Global Global Policy Studies & International Security

Khashoggi Killing Adds New Dimension to Yemen War — and New Opportunity for United States

Seventy years ago today, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human rights that enshrined the idea that every person has fundamental rights regardless of who they are or where they live. Yet since 2016, a civil war in Yemen has escalated into the largest manmade humanitarian crisis in modern memory. The world should be ashamed of its failure to protect the fundamental rights of people in Yemen to live without fear or want.

The crisis in Yemen should serve as a wake-up call to American citizens and lawmakers alike. The human costs are staggering- and most likely an incomplete picture. Two years ago, the United Nations stopped keeping a civilian death toll after 10,000 deaths. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project have estimated that over 50,000 people have died.

These figures show that the conflict has had an outsized effect on civilians. The Saudi-led coalition is using indiscriminate bombing tactics targeting urban areas and food supply systems, leaving 75 percent of the country’s population in need of aid. This year’s battle over the Red Sea port of Hodeida has resulted in a blockade of food imports that is threatening to starve 14 million people, mostly civilians. Yemen is home to the largest cholera outbreak in world history and yet essential medicines and supplies are unable to enter the country. Since Yemen was already the poorest country in the region, this has compounded dire conditions. The destruction of infrastructure and the inability of international aid to reach people means the country is facing mass famine due to staggering inflation.

Though Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for Yemen, has been shuttling between Washington, New York City, and Geneva to urge high-level officials to move forward on talks, the only break-through so far has been a prisoner swap between the Saudi-backed Hadi government and the Houthi rebels. The focus of the current talks in Stockholm is on confidence-building measures — precursors for peace, but not an agreement itself.

Despite the talks in Sweden, faith in international organizations is running thin. The UN has been working with the Houthis, the Hadi government, and the Saudi-led coalition on issues in Yemen since 2015 without success. Since the highly anticipated UN-backed talks in Geneva fell through in September, attention has turned to the US as a potential peace-maker.

It’s not that America needs to get involved — it already plays a vital role in the conflict. It has sold aircraft and provided the intelligence and logistics, including mid-air refueling missions, that have allowed Saudi Arabia to wage war. Though Riyadh is a key American ally in the region — and a major supplier of oil, propping up world energy markets — the United States now has an opportunity to use its influence.

U.S.-Saudi economic ties run deep, but should the Pentagon continue to participate in the Saudi-led coalition, it risks yet another foreign policy blunder in the Middle East. History will not look kindly on the unchecked willingness to provide Saudi the weaponry of war it is using to violate international law. Though U.S. policymakers fear leaving a vacuum for Iran-backed Houthi rebels, or worse, al-Qaeda, to fill, the prolonged conflict has counterproductively made the Houthis more sophisticated fighters and given Tehran a reason to bankroll them. This moment is a test of American commitment to the principles of human rights it claims to uphold.

The high-profile murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey could be the makings of an exit strategy. The international condemnation over Riyadh’s brazen act allows Washington to do more than slap the Kingdom on the wrist as it has done so far with individual-level sanctions. International Crisis Group President Robert Malley has urged the U.S. to take advantage of “this moment of increased leverage with the Kingdom to push for a ceasefire and support the UN envoy’s peace efforts.”

What can the United States do?

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Lee (R-UT), and Mike Murphy (D-CT) have drafted a resolution that invokes the 1973 War Powers Act to cut off U.S. support for the war in Yemen. This trio is notable as these Senators represent the full ideological spectrum of the Senate: Lee has Tea Party roots and Sanders is a democratic socialist. The resolution, soon to be debated on the Senate floor, has attracted unexpected Republican support due to a controversial CIA briefing after which some US Senators reported feeling misled about the Saudi royal family’s role in the Khashoggi killing. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) has been outspoken about his shift from one of Washington’s staunchest Saudi supporters to vowing to refuse additional arms sales to Saudi Arabia until Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is removed. After a surprise vote to advance the resolution for a full vote, he explained, “I changed my mind because I’m pissed.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis supported a ceasefire, saying, “We need to be doing this in the next 30 days. We have mired in this problem long enough.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for an end to Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in densely populated areas of the country. But both are on the Hill this week urging Senators to vote for continued military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Despite Rep.e Ro Khanna’s (D-CA) effort in the House to vote on the American support of the coalition’s actions in Yemen, the bill was blocked by House Republicans. The effort in the Senate is the legislative branch’s chance to prove to Riyadh that their campaign in Yemen is damaging the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Even if the bill doesn’t pass in the House, Senate approval would be “hugely symbolic,” according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and the head of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution.

The Khashoggi incident has brought renewed attention to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the United States is at risk of missing an opportunity to use its considerable leverage to end the conflict. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights casts a long historical shadow. The question for U.S. policy is whether it will see beyond its own economic interests or allow Saudi atrocities in Yemen to continue.

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