Regional experts are warning against knee-jerk calls to pull American support from the Saudi-led alliance battling Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen amid heightened congressional scrutiny of the U.S. relationship with the Gulf kingdom.
Several recent events, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and warnings of widespread famine in Yemen, have prompted appeals to the Trump administration to reevaluate its backing of Saudi Arabia, but experts caution that cutting U.S. aid would relinquish key territory to Iran.
"The implications of a withdraw is that we cede ground to the Iranians in their proxy battle across the Middle East, and Yemen, which is a strategic piece of real estate, effectively becomes Iranian-controlled," Jonathan Schanzer, the senior vice president at the Foundation of the Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Free Beacon. "You're looking at another Lebanon, at minimum, where chunks of the country are controlled by Iranian proxies with the ability to expand."
International attention was refocused to Yemen earlier this week when the United Nations aid chief warned that half the country's population—some 14 million people—could soon face famine and are entirely dependent on aid for survival. Mark Lowcock told the Security Council on Tuesday the humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated in recent months by ongoing fighting around the key port of Hodeida, a lifeline for Yemenis, who import more than 90 percent of their food.
"There is now a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing Yemen: much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives," Lowcock said. "In the absence of a cessation of hostilities, especially around Hodeida, where fighting for more than four months now has damaged the key facilities and infrastructure on which the aid operation relies, the relief effort will ultimately be simply overwhelmed."
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council official who now works as a senior fellow at Brookings, said during a Brookings panel on Thursday the time had come from Congress to "compel an end" to the war. He said the Trump administration is operating on a "fantasy that somehow if the Saudis are able to defeat the Houthis this will be a mortal blow to the government of Iran."
A bipartisan group of senators issued a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month expressing "significant concerns" over his decision last month to certify that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were doing enough to minimize the fatal impact of their military campaign in Yemen and complying with U.S. laws on arms sales.
The certification is required by law every 180 days to allow American aircraft to refuel warplanes belonging to the Saudi-led coalition.
Schanzer pushed back against the criticism.
"The idea of closing down this war to improve humanitarian conditions in Yemen is not in and of itself a bad idea, but the notion that we need to withdraw our support to the Saudis without a backup plan or a sense of an alternative for fighting the Houthis, to me, seems like a mistake," he said. "There needs to be an alternative strategy to pushing back against the Houthis, otherwise this is one battle that is a victory for Iran and a loss for us in the broader conflict. Those are the implications."
Fatima Abo Alasrar, a senior analyst at the D.C.-based Arabia Foundation who spoke alongside Riedel at the Brookings event on Thursday, raised similar concerns, saying it is "definitely a victory for Iran to scale back the role of" the Saudis.
"If you want to drop Yemen like a hot potato, that's fine, but it's going to have devastating consequences in Yemen," Alasrar said, referring to U.S. support.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has told reporters that he is "constantly reviewing" American support for the coalition, determining in September that it was "the right thing" to help Saudi Arabia defend its borders and reinstate the "rightful" UN-backed government in Sana'a.
"The ultimate solution here is not to say we're going to pull out our support," Mattis said. "The bombs will still fall. But it's not like we're going to stop the war by then. And it would be very, perhaps, satisfying to some people that we did that, but the fact is more civilians would die. We're not—I'm not willing to sign up for that."