U.S. Support for Saudi Military Operations in Yemen

Since 2015, the United States has provided intelligence, military advice, and logistical support to the Saudi Arabia–led military intervention in Yemen. U.S. stated goals for this assistance are to restore the UN-recognized government of Yemen and preserve Saudi territorial integrity from incursion by Yemen-based Houthi rebels. Deepening Iranian support for the Houthi rebels has also reinforced U.S. concern for Yemen’s trajectory.

However, the Saudi-led coalition’s operations in Yemen have led to civilian casualties and collateral damage prompting concerns from the international humanitarian community and U.S. Congress. These concerns highlight how the unintended effects of the coalition’s operations have exacerbated the terrible conditions of Yemen’s civil war, characterized as the “worst humanitarian disaster” in nearly 50 years. Recent congressional and administration debate surrounding U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has raised important questions and implications about how the United States increasingly relies on partners to achieve common security objectives in complex operating environments.

Q1: How is the United States currently supporting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in their efforts in Yemen?

A1: The majority of U.S. assistance has consisted of aerial targeting assistance, intelligence sharing, and mid-flight aerial refueling for Saudi and UAE aircraft. Despite significant criticism of its involvement in the conflict, the U.S. government repeatedly has emphasized that assistance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE is not directly combat related except when in defense of U.S. forces and in the pursuit of al Qaeda and its associates. Although U.S. advisers reportedly do not approve or execute bombing targets, they do advise their Gulf partners on intelligence sharing, targeting procedures, and—after widespread condemnation of civilian casualties caused by Saudi aerial bombardment—targeting precision. In a March 14 letter to Congress, Secretary of Defense James Mattis underscored that U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition is focused on improving coalition processes and procedures, especially emphasizing the laws of armed conflict and best practices for reducing civilian casualties. Mattis cited, “limited U.S. military support of coalition forces engaging in operations in the legitimate exercise of self-defense” as the further justification for U.S. support. The United States also has recently assisted Saudi Arabia in updating Patriot missile defense systems to address missile threats from the Houthis against Saudi territory.

During his Senate Armed Services Committee testimony on March 9, General Joseph Votel reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia, stating that U.S.-backed initiatives are intended to reduce civilian casualties and enhance the effectiveness of the overall campaign. He was, however, met with criticism from some committee members, who apportioned blame to the United States for being “ complicit ” in the heavy-handed military campaign.

The debate surrounding the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen is not new. Last year, Congress held a contentious vote on continued arms sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, worth $510 million, which came down to a 53-47 vote in favor of the sales. Despite the narrow vote, U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states such as the UAE are likely to continue, as highlighted during President Trump’s March 20 meeting with Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Q2: How would the proposed legislation have affected U.S. support for the effort in Yemen?

A2: A joint resolution introduced in the Senate in late February would have removed “United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen, except United States Armed Forces engaged in operations directed at al Qaeda or associated forces, unless and until a declaration of war or specific authorization of the use of force has been enacted.” Although the overall Senate blocked the resolution on March 20, the initiative raised important questions about U.S. support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen. If enacted, this move would have effectively ceased assistance to the Saudi-led coalition’s pursuit of the Houthi rebels. In his letter to Congress, Secretary Mattis warned that restrictions on U.S. military support could have the opposite of the intended effect of increasing civilian casualties, undermine counterterrorism efforts, and reduce U.S. influence with Saudi Arabia, thereby impairing U.S. and international ability to ameliorate humanitarian suffering and mitigate the effects of the civil war.

This development follows a bill passed by the house in November 2017, which called for specific legislation on the Yemen humanitarian crisis and specific congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Q3: How could this proposed legislation impact U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia?

A3: The passage of restrictions on U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition would almost certainly have a markedly negative impact on U.S.-Saudi relations, as well as with the UAE. The debate surrounding the proposed legislation was raised in parallel to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the United States, a source of tension for the Trump administration. Officials from the Departments of Defense and State met with senators in a classified briefing on Capitol Hill, warning them of the implications of the proposed legislation on the conflict in Yemen and on U.S.-Saudi relations.

Q4: What alternate measures to those outlined in the proposed legislation can the United States take to temper the unintended effects of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen?

A4: Though the questions and concerns raised by critics of the Saudi-led operations in Yemen are valid and vital, cutting off all U.S. assistance may not be the best solution to the crisis. The United States should consider alternative methods to mitigate civilian casualties and alter Saudi and wider coalition behavior in the conflict that may achieve more enduring results.

Following the international outcry against Saudi Arabia’s aerial campaign in Yemen last year, Saudi Arabia reportedly invested $750 million in a training program through the U.S. military in helping mitigate civilian casualties. The United States may consider apportioning a greater percentage of its assistance portfolio to trainings such as these, as well as combined scenario-based planning and exercises for its security partners navigating complex civil-military environments. As another alternative, the United States could link new assistance to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in Yemen on positive steps taken to improve humanitarian access and its civilian harm mitigation strategies. On the punitive side, the United States could halt its assistance if the Saudi-led coalition implements another blockade of Yemen or engages in disproportionate kinetic responses that harm civilians, making clear to the coalition through diplomatic and military channels where these red lines exist. With increased congressional interest in improved oversight and accountability of security sector assistance, initiatives that hold Saudi Arabia and other Gulf coalition members to higher standards of conduct in the use of force, without exacerbating the crisis in Yemen or broader regional relationships, may be feasible and impactful alternatives to the proposed legislation on Capitol Hill.

Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the International Security Program and director of the Cooperative Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Hijab Shah is a research associate and Timothy Robbins is an intern with the CSIS International Security Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Timothy Robbins

Intern, International Security Program

Hijab Shah

Melissa Dalton