onald Trump is quietly escalating America’s role in the Saudi-led war on Yemen, disregarding the huge humanitarian toll and voices in Congress that are trying to rein in the Pentagon’s involvement. Trump administration officials are considering a request from Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United Arab Emirates, for direct US military help to retake Yemen’s main port from Houthi rebels. The Hodeidah port is a major conduit for humanitarian aid in Yemen, and a prolonged battle could be catastrophic for millions of civilians who depend on already limited aid.
With little public attention or debate, the president has already expanded US military assistance to his Saudi and UAE allies – in ways that are prolonging the Yemen war and increasing civilian suffering. Soon after Trump took office in early 2017, his administration reversed a decision by former president Barack Obama to suspend the sale of over $500m in laser-guided bombs and other munitions to the Saudi military, over concerns about civilian deaths in Yemen. The US Senate narrowly approved that sale, in a vote of 53 to 47, almost handing Trump an embarrassing defeat.
In late 2017, after the Houthis fired ballistic missiles at several Saudi cities, the Pentagon secretly sent US special forces to the Saudi-Yemen border, to help the Saudi military locate and destroy Houthi missile sites. While US troops did not cross into Yemen to directly fight Yemen’s rebels, the clandestine mission escalated US participation in a war that has dragged on since Saudi Arabia and its allies began bombing the Houthis in March 2015.
The war has killed at least 10,000 Yemenis and left more than 22 million people –three-quarters of Yemen’s population – in need of humanitarian aid. At least 8 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine, and 1 million are infected with cholera.
The increased US military support for Saudi actions in Yemen is part of a larger policy shift by Trump and his top advisers since he took office, in which Trump voices constant support for Saudi Arabia and perpetual criticism of its regional rival, Iran. The transformation was solidified during Trump’s visit to the kingdom in May 2017, which he chose as the first stop on his maiden foreign trip as president. Saudi leaders gave Trump a grandiose welcome: they filled the streets of Riyadh with billboards of Trump and the Saudi King Salman; organized extravagant receptions and sword dances; and awarded Trump the kingdom’s highest honor, a gold medallion named after the founding monarch.
Donald Trump receives the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 20 May 2017. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
The Saudi campaign to seduce Trump worked. Since then, Trump has offered virtually unqualified support for Saudi leaders, especially the young and ambitious crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the architect of the disastrous war in Yemen. By blatantly taking sides, Trump exacerbated the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and inflamed sectarian conflict in the region.
During his visit to Riyadh, Trump announced a series of weapons sales to the kingdom that will total nearly $110bn over 10 years. Trump, along with Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, who played a major role in negotiating parts of the agreement, were quick to claim credit for a massive arms deal that would boost the US economy. But many of the weapons that the Saudis plan to buy – including dozens of F-15 fighter jets, Patriot missile-defense systems, Apache attack helicopters, hundreds of armored vehicles and thousands of bombs and missiles – were already approved by Obama.
By blatantly taking sides, Trump exacerbated the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia
From 2009 to 2016, the Obama administration authorized a record $115bn in military sales to Saudi Arabia, far more than any previous administration. Of that total, US and Saudi officials signed formal deals worth about $58bn, and Washington delivered $14bn worth of weaponry.
Much of that weaponry is being used in Yemen, with US technical support. In October 2016, warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition bombed a community hall in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, where mourners had gathered for a funeral, killing at least 140 people and wounding hundreds. After that attack – the deadliest since Saudi Arabia launched its war – the Obama administration pledged to conduct “an immediate review” of its logistical support for the Saudi coalition. But that review led to minor changes: the US withdrew a handful of personnel from Saudi Arabia and suspended the sale of some munitions.
Toward the end of the Obama administration, some American officials worried that US support to the Saudis – especially intelligence assistance in identifying targets and mid-air refueling for Saudi aircraft – would make the United States a co-belligerent in the war under international law. That means Washington could be implicated in war crimes and US personnel could, in theory, be exposed to international prosecution. In 2015, as the civilian death toll rose in Yemen, US officials debated internally for months about whether to go ahead with arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
But these concerns evaporated after Trump took office. Like much of his chaotic foreign policy, Trump is escalating US military involvement in Yemen without pushing for a political settlement to the Saudi-led war. His total support for Saudi Arabia and its allies is making the world’s worst humanitarian crisis even more severe.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran