WASHINGTON -- Over the past six months, the Obama administration has quietly embroiled the U.S. in a Middle Eastern war that has left more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian aid and killed at least 5,000.
U.S.-backed Sunni Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, have bombed weddings, left families to starve and looked the other way as an al Qaeda affiliate has used the confusion to seize significant territory. Civilian casualties are growing daily.
The White House won't admit that the U.S. is even "in" Yemen. But it's refueling the planes bombing the country and providing intelligence to the Sunni states running the Yemen campaign. Now lawmakers, dissenters within the administration and human rights activists are ramping up their criticisms of the Obama policy. They argue that the U.S. is callously backing the Saudi-led coalition -- in part to reassure America's Sunni allies in the wake of the nuclear deal with Shiite Iran -- without concern for the consequences. By supporting the Saudi effort, they say, President Barack Obama risks empowering al Qaeda and implicating the U.S. and its allies in war crimes -- not to mention further tarnishing America's already damaged image in the Middle East.
"It's time for Congress to ask some serious questions about whether the United States’ current participation in this civil war is advancing our nation's national security interests," Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement Thursday.
Murphy and other lawmakers plan to increase their pressure on the administration this week. In his statement, Murphy suggested they may go as far as blocking future arms sales to Saudi Arabia until their humanitarian concerns are addressed -- which means this largely overlooked conflict could soon endanger a cornerstone of the Obama administration's policy in the Middle East.
A new stage of an old war
Under Obama, the U.S. has consistently conducted drone strikes in Yemen since 2009 and treated that country's government as a "key partner." (President George W. Bush approved one strike there in 2002.) That means Washington is already to blame for the deaths of scores of Yemeni civilians. But it expanded its role in the country in March, when Saudi Arabia made clear to U.S. officials that it wanted to launch a military campaign against the Houthis, a rebel group that pushed the Saudi-friendly Yemeni government out of Yemen's capital last year. The White House approved American support for its Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, conscious that the Sunni-led powers were worried about nuclear negotiations then ongoing with Iran. The U.S. provided intelligence for the initial strikes in Yemen by the Saudis and their coalition, the Wall Street Journal revealed in April.
Since then, the U.S. has only gotten more involved. U.S. forces have established a joint planning cell with Saudi Arabia to monitor Yemen and provide the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence on potential strike targets, Commander Kyle Raines of U.S. Central Command told The Huffington Post. The U.S. also provides aerial refueling for planes flying with the coalition, he said.
Raines noted that the U.S. refuels coalition planes outside of Yemeni airspace. That caveat is important -- it dovetails with rhetoric from other administration officials, who are keen to maintain that Obama has not actually sent U.S. forces into Yemen or made targeting calls.
The end of plausible deniability
Administration officials have said for months that the U.S.'s most important role in Yemen is to call for peace, and that Obama supports United Nations-led negotiations between the Saudi-backed president and the Houthi insurgency.
"We share concerns about Yemen and the need to restore a function[ing] government that is inclusive and that can relieve the humanitarian situation there," Obama said when Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud visited Washington in September.
But these statements don't matter, rights groups say, as long as the U.S. continues to support the Saudis' military campaign and their resistance to an independent investigation into the conflict, which they demonstrated recently in a United Nations scuffle.
"The United States can't be seen as credibly calling on 'all sides' to halt the fighting in Yemen when it is actively arming and resupplying one of those sides -- the Saudi-led coalition -- to continue its attacks," argued Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director for the Project on Middle East Democracy.
Yemen watchers claim that one reason the civil war has continued -- with tragic consequences -- is the lack of a determined U.S. push for peace. Civilian casualties are higher in the war in Yemen than in other conflicts of similar length because strong explosives are being used in heavily populated areas, Ole Salvang of Human Rights Watch wrote in a recent piece for Newsweek. Such bombings could violate the laws of war, Salvang suggested.
The Houthis and their allies have battered civilians as well, most recently killing 15 civilians and wounding more than 70 in attacks on the city of Taiz. But the Houthis' military might is nowhere near that of the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition, Salvang noted.
"Thanks to the U.S. government’s deep involvement in what many Yemenis call the 'Saudi-American' military campaign, American hands are far from clean," Paul O'Brien of Oxfam wrote earlier this month. He described Yemeni families fleeing their homes with nothing, and critical needs like food and electricity going unmet because of the Saudi-led coalition bombing facilities like ports and power plants.
Pressure back home
Washington has been paying increasing attention this month to the U.S. support for the Saudis' war, following the first major congressional hearing discussing Yemen on Oct. 6. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) warned during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the Saudi-led coalition's reported killing of civilians and its extensive blockade, which hinders the flow of food and medicine into Yemen, could allow Congress to punish coalition members under a law that forbids U.S. military assistance to human rights violators.
Days later, Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) began circulating a letter calling for Obama to do more to help civilians and end the conflict. They sent that letter -- eventually signed by 13 members of Congress -- to the president on Oct. 16.
Steps like those might be the only way to reduce the bloodshed, Bockenfeld suggested. "The United States has major leverage in this conflict, and could help bring the fighting to an end by withholding new arms sales to Saudi Arabia," he wrote in an email to HuffPost.
The administration says it's listening and trying to balance commitments to top Middle East partners and to U.S. principles.
"We're trying to be responsive to our allies' needs," a senior administration official told HuffPost earlier this month. "At the same time, our actions are also impacted by the fact that we are very concerned about some of the civilian casualties that appear to have emerged from their actions and we’ve asked for investigations."
The critics' ability to influence that position on Yemen remains limited. Following the Senate hearing, Senate Democrats placed a hold on the transfer of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia as they awaited more information from the Obama administration on Yemen, Al-Monitor reported. But that's just one deal. Overall, U.S. arms have continued to flow to America's Sunni Arab friends. Administration officials announced last week that they had approved another sale to Saudi Arabia: this time, an $11 billion agreement that would give the kingdom four advanced warships to add to the very fleet currently blockading the Yemeni coast.
The Iran question
Administration officials say the U.S. is backing Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni conflict in part to alleviate Saudi worries about Houthi attacks across the Saudi Arabian border -- and in part because Washington is worried that standing by as an insurgency rapidly topples a government friendly to the Saudis and Americans could set a bad precedent in the region.
The Saudi-led coalition’s stated aim is to weaken the Houthis and restore the rule of Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who sought refuge in the Saudi capital.
But the Saudi effort -- and U.S. support for it -- may have more to do with Iran.
"The Yemen campaign is meant to send a powerful message to Saudi Arabia’s adversaries, especially Iran," Fahad Nazer, a senior analyst at the consultancy JTG Inc. and former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, told HuffPost in an email. “Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s proverbial ‘red line.’”
Stephen Seche, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who is now with the Arab Gulf States Institute, said at the Senate hearing earlier this month that he saw the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen as the product of a "collective anxiety" in Riyadh and the other Sunni Arab capitals about "a resurgent, re-legitimized Iran."
Some on Capitol Hill are sympathetic to that reasoning. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who sits on the foreign relations committee, both told The Huffington Post last week they feel the U.S. must support the Saudi-led coalition.
The trouble with this argument -- that the Saudis must be aided in a struggle with Iran -- is that the administration and outside analysts have previously made clear that they don't believe the Houthis are controlled from Tehran.
Like most Iranians, the Houthis adhere to a branch of Shiite Islam, which makes them different from the Sunnis of the Gulf states -- particularly those who follow the extreme branch of Sunni Islam supported by the government in Saudi Arabia.
Even prior to its latest uprising, the group had received weapons and money from Iran. Since the Houthis took the Yemeni capital last year, the U.S. says it has learned of Iranian flights that have carried such material, and has searched Iran-linked ships suspected of trying to resupply the Houthis.
But Yemen experts still doubt the Houthis take direction from their co-religionists across the Gulf.
"I don't think the Iranians are there in any decisive way," Seche, the former U.S. ambassador, said at the Senate hearing. "The Houthis were able to do what they've done because they were speaking to the population."
Most analysts believe the Houthis rely more on the military strength and local influence of Yemen's former president, one-time Saudi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, than they do on Iran. When Tehran has tried to direct Houthi actions, it has sometimes been ignored. Last year, the Iranians urged the Houthis not to march on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, The Huffington Post revealed in April and Obama told reporters in August. The Houthis seized the city anyway.
Iran has proclaimed its support for the Houthis' rights and criticized the Saudi-led campaign regardless. Doing so is a cheap way for it to suggest it has great influence in the region -- and a role in the Houthis' success -- without seriously losing money or manpower.
Preventing a decades-long disaster
Some State Department officials familiar with Yemen think the White House's current course -- backing the Saudis, whatever the consequences -- is downright dangerous for the future of the region and American national security, a senior Gulf diplomat recently told The Huffington Post.
National security adviser Susan Rice maintains the Yemen situation is an opportunity for the Obama administration to encourage Arab partners to solve their own problems, the diplomat said. The diplomat told HuffPost that State Department officials see that line, popular as it is among war-weary Americans, as short-sighted -- it ignores the way the Saudi-backed coalition is guaranteeing trouble in Yemen for decades ahead by destroying much of the country's critical infrastructure. The White House declined to comment on the disagreement.
There's also a risk in the U.S. endorsing Saudi rhetoric on the crisis. The Saudi coalition's argument that the Houthis are directed by Iran is inciting sectarian mistrust and threatening the social fabric of a country that has been home to coexisting groups of Muslims for hundreds of years, Reuters reported last week. If outside interference means that Yemen ends up another regional battlefield for once-peaceful Shiite and Sunni communities, stabilizing the country will be impossible.
Who gains from the ensuing instability? Sunni extremist groups who rally supporters by denouncing Shiites and U.S.-friendly Arab governments.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has long been based in Yemen but was limited in its reach before the country began to implode, took over a provincial capital in April and controls much of Yemen's largest province. Over the weekend, extremist militants with reported links to al Qaeda stormed a prison and a supermarket in the port city of Aden, which the Saudi-led coalition emptied of Houthis in July. That's all despite continued U.S. drone strikes on the Qaeda affiliate, which in conjunction with the Saudis' actions are simply expanding the group's appeal further, some analysts believe.
A branch of the Islamic State group has also tried to assert itself in Yemen, claiming responsibility for bombings targeting both Shiites and Sunnis. It hopes to convince Yemeni Sunnis that only the Islamic State -- not the Saudi-led coalition or the Houthis -- will represent their interests.
Meanwhile, some Yemeni counterterror units trained by the U.S. now appear to be working instead to secure Houthi rule, according to an American held captive by the Houthis whose story was published in The Washington Post last week.
Allowing such a situation to continue means undermining what analysts say should be the primary goal of U.S. policy in Yemen: preventing the creation of an extremist base that could be used to launch attacks on American targets.
"US aims in Yemen are to ensure that [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] does not become like Al Qaeda in 1990s Afghanistan," Alex Ward of the Atlantic Council told HuffPost in an email, referencing the haven that terrorists found in a Taliban-run nation and used to plan Sept. 11.
Obama's plan to deal with al Qaeda's growing power in Yemen is to help restore a U.S.-friendly Yemeni government, according to the senior administration official. The official said that calculus shows that the White House cares about more in Yemen than the Saudis' dubious portrayal of the country as an Iranian satellite in the making.
Still, the U.S. links to the Saudi-led coalition mean Obama can't secure the outcome he wants in Yemen until he has the Saudis' say-so.
On Friday, the U.N. envoy to Yemen said he believed both the Saudi-backed president and the Houthis were now ready for face-to-face negotiations.
But observers of the conflict warn that rhetoric on both sides is only getting stronger and that a ceasefire may be a long way away because, for now, both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis feel they are making gains, while other actors in the conflict distrust outside mediation.
As Yemen waits for the U.S. partner and its enemy to make peace, the U.N. envoy noted, "civilians continue to face a deteriorating humanitarian situation and suffer the consequences of blatant disregard for the laws of war."
The story of one civilian who faced those consequences went viral last week. On Wednesday, social media accounts in the West and in the Muslim world began sharing a video of a child who had been injured, allegedly in a Houthi missile attack, begging doctors not to bury him -- to give him a future different from that of thousands of other Yemenis around him.
The boy, 6, died four days after he was filmed, CNN reported. Per Muslim tradition, he was buried soon after.
Ruby Mellen and Mariam Baksh contributed reporting.