For the first time, the United States has become directly involved in a 19-month-old war in Yemen, a small but pivotal country on the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula. On Thursday, the US Navy fired missiles at onshore radar systems that were used in missile attacks on its ships in international waters.
The incident is a potentially major escalation of a conflict in need of urgent resolution through peaceful means. Yemen must be saved from multiple concerns: high civilian casualties from airstrikes by Saudi Arabia, a humanitarian crisis bordering on famine, Al Qaeda using the country as a base for global terrorism, and a possible expansion of the war to include Iran.
Until this missile strike, the US has played only a supporting role in the war, supplying the Saudi military with fuel and intelligence. The Saudi monarchy, along with its Gulf allies, seeks to push back rebels from the Houthi tribe who are loosely allied with Iran. These Shiite rebels took over the capital in 2015 in the midst of political turmoil triggered by the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Yemen’s war is widely seen as a proxy for religious tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran but with layers of clashes between clans, tribes, and regions. On a global scale, however, it is now also a human rights tragedy because of thousands of civilian deaths caused by Saudi airstrikes. And with little aid flowing into Yemen, more than half of its 24 million people are in dire need of food and health care.
With this direct US involvement in Yemen’s civil war, the US bears greater responsibility to end it. (In recent years, US forces have been active in Yemen, but only to diminish the Al Qaeda branch there.) President Obama must work closely with Congress to ensure wide political support to encourage the warring parties to talk. And by so openly taking sides, the US may need to hand over its role as a mediator to the United Nations or a similar neutral party.
The many conflicts in the Middle East, from Libya to Syria, can too easily draw in big powers and lead to sudden violence and mass migration. Yet they often need the careful attention of big powers. Yemen’s war may seem small and distant but its multisided dimensions demand that the US, with its immense power and influence, be more active as a peacemaker, relying less on its military might and more on diplomatic initiatives.
The global stakes in tiny Yemen are now too high to let violence be an answer.