Alexandra Stark, New America
Yemen is locked in an effectively stalemated conflict that is sustained by international military intervention. While the fighting—and its devastating humanitarian consequences—has persisted at a high level since the Saudi-led coalition intervention began in March 2015, the incentives and capabilities of the key actors have remained largely unchanged over the past several years. The war has therefore largely settled into a destructive yet pragmatic impasse.
Third party intervention in Yemen’s war has transformed an otherwise localized conflict into a contest over regional influence and further polarized the Middle East, making this conflict both more complex and difficult to end. International intervention has also been a major source of the war’s human suffering: by late 2019, approximately 67% of civilian fatalities from direct targeting in Yemen since 2015 are attributable to the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), accounting for 8,000 civilian casualties from direct targeting by coalition airstrikes.
Despite the devastating humanitarian effects of external intervention in Yemen’s conflict, drawing down regional military intervention in Yemen’s war will not end the conflict itself, which began after a failed post-Arab Spring political transition process (see Philbrick Yadav in this volume) and the Houthi takeover of the capital Sana’a’ in 2014. The collapse of the central government and the emergence of local patchworks of de facto sovereignty has created, as Ahram describes in this volume, a form of hybrid security governance with armed non-state actors “alternatively compet[ing] and collud[ing] with the forces of the diminished central government.”
Third party military intervention plays a critical role in sustaining Yemen’s war. Ending external intervention and getting regional actors on board with negotiating a political solution will be a critical step in ending Yemen’s frozen conflict. A significant shift in approach of international actors, specifically the withdrawal of international military forces and these actors’ support for a political settlement, would change the underlying incentives of the many Yemeni conflict actors who receive military and diplomatic support from external actors. The international challenges of 2020, including the global COVID-19 pandemic and recent shifts in the domestic politics of the United States—a key supporter and enabler of the Saudi-led coalition—may affect prospects for ending external intervention in Yemen’s war.
Thus far, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated existing conflict dynamics in the region’s wars. Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic has distracted the international community. A lack of pressure from key international actors, including the United States, makes it more difficult to execute any political agreement. Additionally, the economic fallout from COVID-19 has meant a decline in economic aid and remittances; critical resources not only for meeting basic humanitarian needs in Yemen, but also for dissuading potential spoilers to a negotiated settlement; providing alternative sources of livelihoods for local conflict actors; and expanding governance capacity, all elements that will be important to ensuring that any peace agreement sticks. At the same time, shifting domestic politics in the United States point to reasons to hope that external intervention in Yemen—specifically the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention—could end sooner rather than later. This article will explore these two causal factors in the context of Yemen’s civil war which I argue push in opposite causal directions: 1) systemic dynamics accelerated by COVID-19, and 2) shifts in the U.S. domestic politics of foreign policy.
COVID-19 and Conflict in Yemen
In late March, shortly after the pandemic erupted, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire “to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives” against COVID-19. The call responded to concerns that the pandemic was likely to make already-dire humanitarian conditions in places like Yemen, where healthcare infrastructure has been destroyed by conflict and the war has already created the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.
While the Saudi-led coalition declared a unilateral ceasefire in April in response to the Secretary General’s call, the ceasefire was quickly violated by both sides: The coalition accused the Houthis of violating the ceasefire 241 times within the first 48 hours, while the Yemen Data Project recorded up to 106 airstrikes by the coalition in the first week of the ceasefire—a reduction from the previous week, which represented the heaviest week of bombing since July 2018, but also certainly not a cessation of fighting. The Yemen ceasefire—one in a string of failed ceasefires and partial peace agreements in Yemen’s conflict—fit with the global pattern: Oxfam deemed the global COVID-19 ceasefires a “catastrophic failure.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is likely accelerating a series of existing systemic conflict dynamics: a lack of international diplomatic capacity, shortfalls in economic aid, and declining remittances. Decreased diplomatic attention and economic aid will make it more difficult to get intervening parties and local actors alike to agree to (and stick with) a negotiated peace settlement, while a lack of economic growth following declines in both aid and remittances will make conflict relapse more likely.
First, many countries, including the most prominent diplomatic players in the international community, are turning inward to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and its economic fallout. International mediation efforts help end civil wars—and ensure that they stay ended. With their attention drawn to other international and domestic crises, U.S. policymakers and other key diplomats are less likely to be able to place the sustained pressure on actors in the Yemen war that is necessary to get them to the negotiating table and eventually to a peace agreement. While the international community does not have a particularly robust record of reaching sustainable agreements in this war, international pressure has been key to the ceasefires and political settlements that have resulted since 2015. Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, for example, reportedly played a critical role in clinching Saudi and Emirati support for the Stockholm Agreement in late 2018. Diplomatic indifference towards the conflict actors as a result of COVID-19 will mean less pressure to enforce ceasefire agreements and engage in good-faith negotiations, and to implement the terms of any agreement that is reached. As the virtual collapse of both the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements shows, sustained international attention will be critical to ensuring that parties implement the terms of any accord they agree to on paper.
Second, the sharp economic contraction that has accompanied COVID-19 will make Western countries less eager to invest substantial amounts in economic aid. There is a robust correlation between poverty on the one hand and civil war occurrence and recurrence on the other. While scholars debate the causal mechanisms linking these factors, Yemen has suffered from chronic state weakness and poverty, both of which likely contribute to conflict relapse. Many of the main conflict actors in Yemen harbor long-standing grievances about access to the resources of the state—indeed, these grievances were one of the critical factors that undermined the NDC process and sent Yemen down the path to civil war. Any political settlement will therefore need to address the distribution of natural resources and income from public sector jobs, as well as control over key economic institutions of the state, including the Central Bank and local revenue collection.
An infusion of substantial international economic aid could therefore help induce parties to negotiate and agree to a political settlement to the conflict. It could also help deter potential spoilers. Additionally, economic aid following a political settlement could contribute to increased governance and economic opportunity that provides alternative sources of income to fighting, which could in turn help prevent conflict recurrence.
In the short-term, the COVID-19-induced economic crisis this will mean a decline in life-sustaining humanitarian aid—indeed, the UN was forced to cut its humanitarian programming in Yemen earlier this year in part due to cuts in U.S. aid, as well as Houthi obstruction of aid delivery on the ground. While not entirely due to the pandemic, such aid cuts are indicative of what a protracted global economic crisis could bring.
Third, remittances, which are even more important to Yemen’s economy than foreign aid, have sharply declined since the pandemic began. While much of the flow of remittances happens outside of the formal banking system, making it difficult to estimate the true scope of their role in Yemen’s economy, Deputy Minister of Expatriates estimated that in early 2020, remittances were worth $8 billion annually, and supported half of the population. Saudi Arabia hosts the majority of Yemen’s workers abroad–an estimated 1.8 million. The World Bank estimates that about $2.3 billion in remittances are sent from Saudi Arabia annually, while an additional $1.1 billion comes from other Gulf Arab countries. The sharp decline in oil prices in early March, following a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, has stabilized somewhat, but Jadwa Investment projects that the Kingdom’s oil GDP will decline by almost 5 percent in 2020. In research of money transfer providers in Yemen, Oxfam found that this decline was coupled with as much as an 80 percent drop in the number of remittances from January through April 2020. COVID-19-induced restrictions on movement between countries and the decline in oil prices will continue to limit traditional opportunities for Yemenis to work abroad, and will therefore have substantial effects on Yemen’s economy and the material well-being of its residents. And all this comes in the midst of Saudization policies that have lowered the number of jobs available to Yemenis, crackdowns on foreign workers in the Kingdom, and rising costs for permits and expenses, all of which had already raised the pressure on Yemeni workers in Saudi to leave.
Taken together, these three factors that are the direct result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis will accelerate existing conflict variables, making proxy wars across the Middle East less likely to end in the near-term.
The U.S. Domestic Politics of Yemen’s War
In contrast, however, significant shifts in the U.S. domestic politics of Middle East policy could push towards ending some of the region’s proxy wars, particularly in cases like Yemen where the United States has substantial leverage, both via direct participation and by providing support to security partners who are also interveners.
U.S. operational support has been critical for green-lighting and sustaining the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. Iran has also intervened in Yemen’s conflict, but although the Houthi’s relationship with Iran has become closer since 2015, with the IRGC-Quds Force providing training and assistance, as well as ballistic missiles and anti-tank weapons, to the Houthis. While the U.S. has little direct leverage over Iran’s activities in Yemen, Iran’s support is not critical to sustaining the Houthis in the same way that the Saudi-led coalition has been in sustaining the internationally-recognized government of Yemen.
With regards to the Saudi-led coalition, in key instances, systematic pressure from the United States has played an important role in de-escalation: When the United States uses its leverage with regional security partners to promote negotiations, de-escalation is more likely. For instance, U.S. pressure was reportedly the key to getting Saudi Arabia to agree to the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, and in prompting the United Arab Emirates to withdraw most of its forces from Yemen.
In one notable example of this dynamic, the Obama administration was able to use its leverage over the intervening coalition to reduce the overall number of airstrikes in Yemen, and in particular the number of airstrikes with non-military targets. Despite offering the coalition operational and diplomatic support from its earliest days, the Obama administration quickly became concerned about civilian casualties. According to the Yemen Data Project, between March 26, 2015, and March 25, 2018, the coalition conducted an average of 15 air raids per day (with each air raid comprising one or multiple strikes) and 453 air raids per month on average, for a total of 16,749 over the course of the first three years of the conflict. About 30% of all recorded airstrikes targeted non-military sites, with about one third targeting military sites and an additional one third targeting sites of an unknown type. Government lawyers were concerned that U.S. support for the coalition made the United States a “co-belligerent,” and therefore culpable for such crimes, under international law. At first, the Obama administration sought to address these shortcomings by providing assistance to improve targeting, including a ‘no-strike’ list of civilian locations that eventually comprised more than 33,000 targets.
Increased support did not lead to substantial or sustained improvements in Saudi targeting accuracy, however. By the fall of 2016, shortly before the U.S. presidential election, civilian casualties due to coalition airstrikes had reached a crescendo. Until this point, U.S. officials had not publicly criticized the coalition’s track record, even though they had invested substantially in behind-the-scenes efforts to decrease civilian casualties. However, on October 9, 2016, a coalition “double-tap” airstrike hitting the large funeral of a prominent Yemeni family’s patriarch, killing at least 140 civilians and wounding an additional 600 “was the last straw” for the White House. A statement by NSC Spokesperson Ned Price immediately following the strike was unusually critical, noting that “U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check” and that “In light of this and other recent incidents, we have initiated an immediate review of our already significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led Coalition and are prepared to adjust our support so as to better align with U.S. principles, values and interests.”
These gestures appear to have succeeded in temporarily reducing the tempo of airstrikes: The vertical line in figure 1 represents the date of the funeral hall strike and the United States’ public response. The figure also demonstrates that the number of airstrikes began to rise again in January 2017, when the Trump administration—which had a very different approach to U.S. Gulf security partners and the coalition—took office.
Figure 1: Coalition Air Raids in Yemen, Aug. 2016-Jan. 2017
Data source: Yemen Data Project, https://yemendataproject.org/data.html
The Trump administration has shown little willingness to push U.S. security partners to reach a political settlement in Yemen. Indeed, in 2019 President Trump vetoed legislation passed by Congress that would have forced the end of U.S. involvement in the war against the Houthis (but not U.S counter-terrorism operations in Yemen). Yet in the absence of political will from the administration, Congress has taken action to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution to end U.S. operational support for the coalition. Support for this legislation has been bipartisan, including actors ranging from avowed progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders to Trump supporters like Congressman Matt Gaetz.
If Trump wins re-election in November, his second administration is unlikely to substantially shift its position on Yemen and the coalition. Nevertheless, Congress is likely to maintain pressure on the administration to in turn pressure the coalition to end the intervention and engage in good-faith negotiations towards a political settlement. Since Trump’s 2019 veto, members of Congress have consistently sought to add language to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a piece of legislation that authorizes defense spending and is viewed as a ‘must-pass,’ forcing an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. Members of Congress have also pushed back against the Trump administration’s March 2020 announcement that it would suspend some humanitarian funding operations in northern Yemen: in March 2020, a bipartisan group of House members asked Secretary of State Pompeo to not suspend aid to Yemen in light of humanitarian considerations, including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In September 2020, Senators Bob Menendez, Patrick Leahy, and Tim Kaine introduced the Safeguarding Human Rights in Arms Exports (SAFEGUARD) Act, which would make the promotion and protection of human rights a central consideration in U.S. arms sales.
The fact that this opposition to intervention in Yemen has become increasingly mainstream in domestic U.S. politics is also reflected in the presidential campaign, where Senator Joe Biden has called Yemen an “unwinnable conflict” and called for an end to U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Daniel Benaim and Jake Sullivan, who both worked in the Office of the Vice President under Biden, recently advocated that the United States use “leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.” A number of former senior Obama administration officials, including many who would likely be part of a future Biden administration, wrote in a 2018 open letter that “We unsuccessfully tried conditional support to the coalition. This administration has demonstrated the folly of unconditional support. Now, we must cease support altogether.” A Biden administration would therefore likely be willing to use U.S. leverage to end the coalition’s intervention in Yemen and to support negotiations.
This shift in U.S. politics is also reflected in public views: A November 2018 poll found that 75 percent of Americans who expressed an opinion opposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These views are also bipartisan: While self-identified political liberals were more likely to oppose such weapons sales, 54 percent of conservatives who expressed an opinion also opposed arms sales. Thus, polling provides further evidence that there has been a substantial shift in how the United States sees its involvement in proxy wars in the Middle East since the coalition intervention in Yemen began in March 2015. At the same time, Americans’ views of U.S. security partners in the Gulf, and especially towards Saudi Arabia, remain dim: A 2019 Gallup poll found that 29 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Saudi Arabia, the lowest favorables for Saudi Arabia since the period immediately following the September 11, 2001, attacks. While these numbers recovered slightly in 2020, Saudi Arabia still ranked just above China and Russia in terms of Americans’ favorability. These public views match political shifts in both the Democratic and Republican parties when it comes to U.S. policy towards Yemen’s war and the coalition intervention, and suggest that this shift in U.S. policy is likely to be sustained over the coming years.
This bipartisan shift in U.S. politics, in conjunction with U.S. leverage vis-à-vis regional security partners, may push in favor of ending international intervention in Yemen, even as the effects of COVID-19 push back towards sustaining the interventions that have continued Yemen’s frozen conflict.
 Peter Salisbury, Yemen: National Chaos, Local Order, Chatham House, December 2017, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2017-12-20-yemen-national-chaos-local-order-salisbury2.pdf.
 “Press Release: Over 100,000 Reported Killed in Yemen War,” ACLED, October 31, 2019, https://acleddata.com/2019/10/31/press-release-over-100000-reported-killed-in-yemen-war/#:~:text=PRESS%20RELEASE%3A%20Over%20100%2C000%20Reported%20Killed%20in%20Yemen%20War,-Oct312019&text=31%20October%202019%3A%20The%20Armed,civilians%20killed%20in%20direct%20attacks.
 Cite Stacey Philbrick Yadav’s paper.
 Cite Ariel Ahram’s paper.
 “COVID-19: UN Chief Calls for Global Ceasefire to Focus on ‘the True Fight of Our Lives,” United Nations (March 23, 2020), https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059972; Ruth Hanau Santini, “The United Nations Ceasefire Appeal and MENA Conflict Hotspots,” The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa, POMEPS Studies 39, https://pomeps.org/the-united-nations-ceasefire-appeal-and-mena-conflict-hotspots.
 Bethan McKernan, “Health workers targeted at least 120 times in Yemen conflict – report,” The Guardian (March 18, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/18/health-workers-targeted-at-least-120-times-yemen-conflict.
 Bethan McKernan, “Fighting escalates in Yemen despite coronavirus ‘ceasefire,” The Guardian (April 14, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/14/fighting-escalates-in-yemen-despite-coronavirus-ceasefire.
 “Ceasfire Update April 2020: Bombings Continue Amidst Declared Ceasefire,” Yemen Data Project (April 2020), https://mailchi.mp/07128a65e00e/april2020-yemen-data-project-ceasefire-update-april-2020.
 “Oxfam says coronavirus ceasefire efforts ‘catastrophic failure,” Al Jazeera (May 11, 2020), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/oxfam-coronavirus-ceasefire-efforts-catastrophic-failure-200511091726759.html.
 Lise Morjé Howard and Alexandra Stark, “How civil wars end: The international system, norms, and the role of external actors,” International Security 42, no.3 (2018): 127-171; Eric Min, “Talking While Fighting: Understanding the Role of Wartime Negotiation,” International Organization 74, no. 3 (2020): 610-632; Govina Clayton and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Will we see helping hands? Predicting civil war mediation and likely success,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 31, no.3 (2014): 265-284.
 Peter Salisbury, “Making Yemen’s Hodeida Deal Stick,” International Crisis Group (December 19, 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/making-yemens-hodeida-deal-stick.
 Rethinking Yemen’s Economy, Economic Priorities for a Sustainable Peac Agreement in Yemen,” June 2, 2020, https://carpo-bonn.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Rethinking_Yemens_Economy-policy_brief_20.pdf.
 “UN Forced to Cut Aid to Yemen, Even As Virus Increases Need,” Associated Press (June 1, 2020), https://www.voanews.com/covid-19-pandemic/un-forced-cut-aid-yemen-even-virus-increases-need.
 Ali Al-Dailami, “Yemenis in Saudi Arabia: Less Money to Send Home, More Pressure to Leave,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies (September 3, 2020), https://sanaacenter.org/publications/analysis/11448.
 “Saudi Arabia’s increasing fees on foreign residents causing humanitarian crisis among Yemenis,” Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor (July 3, 2020), https://reliefweb.int/report/saudi-arabia/saudi-arabia-s-increasing-penalties-migrant-workers-causing-humanitarian-crisis.
 Ali Al-Dailami, “Yemenis in Saudi Arabia: Less Money to Send Home, More Pressure to Leave.”
 “Macroeconomic Update,” Jadwa Investment (August 2020), http://www.jadwa.com/en/researchsection/research/economic-research/macroeconomic-reports.
 “Remittances to Yemen plummet as needs surge amid war and coronavirus,” Oxfam (June 1, 2020), https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/remittances-yemen-plummet-needs-surge-amid-war-and-coronavirus.
 Ali Al-Dailami, “Yemenis in Saudi Arabia: Less Money to Send Home, More Pressure to Leave.”
 Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen, February 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/letter-dated-27-january-2020-panel-experts-yemen-addressed-president-security-council.
 International Crisis Group, Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle East (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2018), 11.
 “Three Years of Saudi-led Air War: Yemen Data Project Full Data Summary,” Yemen Data Project (March 26, 2018), https://us16.campaign-archive.com/?u=1912a1b11cab332fa977d3a6a&id=b39e674ae7.
 Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, “Exclusive: As Saudis bombed Yemen, U.S. worried about legal blowback,” Reuters (October 10, 2016), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-saudi-yemen/exclusive-as-saudis-bombed-yemen-u-s-worried-about-legal-blowback-idUSKCN12A0BQ.
 Strobel and Landay, “Exclusive: As Saudis bombed Yemen, U.S. worried about legal blowback.”
 “Saudi-led Coalition Admits to Bombing Yemen Funeral,” The Guardian (October 15, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/15/saudi-led-coalition-admits-to-bombing-yemen-funeral.
 Author interview.
 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by NC Spokesperson Ned Price on Yemen,” (October 8, 2016), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/10/08/statement-nsc-spokesperson-ned-price-yemen.
 E.g., see “Sanders, Lee, Khanna, Gaetz Lead Bipartisan Effort to Defund U.S. Role in Saudi War in Yemen,” Office of Senator Bernie Sanders, September 3, 2019, https://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/sanders-lee-khanna-gaetz-lead-bipartisan-effort-to-defund-us-role-in-saudi-war-in-yemen; “Murphy Introduces Amendments to National Defense Bill to End War in Yemen, Sanction Russian Forces in Libya,” Office of Senator Chris Murphy, July 2, 2020, https://www.murphy.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/murphy-introduces-amendments-to-national-defense-bill-to-end-war-in-yemen-sanction-russian-forces-in-libya-.
 Jack Destsch and Robbie Gramer, “Congress Pressures Trump Administration to Restore Aid to Yemen,” Foreign Policy (September 16, 2020), https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/16/congress-pressures-trump-aid-yemen-pompeo/.
 “Menendez, Leahy, and Kaine Unveil Reforms Restricting U.S. Arms Sales to Human Rights Abusers,” Office of Senator time Kaine, September 24, 2002, https://www.kaine.senate.gov/press-releases/menendez-leahy-and-kaine-unveil-reforms-restricting-us-arms-sales-to-human-rights-abusers-; For a complete overview of recent Yemen-related legislation in the U.S. Congress, see Congressional Research Service, Congress and the War in Yemen: Oversight and Legislation 2015-2020, updated June 19, 2020, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R45046.pdf.
 Daniel Benaim and Jake Sullivan, “America’s Opportunity in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs (May 22, 2020), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2020-05-22/americas-opportunity-middle-east.
 “Former Senior Obama Administration Officials Call for Halt to All U.S. Support for the War in Yemen,” National Security Action (November 10, 2018), https://nationalsecurityaction.org/newsroom/yemen-open-statement.
 “New IRC/YouGov poll: As pressure mounts for Yemen ceasefire, US opinion united: end support to the war,” International Rescue Committee (November 26, 2018), https://www.rescue.org/press-release/new-ircyougov-poll-pressure-mounts-yemen-ceasefire-us-opinion-united-end-support-war.
 Justin McCarthy, “Americans’ Favorable Views of China Take a 12-Point Hit,” Gallup, March 11, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/247559/americans-favorable-views-china-point-hit.aspx.
 Justin McCarthy, “Iran, North Korea Liked Least by Americans,” Gallup, March 3, 2020, https://news.gallup.com/poll/287153/iran-north-korea-liked-least-americans.aspx.