Just days ago, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations famed for her searing work on genocide, tweeted an image of a bridge in Yemen that had been destroyed, likely by a Saudi airstrike.
“Strikes on hospital/school/infrastructure in #Yemen devastating for ppl already facing unbearable suffering&must end,” Power wrote. The bridge was a crucial a piece of infrastructure for Yemenis desperate for humanitarian aid amid a war that has killed more than 6,600 people and uprooted millions.
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But Power’s tweet was awkward, given that the United States has backed Saudi Arabia?s military offensive in Yemen for nearly 18 months, supplying Riyadh with intelligence and logistical support to fight Houthi rebels linked to Iran.
The backlash was swift. “Thank you. Now how about cutting off US military aid to the Saudi campaign?” replied one activist focused on refugee issues.
Power?s tweet and the response to it was also a preview of the challenge Secretary of State John Kerry faces as he travels this week to Saudi Arabia, where his goal is to get the peace process for Yemen back on track. Among those set to meet with Kerry are the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and officials from other Saudi-allied Arab states involved in battling what they see as a serious threat from Iran.
Kerry has been “seized” with the issue of Yemen, a former administration official familiar with the topic told POLITICO, but he had wanted to give Ahmed time to maneuver. “The secretary’s view was if that didn?t work, that if the U.N. couldn?t bring this thing to an end, he was prepared to jump in,” the former official said.
Now Kerry?s in, and U.S. officials are hoping for a rare diplomatic success in a Middle East that has bedeviled President Barack Obama and damaged his foreign policy legacy. The secretary?s visit, set for Wednesday and Thursday in the Saudi city of Jeddah, comes as a shaky ceasefire implemented in April collapsed earlier this month. It also follows the Pentagon’s recent reduction of personnel dedicated to assisting the Saudis in their battle.
Obama administration officials dismiss the notion that they are suddenly pushing to solve the Yemen crisis because the president’s tenure is nearly over. (“Absurd,” one U.S. official called the idea.) Still, former administration members say there’s no question Obama and his aides have a better shot at resolving the crisis in Yemen than the civil war in Syria, where Kerry?s efforts have struggled to gain traction.
“The Syrian conflict is so all-consuming because it has dimensions that the conflict in Yemen does not have,” former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche said. “Yemen does not rise to that level of complication.”
The Saudis, who are majority Sunni Muslims, launched the air and ground campaign in Yemen in March 2015 over fears that Shiite Muslim-majority Iran would gain a stronghold along their southern border. Some analysts doubt Iran is playing a major role and note that the Houthi rebels appear to be receiving more aid from forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh’s bloc is part of a new governing council recently unveiled by the rebels.
Whatever the realities, the U.S. quickly agreed at the start of the fight in 2015 to provide intelligence and logistical support to the Saudis. Obama and his aides calculated that they could not afford to alienate a key Arab partner. They also were negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran at the time, and they wanted to tamp down Saudi anger over that effort.
But as the months have worn on, members of Congress, human rights activists, as well as some administration officials, have grown more alarmed about Yemen?s worsening humanitarian crisis and the conflict?s potential to empower terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Concerns spiked this month amid fresh reports that the Saudis were bombing schools and hospitals.
The bombing of infrastructure such as bridges, which is in all likelihood the work of the far-better armed Saudis than the rebels, has in particular angered humanitarian leaders because it makes it even harder to get aid to besieged civilians. The former U.S. official said that American officials had repeatedly urged the Saudis and their coalition allies not to bomb so-called “vital infrastructure,” including bridges.
The Obama administration ignited fury among rights activists when it recently green-lighted a $1.15 billion arms deal to the Saudis. U.S. officials defend such deals by arguing that the Saudis are more likely to make targeting mistakes without American guidance and superior U.S.-made weaponry. But the administration also has taken other steps to underscore its unhappiness — reportedly putting a hold on the transfer of cluster bombs to the Saudis, for instance.
The Pentagon has not explicitly linked its recent decision to scale back its support for the Saudi-led coalition to those concerns. Christopher Sherwood, a Defense Department spokesman, confirmed to POLITICO that while there had been upwards of 45 people aiding the Saudis in both Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in next-door Bahrain, that has been reduced in the past few months to less than five people, all in Bahrain.
The reasons for the reduction, which was first reported by Reuters, included the fact that the ceasefire was largely holding up at the time and that the U.S. needed to devote resources to other conflicts in the region, Sherwood said. Asked if concerns about Yemeni civilian deaths were a factor, Sherwood demurred. He did, however, use relatively strong language in airing Pentagon worries about such cases.
“In discussions with the Saudi-led coalition, we have pressed the need to minimize civilian casualties,” he said. “Moreover, we continue to reiterate at the most senior levels the importance of returning to the cessation of hostilities and concluding negotiations on a comprehensive political settlement.”
In a similar set of talking points, the White House insisted that the U.S. cooperation with the Saudis since the conflict recently escalated is “modest and it is not a blank check.” The White House also emphasized that “at no point did U.S. military personnel provide direct or implicit approval of target selection or prosecution.” (Analysts accuse the administration of splitting hairs, considering it also says it gives intelligence assistance to the Saudis. Still, the exact nature of the U.S.-Saudi cooperation has largely been withheld from the public.)
The Pentagon has been uneasy with participating in the Yemen conflict for a while, the former administration official told POLITICO. “There was a sense that they had a lot of other things on their plate and they couldn?t afford to continue with a major investment over along period of time,” he said.
As important a player as the U.S. is in the region, its leverage over Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states is not without limits. The Saudis in particular believe Obama underestimates the threat they face from Iran’s growing influence. At the same time, the Saudis entered the battlefield in Yemen thinking the fight would last just a few weeks or a few months, and they are learning it is not a simple or cheap endeavor.
It’s highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia and Iran will set aside their overall regional enmity before Obama leaves. But the former administration official, for one, didn’t rule out the possibility that Kerry’s talks this week could help achieve some sort of peace deal for Yemen, despite the latest escalation in fighting.
“Often my experience with Yemenis is that they will make things worse before they make things better,” he said.
The U.S. official who brushed aside the idea that the administration wanted to get a deal for Yemen before Obama leaves pointed out that the goal is to reach a settlement that can survive more than a few months.
“We will continue to have frank conversations with our partners and others in order to stop the violence and prevent civilian casualties ? to create the conditions necessary to reach a lasting agreement,” he said. “Key word is ‘lasting’.”
The Mideast conflict Obama still could solve – Politico}