Between those calling for the end of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and those that support them, there is a more nuanced approach that acknowledges both Iranian aggression as a threat to regional stability and the global economy and the dire circumstances of the humanitarian crisis. Neither unabated arm sales nor a complete cease of arms sales is ideal, both of which do little to end the conflict in Yemen besides ensuring we have little-to-no say in the adjudication of a settlement. Instead, limited sales with regulations on their use and Saudis supplying aid to civilians in Houthi controlled areas is the answer, allowing us to maintain a level of political leverage in the conflict and utilize it to simmer tensions and mitigate casualties.
American policy regarding any involvement, direct or not, in the conflict should immediately address these three interests with an overarching strategy towards a negotiated settlement: first, ending the famine ravaging Yemen, second, an esurance from Saudi Arabia that competent oversight in verifying individuals targeted by bombs are not civilians, and third, protecting Saudi Arabia, its civilians, and its oil production facilities from Houthi bombs.
First, The Houthis have denied humanitarian aid and taxed whatever aid they end up letting in. Starvation exacerbated by these purely political tactics has cost the lives of 85,000 children under the age of 5 (according to Save the Children) (while Saudi airstrikes have killed less, 17,000 civilians in total).
Second, Saudi armed forces commit very little effort to verify that they do not bomb children in school buses or women in the Souks. Saudi bombings in Yemen have bordered on indiscriminate, either appearing as a mistake or as a result of apathy towards the suffering of their victims.
Third, Houthi launches of Iranian rockets at Saudi civilians and oil production plants and endangering of trade through the Bab-El-Mandeb Straits severely threatens a vitally important regional ally and the global economy which is inherently reliant on the price of oil.
After acknowledging the importance of these three interests, an analysis of the effectiveness of the policy options in addressing them and leading to an ultimate settlement is warranted.
The cease of all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, while rooted in a desire to end the war, will likely cause them to turn to Russia or another military power for the same arms, a process that has already begun. This does little to stop the bloodshed besides wiping it off of our hands and onto another’s. Illustrated by their fundamentalism and expansionist ideological goals, there is little evidence the Houthis would adhere to terms of an agreement rather than continue launching Iranian rockets at Saudi Arabia (another demonstrated behavior of the Houthis).
With our unabated support, the Saudis will continue to bomb Yemen with American weapons and likely end the war, but only after many more Yemenis die. Without limiting arms sales or placing conditions on their use we put no pressure on the Saudis to pursue a different and more peaceful means of ending the conflict. Currently, international powers are either unconcerned with the death of civilians (e.x. Russia) or incapable of influencing the decisions on the ground (e.x. EU). However, if we utilize the leverage that limiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia gives us, we could negotiate certain conditions on the bombings that could significantly decrease casualties and increase humanitarian aid. Limiting arm sales to Saudi Arabia will act as a meaningful signal of American resolve in ending the conflict while simultaneously maintaining some path towards rapprochement: adhering to conditions.
Conditions on the use of weapons should be enacted that will ensure a more thorough pre-verification of targets to dampen civilian casualties and ensure large quantities of Saudi humanitarian aid goes to civilians in Houthi controlled territories. These two conditions are not outlandish: they are inherently in Saudi Arabia’s interest as they would mitigate collateral damage and benefit sentiment towards Saudi Arabia both in Yemen and the international community at large by being the de-escalating-party. Using arms sales as leverage is not a new idea, and has been floated as a policy option during the Khashoggi Affair. Ideally, limiting arms sales will pressure Saudi Arabia to adhere to these conditions reducing the overall number of bombings, reducing the number of civilians targeted, and attempting to remedy the famine in Yemen. Ultimately, this policy would mitigate the effect of the conflict on the Yemeni people regardless of whether this outlined de-escalation paves the way for multilateral negotiations to an end of the conflict itself.
Leaving the war will do nothing to stop it as indicated by the possibility of Saudi Arabia turning to Russia to fill America’s vacancy. If the President truly wishes to restore some semblance of American global leadership and help negotiate a settlement to the war, he must leverage arms sales. Eliminating American arms sales to Saudi Arabia will not limit the bombardment of Yemen; ending our role in the offensive will not help us limit the offensive itself. However, maintaining the level of arms sales of the past with no attempt to shift their use or the conditions in Yemen would be propagating a deadly status-quo. Ultimately, limiting arms sales with specific conditions to decrease civilian casualties, through better pre-verification of bomb targets, and decrease the effects of the famine, through large shipments of humanitarian aid, will best and most expediently de-escalate the conflict and improve conditions for civilians.