Early in January 2015, my world changed. My dad called to inform me that my cousin Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh, a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, had been captured and burned to death by the militant group ISIL – after Muath’s F-16 fighter aircraft malfunctioned and crashed over Syria. Although I had never met this cousin of mine, my heart pounded with grief, listening to the rage and despair in my father’s voice. He was devastated, and he vowed that Jordan would take revenge.
I immediately blamed the on-going, U.S.-backed, regime-change wars in Syria and Iraq for creating the social instability that is breeding militant groups like ISIL, and I blamed the influence that weapons contractors, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel wield over the U.S. approach to the Middle East. Finally, I blamed decades of U.S. desire for regional hegemony and our government’s habit of sponsoring regime-change wars.
After experiencing years of anti-Arab racism here in the U.S., and after witnessing the fallout of disastrous foreign policy choices in the Middle East by U.S. leaders, the tragedy of Muath’s brutal murder impacted me deeply. I have always been interested in public policy and social change efforts, but after college, I pivoted toward a career in music and teaching, largely to escape the disillusionment I felt towards U.S. politics and foreign policy. Muath’s murder brought me back to the world of politics and pushed me to pursue a new career in peace advocacy.
I was determined to be a part of the solution.
I got my first in-depth education on the Yemen crisis at a panel I organized for Chicago Area Peace Action. It featured Shireen Al-Adiemi, a Yemeni activist, scholar, and contributor to the magazine In These Times. Beyond the humanitarian catastrophe and the complex history of the Yemen war, Al-Adiemi’s description of Saudi Arabia’s use of Al-Qaeda fighters and Sudanese child soldiers in their war against the Houthi army in Yemen disturbed me deeply.
I learned that generous U.S. military support and weapons enabled the Saudi-led coalition to restore Yemen’s ousted government by conducting an offensive operation that began with airstrikes and a naval blockade against the Houthi rebels. Al-Adiemi explained how the Saudi- and UAE-led war had pushed 10 million Yemenis to the brink of famine and more than 24 million people to rely on food assistance for survival.
That panel discussion catalyzed a great sense of urgency in me, and I began to concentrate much of my energy on ending U.S. military support for the Yemen war. When the D.C.-based nonprofit Just Foreign Policy asked me to lead its Yemen lobbying work in 2018, I said yes. I bought my first real suit and drove from the Midwest in my Chrysler Voyager to begin lobbying for S.J. Res 54, the Sanders-Lee-Murphy Yemen War Powers Resolution. While on Capitol Hill, I worked with amazing activists and knocked on door after door in Congress, hoping to end U.S. military complicity in this terrible war and bring it to a close.
Congress made history in the Spring of 2019 by passing S.J. Res 7, a resolution to end unauthorized U.S. military involvement in the Saudi-UAE war on Yemen. This was the first such resolution to pass both chambers of Congress since the original War Powers Act was passed in 1973, restraining the President’s ability to commit U.S. forces overseas. Although Donald Trump vetoed S.J. Res 7, it still sent a powerful signal to the world that Congress and the American people wanted out of Yemen.
By invoking the War Powers Act over Yemen, Congress and civic organizations succeeded in pressuring the Trump administration to stop mid-air refueling of Saudi and UAE warplanes. Further, it was no coincidence that the 2018 Stockholm Agreement among the warring parties in Yemen, which paved the way for a ceasefire in the Yemini city of Hodeida, was an agreement signed on the same day that Congress passed S.J.Res 54, which called for an end to U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Following the ceasefire, Congress forced more Yemen war votes, helping to push the UAE to draw down its forces in Yemen, to encourage a reduction in cross-border attacks by the Saudis and Houthis, and to revive negotiations among the warring parties.
While doing this advocacy work in D.C., I continually crossed paths with the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), one of the premiere faith-based peace lobbies on Capitol Hill. I was impressed by the organization’s moral conviction to do this important work, its ability to engage in deep listening with people of all backgrounds, and its Quaker belief that the spirit of God is in everyone. These principles gave FCNL’s lobbyists an uncanny ability to work across the aisle with Republicans and Democrats alike, and to build long-lasting relationships in Congress over time.
I was thrilled when FCNL offered me the opportunity to serve as its lead Middle East policy lobbyist. There has never been a more urgent need for this work, and I’ve been honored to contribute to FCNL’s efforts on behalf of Quakers and peace-minded Americans of all backgrounds to end U.S. complicity in the Yemen war.
Although major reductions in cross-border violence between Saudis and the Houthis were achieved in 2019, due in part to congressional action, some of those achievements were lost in 2020. In crafting the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act, congressional negotiators dropped provisions to end military assistance to the Saudis, and shortly thereafter, Yemen suffered a breakdown in diplomacy and an increase in violence. Between December 2019 and January 2020, the total number of Saudi air raids jumped by 294%. By February 2020, air raids were up another 118%.
With the transfer of presidential power to Joe Biden in 2021, FCNL began to see a greater chance for real progress on several of its foreign policy priorities, including in the Middle East. In February 2021, President Biden started making good on his campaign promise to seek a policy reset on Yemen, announcing that the United States would end its support for offensive operations in the Saudi/UAE-led coalition’s war. He also announced plans to increase diplomatic efforts to end the war.
While these are necessary first steps, more must be done. In March 2021, the UN’s World Food Program reported that, since early January, no commercial fuel had been off-loaded from tankers in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, due to the Saudi blockade. Such restrictions mean higher prices for fuel and food for everyone, and a lack of power for healthcare facilities at a time of widespread hunger and disease. Addressing the UN Security Council, World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley said, “Most hospitals have electricity only in their intensive care units because fuel reserves are so low. I know this firsthand because I walked in the hospital and the lights were off.”
He pleaded, “It is hell on earth in many places in Yemen right now… That blockade must be lifted, as a humanitarian act. Otherwise, millions more will spiral into crisis.” The Biden administration must heed this call by Beasley and pressure Saudi Arabia to lift this blockade immediately, unilaterally, and comprehensively.
This would mean terminating all U.S. political, military, operational, and diplomatic support for the blockade, to prevent any more innocent Yemenis starving. This would also mean allowing humanitarian and commercial imports to freely enter Yemen’s port of Hodeida, entrusting security oversight to the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM), fully permitting commercial and medical flights in and out of Sana’a airport, and reopening land crossings to importers, exporters, and civilian traffic.
After six years of war and blockade, the UN reports that 16.2 million Yemenis are now living on the brink of famine. Nearly 2.3 million children under the age of five in Yemen are projected to suffer from acute malnutrition in 2021, and among those children, almost half a million are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition, from which they will likely die unless they receive urgent treatment immediately.
President Biden has restored some aid funding to northern Yemen, but he must work to expand that funding to levels that are commensurate with the levels of malnutrition and disease that Yemen faces. He must also pressure Saudi Arabia and the UAE to meet and expand their humanitarian pledges for Yemen. President Biden must move urgently to prevent Yemen from plunging further into famine.
To end this war as soon as possible, the Biden administration must double down on the diplomacy needed to bring the warring parties to a ceasefire, end the blockade, and create a lasting peace that includes all sectors of Yemeni society. Six years of unimaginable human suffering is more than enough. Yemen can’t wait any longer. By working with Congress, the United Nations, U.S. allies, regional and local actors, and representatives of Yemeni civil society – especially women – the Biden administration can help all sides find the road to peace in Yemen.
FCNL will continue to advocate for peace in Yemen as well as for a U.S. foreign policy throughout the world that prioritizes diplomacy and peacebuilding over military responses to violence.
My family background reinforces my determination to keep working towards a safer and more peaceful Middle East. However, I do this work not only for my family, whom I love, but also for peace and stability worldwide. Even as the war in Yemen escalates, and the tragedies of violence and famine continue to confront innocent people there, I believe that now is the time to double down and recommit ourselves to working in solidarity across all parts of civil society for a just and lasting peace for all humanity. ~~~
Hassan El-Tayyab is the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s (FCNL) lead lobbyist on Middle East policy. His writings and commentaries have been featured in numerous news outlets, including BBC World News, The Hill, Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, The Intercept, and more. Follow him on Twitter: @HassanElTayyab.