As COVID-19 spreads, ending US support for the Saudi war in Yemen is vital

As COVID-19 spreads, ending US support for the Saudi war in Yemen is vital
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The small Middle Eastern nation of Yemen was in dire straits even before the novel coronavirus pandemic began. One of the poorest countries in the region, Yemen has suffered more than five years of civil war; foreign military intervention and blockade; severe shortages of food, medicine, and clean water; and a deadly cholera epidemic.

Yemen’s plight was already deemed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the United Nations and now there could be a deadly COVID-19 outbreak. 

This pandemic has proven a formidable foe for the health-care systems of advanced, stable nations like Italy and the United States. But Yemeni medical facilities are already under-resourced and overwhelmed with war casualties, cholera, and other communicable illnesses.

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Yemen desperately needs peace and open supply lines for its potential fight against COVID-19. Now more than ever, Washington must end its enablement of the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen’s conflict and support a peaceful, diplomatic resolution with the immediate opening of Yemen’s airports and seaports for humanitarian aid. Riyadh has recently shown fresh interest in leaving Yemen even as it continues its air campaign. U.S. departure could tilt the scales toward peace.

The best preventive measure to control the spread of the novel coronavirus is hygiene, but the war has mired Yemen in filth. “Pumps to sanitize the water supply sit idle for lack of fuel, while maintenance agencies tasked with chlorinating aquifers go without salaries and supplies,” Reuters reported in 2017. The situation has not improved in the three years since, especially as U.S.-supported Saudi airstrikes have targeted crucial water treatment facilities.

Vital infrastructure isn’t all the Saudi-led intervention has destroyed: The coalition’s airstrikes have a high rate of civilian casualties. The attack on a school bus that killed 40 children in 2018 was merely the most infamous of its genre. The U.S.-backed coalition has also hit hospitals, funerals, weddings, schools, markets, refugee camps, and residential neighborhoods, and it has continued to do so since the bus strike caused global outrage. Just last month, a Saudi strike in northern Yemen killed 31 civilians, 19 of them children, and injured another 18 kids. “It was an attack on a civilian-populated area where children were in the vicinity,” UNICEF reported, which is to say, a tragedy that could have been avoided.

The scarcity of food and medical supplies caused by the Saudi coalition’s ongoing air-and-sea blockade has compounded Yemeni deaths by illness and violence alike. The U.N. estimates a Yemeni child under 5 dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes like hunger and infectious disease. Medical workers have gone years without proper equipment or salary, and now they will likely have to grapple with coronavirus, too. “The test of coronavirus is expensive and it is not widely available in Yemen,” Yemeni pharmacist Nasri Abdulaziz told "Middle East Eye," “so I think the cases will appear suddenly all at once and then we will face real trouble.”

There is no overnight fix for Yemen’s misery. But the single most effective way to help Yemen now is for Washington to stop supporting the Saudi-led coalition intervention. Without U.S. assistance — which has included weapons provision, naval blockade, refueling planes for airstrikes, drone strikes, and intelligence sharing — the coalition could not continue its fight in Yemen, at least not anywhere near its present scale.

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If Washington withdraws, it will give Riyadh a new urgency in its peace talks with the Houthi rebels, which have stalled after a brief period of relative calm devolved into fresh turmoil last month. At the very least, the U.S. exit would make the Saudi stranglehold on much-needed food and medical supplies far more difficult to sustain, giving the Yemeni people a fighting chance against COVID-19.

Ending Washington’s support for the coalition intervention would be a win for the United States, too. The U.S. has no vital interests at stake in Yemen — the Houthi rebels have local ambitions and do not pose a threat to America — and insofar as our involvement there affects our security, it is for the worse.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (which, unlike the Houthis, does aim to strike the U.S.) has flourished in the chaos of civil war. Prolonging this conflict is a boon to U.S. enemies, not to us. Enabling Saudi Arabia’s reckless intervention has the unintended consequence of making the United States less secure.

Because U.S. involvement in Yemen is mostly in an auxiliary role, Washington can act quickly here. There is no large-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops to coordinate or major American military bases to shut down.

Washington can and should stop contributing to the Saudi-led intervention immediately for Yemen’s sake and our own. The Obama administration should never have gotten entangled in this war in the first place; the Trump administration should not have continued it.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

Editor's note: The copy has been updated to reflect a previous statement regarding a coronavirus outbreak in Yemen. When the piece was published Yemen has no reports of COVID-19 cases.