No group has more to gain from an end to Yemen’s five-year-old civil war, a humanitarian disaster and bloody quagmire, than the Yemeni people themselves, among whom there is a thirst for peace. That is true also of the Yemeni American community, which watches on in horror as both family members and cherished homes are lost to the seemingly unending violence and destruction, and as the United States fuels the fighting and turns its back on those displaced by war.
The Yemeni American community has not just been watching, however: they have been taking action. Since Donald Trump signed the Muslim ban in January 2017, one of his first acts in office, Yemeni Americans have been galvanized to civic action, starting with the “bodega strike” a week after the ban was announced. Then, thousands of Yemeni Bodega owners in New York City closed their shops to protest. Yemeni Americans also played an instrumental role in flipping the only two remaining Republican seats in southern Brooklyn from red to blue in 2018, helping elect Democrat Max Rose to the House of Representatives. Southern Brooklyn had been under the control of Republicans for the previous three decades. Now, there is an opportunity to harness this energy to end the war in Yemen.
Trump’s White House fundamentally views the Yemen War as a conflict with Iran and over Iranian influence, rather than the reality that in the war, Yemen is facing a civil crisis exacerbated and catalyzed by foreign intervention.
Yemeni Americans have historically been a quiet group, and their shift towards political mobilization is unprecedented. In response to the war and the Muslim ban, they are becoming deeply involved in civic life and building networks and organizations to exert influence to make sure their needs are heard. Communities are funding and delivering aid to Yemen, where their families are suffering because of the Saudi blockade, the Houthi blockade of Taiz, the quiet economic war between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, and frontline fighting that often cuts off road access. Yemenis have also played a key role in pressuring congressional and local government leaders to work towards a resolution and an end to the conflict.
The United States has failed the Yemeni American community on this front, under both Obama and Trump. The current administration has failed to do anything but fuel the destruction and perpetuate the violence that has cost tens of thousands of lives. Trump and his backers continue to view Yemen largely through the lens of its campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran. This view of a greater, omnipresent danger has echoes of the dangerous ideas and flawed logic of the Cold War, such as combating “spheres of influence” that flattens the reality on the ground and neglects to consider the actual issues and needs of the nation in turmoil.
Trump’s White House fundamentally views the Yemen War as a conflict with Iran and over Iranian influence, rather than the reality that in the war, Yemen is facing a civil crisis exacerbated and catalyzed by foreign intervention. Despite the White House’s Iran obsession and skewed coverage, it is hard to gauge exactly how much influence Iran has over the Houthis and their goals in Yemen and neighboring countries. While the Iranian government provides financial aid and military supplies to the Yemeni group, the Houthis are largely self-reliant, and their leadership is insular and focused on its own local goals. Ironically, the longer the war has gone on, the closer the Houthi-Iran relationship has become.
The continued immiseration of the Yemeni population serves no side in the conflict, and the growing financial cost of the war has deflated the zealousness of external actors, like Saudi Arabia, that has domestic crises of its own to deal with. Saudi Arabia has major influence over the military conflict as the primary coalition-backer of the internationally recognized Hadi government in Yemen, and the first foreign actor to attack the Houthis in 2015. The Saudis say they want out of the war, and that they recognize it cannot be ended through military victory. But it is yet to find a workable compromise with the Houthis. The United States can use its financial leverage over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to help de-escalate and eventually end the war.
Foreign interventions in domestic conflicts ordinarily end with a diplomatic solution that includes international pressure to end the fighting and limit external powers’ role. In this case, the major supporting powers include the United States, and to a lesser extent the U.K., Canada, and European countries, that continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the war. U.S. support for Saudi Arabia is a major factor, and the threat of a withdrawal of that support by a Biden administration could act as an important lever with the Saudis. Careful mediation of the conflict by the U.N. is also vital. The Yemen war is multi-layered, but the U.N. currently engages only two parties, the Houthis and the internationally recognized government. True peace will be between all of the armed, political, and civil society groups that have a stake in Yemen’s future.
The confluence of all of these factors presents an opportunity for a more peace-oriented, more compassionate American administration to help Yemen achieve peace. The United States can play a major role in ending this conflict by threatening to end support — the supply of weapons, military equipment, logistical support, and intelligence — for Saudi military forces fighting in Yemen, requesting its allies to do the same, and demanding that Riyadh outline a clear plan for ending the war.
At the same time, it should work with regional and other international partners to intensify diplomatic efforts with all sides to the conflict and pressure both sides to a diplomatic compromise mediated by the United Nations. With a critical mass of parties genuinely willing to negotiate a peace, the party failing to come to the table will have to deal with an unsupportive Yemeni citizenry.
Instead of engaging in diplomacy, however, the Trump administration is casting about for coercive tools to use on the Houthis. With reports that the Trump administration is again considering the dangerous and counterproductive move to designate the Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization, unless things should change drastically, the chance for a diplomatic solution rests with a future Biden administration. Moreover, Biden has recently stated that under his leadership he would end U.S. support for Saudi military intervention in Yemen, a move supported by Congress, and reassess the current close U.S.-Saudi relationship.
It remains to be seen if Biden will win out in the presidential election next month, and if he does, whether he will follow through on his words with action. But the time for the United States to remove itself from the position of accomplice and exert pressure to end the conflict is now.