrative of the Trump administration, but of the Obama administration as well. While the Trump administration used the phrase “unconditional support” in regards to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s attacks, Obama described America’s support as conditional based on “a legitimate threat posed by missiles on the Saudi border and the Houthi overthrow of the Yemeni government, with support from Iran.” Despite these claims, evidence that the Houthi rebels were originally supported by Iran is murky at best. However, the technicality behind the levels of support America is willing to give to Saudi Arabia ignores the humanitarian crisis of the Yemeni people. They have suffered dramatically as collateral damage for a proxy war they never agreed to participate in. 

This is the first step of many for the United States and the international community to assist in bringing peace to Yemen. Withdrawing troops and arms can only go so far. There must be swift action in regards to sending humanitarian aid and supplies to better the Yemeni people’s immediate conditions. Additionally, the COVID pandemic has served to exacerbate medical supply shortages, and hospital capacity is at risk, with only half of health facilities able to function. Biden has already increased the number of accepted refugees to 125,000 from 15,000 and eased sanctions in Yemen in order for aid organizations to operate without such high risk until February 26. International organizations such as the WHO and UNICEF have already begun to mediate these issues but at the same time cannot address the root of the problem: a lack of accountability for global superpowers and their role in breaking international law. On February 26, President Biden authorized an airstrike in Syria as a warning to Iran. According to Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, “The United Nations Charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response to an armed attack on the defending state for which the target state is responsible. None of those elements is met in the Syria strike.”

There has to be accountability among the militant forces within and outside that have contributed to this destabilization. With nations authorizing indiscriminate strikes against civilians, accountability is the bare minimum the international community can seek to provide justice for Yemen.

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By Zoya Ansari

Zoya Ansari is a fourth year Political Science major at UCLA with a concentration in American Politics and a minor in Public Affairs. She is interested in immigration law reform and plans on attending law school in the future.

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