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U.S. shoots down missile in UAE attack as Yemen war drags on. Biden's policy is failing.

Washington made the right call last year in suspending offensive weapons to the conflict zone. But it's still giving Saudi Arabia too much diplomatic cover.

The civil-turned-proxy war in Yemen, now in its eighth year, has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Recent days have seen particularly destructive attacks from all sides in the conflict. On Monday, the U.S. intercepted two incoming ballistic missiles fired toward the United Arab Emirates, sending 2,000 American troops into their bunkers at Al-Dhafra Air Base. And January is on the cusp of setting a record for civilian casualties, illustrating just how drawn out and hopeless this war has become — and how abysmally U.S. policy in Yemen is failing.

In 2014, the Iran-backed Houthis, a Zaydi Muslim movement originally established in Yemen’s northern highlands, overthrew the internationally recognized government and established a de facto police state in northern Yemen that is at best a mix of misery and deprivation. Since the ouster, a Saudi-led military coalition seeking to reinstall the country’s government — with which Riyadh is closely aligned — has carried out a relentless military campaign that has sowed death, destruction and famine-like conditions.

Earlier this month, the Houthis claimed responsibility for a combination of drone and missile attacks targeting Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and a key Saudi ally, that killed three people. Branding the strike a terrorist attack, the Saudi-led coalition struck back quickly and forcefully with airstrikes Friday targeting a detention facility in the north of Yemen that killed at least 87 people and wounded more than 260 — one of the deadliest airstrikes in the entire war.

This satellite image provided Planet Labs PBC shows the aftermath of an attack claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels on an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in the Mussafah neighborhood of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 22, 2022.Planet Labs PBC via AP

President Joe Biden’s decision in February to end offensive military support to the Saudi-led coalition was a belated recognition that the last several years of U.S. involvement on behalf of the Saudi- and UAE-backed military coalition has been entirely counterproductive, exacerbating the conflict, providing Riyadh and its partners with a reason to press on with their military campaign and casting Washington in a bad moral light.

U.S.-supplied bombs were previously used to kill civilians, including the most vulnerable, while others were diverted to extremist militias affiliated with Al Qaeda. As one U.S. official recounted about Washington backing Riyadh after the Houthis captured Yemen’s capital city: "We knew we might be getting into a car with a drunk driver.”

Technically speaking, however, the U.S. is still in the car. While the U.S. is no longer supplying the Saudi-led coalition with air-to-ground munitions, it is continuing to provide the Saudis with political and diplomatic support. Notwithstanding Biden’s comments during his presidential campaign about making the kingdom a “pariah,” Saudi Arabia is confident that while Washington may no longer be interested in being a supplier of its war effort, the U.S. remains firmly behind Riyadh in the conflict, giving it little reason to find a way to end the fighting.

The Jan. 12 debate on Yemen held at the United Nations Security Council was instructive. During the session, senior U.N. officials briefed the forum on the latest developments in the war, including the uptick in violence, the unwillingness of the combatants to explore a genuine cease-fire and the disinterest the parties have shown toward a U.N.-mediated political resolution.

U.N. special envoy Hans Grundberg, who faces the unenviable task of herding the warring parties to the negotiating table, outlined an increase in Saudi airstrikes in residential areas, the arbitrary delay of fuel shipments and the detention of U.N. staff members by the Houthis. His conclusion, diplomatically stated: All parties in Yemen’s war are putting their own parochial interests above the interests of the Yemeni people, who are suffering enormously.

Yet when it came time for the U.S. delegation to give remarks, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield gave a one-dimensional view of the conflict, as if the only combatant pushing Yemeni civilians out of their homes and stalling a peace effort was the Houthis. The U.S., Thomas-Greenfield said, condemns “the Houthis’ escalation in violence, which undermines the cause of peace.” Not once in the entire speech was the Saudi coalition mentioned for its own role in the violence.

The Houthis indeed hold their fair share of the blame (24 million people, about 80 percent of Yemen’s population, need humanitarian assistance to survive). The movement consistently obstructs humanitarian aid operations to the point where the U.N. suspended aid work in Houthi-controlled territory. Houthis’ firing of approximately 4,100 rockets and drones into Saudi Arabia and now the UAE virtually guarantees that more Yemeni civilians will die as a result of retaliatory bombing raids.

Washington, however, hasn’t been as eager to point out bad conduct from the Saudis and their coalition partners. When more than 70 members of the House wrote a letter to the White House asking the administration to pressure the Saudi coalition into easing a blockade delaying shipments of food and fuel, a U.S. State Department official blamed the Yemeni government for the impasse. The only problem with the explanation: The Saudis have significant influence over Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has been operating his government-in-exile from the Saudi kingdom since 2015.

Saudi airstrikes are responsible for thousands of civilian casualties and have contributed to the decimation of Yemen’s health care system (only 50 percent of hospitals and clinics are functional, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development). The reality is that all sides have committed war crimes, and each one is responsible for plunging Yemen into one of the direst humanitarian catastrophes in recent memory. There are no good guys in this yearslong war of attrition, and U.S. officials ought to stop acting otherwise.

Of course, if anyone thought a change in rhetoric from U.S. officials would magically turn Yemen into a peaceful country, they would be sadly mistaken. Other powers have agency, after all. The Houthis have won by merely getting Saudi Arabia and its partners into a quagmire and have no intention of talking peace terms until they make further gains. The Saudi-led coalition is equally determined to stop the Houthis before holding its fire. Ultimately, the U.S. isn’t in a position to resolve Yemen’s conflict.

Ultimately, the U.S. isn’t in a position to resolve Yemen’s conflict. But neither does the U.S. have a core security interest in continuing to participate in it.

But neither does the U.S. have a core security interest in continuing to participate in it. While some U.S. experts believe the U.S. should unconditionally back the Saudi-led coalition to prevent an Iranian-supported group like the Houthis from gaining complete control, years of U.S. military aid has done little to alter the balance of power on the ground.

The Houthis are using Iranian weapons to press their territorial claims, while Iran is using the Houthis to bog down its main rival in the region, Saudi Arabia. If anything, U.S. support for Riyadh has only pushed the Houthis and Iran into strengthening their relationship.

The Biden administration made the right call last year in suspending offensive weapons to the conflict zone. Unfortunately, the U.S. itself is still a participant in this conflict. It now needs to put as much distance between itself and a ghastly fight that shows no sign of ending. For the U.S., continuing to act as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s lawyer simply isn’t worth the reputational damage.