Commentary: US participation in Yemen civil war must be scrutinized

The U.S. Senate did the right thing on Dec. 13 when it invoked the War Powers Resolution and voted to end American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. This conflict and the silent but deadly U.S. participation in it deserves exposure. Since it was passed over President Richard Nixon’s veto in November 1973, the controversial but persistent War Powers Act has been referenced some 140 times by Congress, but seldom with the visibility and importance attached to the recent Senate action.

American missions in Yemen have transpired since 2002, when authorities began to expand the hunt for Al Qaeda terrorists, who remain a serious threat there. But conditions in Yemen have really deteriorated since March 2015, when Houthi rebels began attacking the incumbent transition government which had been in place for four years. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which includes the U.S. along with United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Sudan, Morocco and France, backs the incumbent government versus the Houthis.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Meanwhile, Iran is allegedly in the Houthis’ corner, an indication that the conflict is seen in terms of the Shia-Sunni split in the Muslim world. Additionally, there are remnants of the Islamic State terror group in Yemen who have claimed control of several provinces and battled the Houthis themselves.

Then there is the separatist group in Yemen who want to reestablish South Yemen, an independent nation until it merged with current Yemen in 1990. While they have announced formation of a united military force to deal with Yemen, the Arab League hasn’t taken any substantive action yet. Conversely, groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross, together with foreign citizens working in Yemen, have evacuated due to the extremely dangerous conditions.

U.S. military operations in Yemen have taken many forms. From 2002 until now, America has conducted drone strikes in Yemen to eliminate Al Qaeda forces. Those attacks have killed some 240 Al Qaeda members since 2015, but have likewise resulted in twice that number of civilian deaths. Just a week into his presidency, Donald Trump witnessed the death of an American commando in a raid against Al Qaeda positions.

From the beginning of the Yemen civil war in March 2015, the U.S. has furnished guidance, intelligence, and reconnaissance to the Saudi military. However, the main area of assistance has been midair refueling of Saudi and UAE aircraft. A recent study found that that the Department of Defense is undercharging refueling costs to both Saudi Arabia and UAE by at least $331 million.

By any measure, Yemen’s civil war has had a devastating impact on the nation and its citizens. For instance, although up to 200,000 rebels have been killed, so have up to 10,000 innocent civilians, mostly through air raids. Up to 2 million citizens have been displaced within the nation, and thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring nations.

Of those still in Yemen, 22 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, of which at least half face imminent famine unless action is taken. Damage to the country’s infrastructure has negatively impacted health facilities, which has worsened a cholera epidemic. The war has been especially cruel to children, who have become victims of human trafficking on top of the other unspeakable transgressions against them.

Though there have been a few cease-fire hiatuses in Yemen’s civil war, there have been less serious proposals for resolving the predicament. The most feasible plan has emanated from Oman, the only Middle East monarchy not part of the Saudi coalition, which shares a border with Yemen.

Oman’s proposal includes the following features: withdrawal of rebels from all cities which they control; restoration of 2011 transition government; presidential and parliamentary elections; a mutually signed agreement; an international aid conference attended by donor states; and Yemen membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Even if America is being consistent with its tradition of supporting a legitimately elected government over rebels seeking its overthrow, that doesn’t mean that U.S. actions in Yemen are legal, either with the Constitution or international law. This war has gone from regional to global menace, and unless the United States is willing to officially recognize and supervise its own presence there, the situation could get worse and America rather than Saudi Arabia will be seen as the main antagonist.

Before promoting the Oman plan for peace, the House of Representatives must join the Senate in citing the provisions of the War Powers Act.

Further, the Trump administration must work with Congress to formulate policy in Yemen, just as the war power of American national government was viewed by the framers as a shared authority of the legislative and executive branches. Finally, American personnel must support international efforts to stem the current catastrophe in Yemen and strive with others to prevent such failed states in the future.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Program Director at Delaware State University. Dr. Hoff served as an assistant to U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits (R-NY) the primary sponsor of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, from 1983-1985. In October, he presented a paper on the legacy of the latter law at the Great Legislators, Great Legislation Conference at LSU-Shreveport.

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