At the eleventh hour just last week, parties to Yemen’s eight-year war extended their two-month truce, which is a positive development. While some have said the reasoning is “unclear,” a recent introduction of a War Powers Resolution by Congress can easily be viewed as a critical factor in the extension. To make this peace truly permanent, Congress must pass the resolution and end US support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war.
Yet, as Congress is considering finally using its leverage, President Joe Biden appears adamant about abandoning his. Biden had promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and had released the intelligence that implicated MBS in the brutal killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But now, for the sake of oil price concerns, Biden is breaking his rule of not dealing directly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (referred to as MBS). Instead, he plans on traveling to the region to meet directly with MBS (albeit now delayed) and formalize a US security commitment with the Saudis and other Arab partners.
US actions are crucial in influencing peace negotiations for ending Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen.
Biden’s shift is troubling and could also have drastic implications for US policy and Yemen. For example, if US pressure to end the war evaporates, the Saudis, Emiratis, and their proxies will likely push to escalate fighting once the extended truce ends in early August 2022. The Houthis will respond in kind, regardless of the consequences for civilians, even though over 400,000 of them have been killed due to the war.
However, if the War Powers Resolution passes, it would effectively ground the Saudi Royal Air Force, significantly limiting the Saudis’ capacity to keep fighting. MBS is eager to avoid the humiliation of being unable to operate his air force, and this prospect represents a key factor in his apparent decision to encourage his Yemeni partners to renew the ceasefire.
A PRACTICE RUN
The two-month truce was relatively successful: The Saudis halted airstrikes and allowed in 12 fuel ships, plus three flights from Sana’a airport in Yemen to Jordan, while the Houthis ceased transborder attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Humanitarian groups, such as the World Food Program, have also been able to access populations previously isolated by fighting. With news of the truce’s extension, hopes may grow that Yemen’s eight-year war could finally end.
But that is only likely if the United States maintains pressure on the Saudis. The warring parties have profited from the break-in hostilities to consolidate their military positions. If the fighting resumes, it’s expected to be even worse than the escalations in January 2022 — already one of the bloodiest months in the entire war. In that month, Saudi Arabia targeted a detention center and vital communications infrastructure, killing at least 90 civilians, wounding 200 more, and triggering a nationwide internet blackout.
The forces commanded by the newly appointed Presidential Leadership Council reflect unprecedented unity among the anti-Houthi camp, and the Council, as well as their Saudi and Emirati backers, are likely itching to test their new strength. In addition, the Houthis appear poised to redouble their efforts to take the strategic city of Marib, as reports from Marib indicate that Houthi offensives continued despite the truce.
During negotiations for a cessation of hostilities over the port city of Hodeidah in 2018, US actions were crucial in influencing what happens in Yemen. Moreover, the near-simultaneous introduction of a new War Powers Resolution and the renewal of the truce demonstrate that US influence remains a crucial factor. This new Yemen War Powers Resolution invokes Congress’s constitutional war powers under the War Powers Act of 1973 to end unauthorized US military participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. If passed, the resolution would prohibit the US military from providing intelligence sharing, logistical support, maintenance, and spare parts to Saudi warplanes conducting offensive operations against the Houthis in Yemen.
Now it is time to make that US influence a permanent factor.
FINALLY TAKING A STAND
Members of the House and Senate must reassert their constitutional war authority and finally end US military support for a war that has helped kill nearly half a million civilians and driven millions more to the edge of famine. By doing so, they will hasten Saudi Arabia’s understanding that there is no military solution in Yemen and that the US military will no longer remain complicit in Yemen’s misery. It will also send a message to the White House that it must keep its promise to end the blind support for a regime intent on cracking down on dissidents at home and destroying Yemen.
While the United States can’t unilaterally bring about peace, it must use its leverage to persuade Saudi Arabia and its proxies to stay at the negotiating table to extend this truce and finally, end the Yemen war. Congress has an opportunity to do just that.
Hassan El-Tayyab is the Legislative Director for Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Annelle Sheline is a Middle East Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute.