Brad Bowman Foreign Policy
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the United States will provide $191 million in additional aid to the Yemeni people, who suffer from what he called “the largest and most urgent” humanitarian crisis in the world. Blinken said the United States has now given more than $3.4 billion in humanitarian assistance to Yemen since the conflict began in 2015.
This assistance will save many lives, but the sad truth is that no amount of aid will dramatically or durably improve conditions until Yemen’s conflict ends. Blinken recognized as much: “We can only end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by ending the war in Yemen.” The United States, he said, is therefore “reinvigorating our diplomatic efforts to end the war.”
But diplomacy will fail without additional leverage. By ending support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to put pressure on Riyadh. But pressuring only one side in a conflict—while failing to apply real pressure on the other—simply leaves the latter emboldened.
That is exactly what we have seen in recent weeks. The Houthis have launched a massive offensive against Yemeni government forces supported by Saudi Arabia, seeking to break a multi-year stalemate in fighting on the ground. The Houthis control most of northwestern Yemen and have consolidated their rule from Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.
Why should we expect anything else from the Houthis? They see tremendous pressure on Riyadh while Washington recently removed the terror group’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization. Meanwhile, they continue to enjoy a reliable supply of weapons from Tehran. That allows the Houthis to continue fighting while refusing to negotiate in good faith.
The Biden team might point to Tuesday’s announcement of U.S. Treasury Department sanctions against the two Houthi military leaders as evidence to the contrary. The sanctions intend to hold the Houthis accountable for ongoing “malign and aggressive actions” made possible by Iran’s provision of weapons and training. Sanctions, though a good step, do little when targeted individuals are outside the U.S. financial system and see stigmatization by Washington as a badge of honor.
Pressuring Riyadh while essentially giving the Houthis a free pass has created an asymmetry that no amount of shrewd shuttle diplomacy can overcome. Any successful effort to end the conflict—and thereby address the humanitarian crisis—must create new pressure on all parties. In particular, a more serious effort to interdict Tehran’s arms shipments would put greater pressure on the Houthis.
In the continuing conflict, Tehran has happily accommodated the Houthi demand for weapons. Consistent with its regional strategy, Iran seeks to establish a Hezbollah-styled proxy relationship with the Houthis, who are perched next to the Red Sea and on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Characteristically unphased by the notion of violating United Nations Security Council resolutions, Tehran has undertaken a major arms smuggling effort.
U.S. naval interdictions in November 2019 and February 2020 uncovered Iranian weapons shipments that contained land-attack cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship cruise
Those inclined to question such assertions by Washington should consider the Jan. 22 report by the Panel of Experts on Yemen to the U.N. Security Council. A “growing body of evidence,” the panel wrote, “shows that individuals or entities within the Islamic Republic of Iran are engaged in sending weapons and weapons components to the Houthis.” The report even depicts the maritime smuggling routes from Iran. The panel’s previous annual report identified a main weapon smuggling route as traveling overland from Oman.
The Houthis have not been shy in employing these weapons, repeatedly targeting civilian and military infrastructure in Saudi Arabia with alarming effectiveness. This includes, for example, a June 2019 attack on Abha International Airport that killed one civilian and injured several others. Saudi officials claim to have intercepted a Houthi missile and bomb-laden drones on Feb. 27. And the United States should not forget that Houthis fired anti-ship cruise missiles at a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Mason, in 2016 while it was operating in international waters near Yemen.
Meanwhile, the Yemeni people’s suffering only continues. Yemenis are dying because food, water, and medicine are scarce and have often been wielded as weapons in the war. Almost half the population faces severe food shortages, with millions of people teetering on the edge of starvation. Cholera, dengue fever, and diphtheria have ravaged the population; polio has returned; and the health care system has all but shut down. Yet even as the crisis has worsened, donor money is drying up. And once assistance gets to Yemen, humanitarians face significant war-related obstacles to get life-saving support to those in need.
Blinken appointed a special envoy to the Yemen conflict, Timothy Lenderking, who has led a renewed push for peace. The Saudis and the Yemeni government have been eager to engage. But talk of peace will not bring the Houthis to the table. Blocking access to key weapons and technology from Iran, however, might increase the incentives for the Houthis to come to the negotiating table in good faith. At a minimum, reducing the flow of Iranian weapons to the Houthis could reduce casualties in the conflict.
To accomplish this, the U.S. Defense Department should position sufficient military resources in the region and provide commanders with clear instructions to prioritize the interdiction effort. The U.S. Congress should press the Biden administration on what it is currently doing to interdict Iranian weapons shipments—and ask what more can be done.
missiles. Last month, an interdiction uncovered weapons similar to those found in other Iranian shipments. Iranian security assistance to the Houthis is nothing new. In 2015, then-Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern regarding Iranian supplies arriving in Yemen “every single week.”
The newly confirmed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, should actively press the U.N. Security Council to do more to enforce its resolutions and raise the costs Tehran bears for its arms shipments to Yemen. If Beijing and Moscow obstruct, Washington should not mince words about what their obstruction will do to the Yemeni people.
If the U.N. Security Council cannot muster the ability to enforce its own resolutions, the Biden administration should work to build a coalition of countries to contribute military assets to detect and interdict weapons shipments from Iran to Yemen. The United States and like-minded partners should also press and help Oman to do more to stop overland weapons trafficking though its territory to Yemen.
Blinken is right that ending the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen will first require ending the war. But applying real pressure to only one side is a recipe for failure and an invitation to the other side to redouble its fight. The best hope for applying productive pressure to the Houthis is a genuine U.S.-led international effort to reduce the flow of advanced Iranian weapons to Yemen. This can be done in a way that does not significantly impede humanitarian assistance.
Such an approach would serve regional security interests and create the best opportunity for ending a conflict that has created one of, if not the world’s worst, humanitarian crisis. That is a policy around which both hawks and humanitarians should be able to unite.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former advisor to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. Twitter: @Brad_L_Bowman