Why Are We Ignoring the War on Yemen?

Yemen has been the target of a brutal U.S.-backed war led by Saudi Arabia. While ordinary civilians are suffering horrific violence and starvation, there is deafening silence from the U.S. and others who claim to be defenders of human rights.

The situation is so bad now that nearly every major global human rights organization has issued dire warnings of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the Persian Gulf’s poorest nation.

Since the Saudi regime began a bombing campaign in March, the situation has deteriorated rapidly as access to food and other aid has been stymied. In response, the United Nations in early July declared a Level 3 humanitarian emergency—the highest level possible. U.N. Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed described Yemen as “one step away from famine.”

But the bombing has had direct consequences, too. In late July, Human Rights Watch accused Saudi Arabia of war crimes after an airstrike on two residential buildings killed 65 civilians. Ten of the victims were children. “With no evident military target, this attack appears to be a war crime,” said an HRW researcher.

Amnesty International also published a scathing report with a title that says it all: “Yemen: Bloody trail of civilian death and destruction paved with evidence of war crimes.” Echoing the HRW report, Amnesty researchers found “a pattern of strikes targeting heavily populated areas including civilian homes, a school, a market and a mosque. In the majority of cases no military target could be located nearby.”

Children are especially vulnerable. UNICEF called attention to their plight in Yemen, citing the unimaginably high number of 10 million children in need of immediate assistance. Nearly 400 children have been killed and 600 injured since March. According to the report, “Yemen is one of the most terrifying places in the world to be a child.”

Overall, more than 4,000 people have been killed in Yemen, more than a thousand estimated to be civilians.

On Aug. 11, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, added his voice to the chorus of warnings. “The humanitarian situation is nothing short of catastrophic,” he said after a three-day visit to Yemen. “Every family in Yemen has been affected by this conflict. … Medicines can’t get in so patient care is falling apart. Fuel shortages mean equipment doesn’t work. This cannot go on. Yemen is crumbling.”

The same day, Teresa Sancristóval, who heads up Doctors Without Borders’ Emergency Unit, also warned of multiple crises, including a severe water shortage, lack of medicines and vaccines, and needless deaths exacerbated by the incessant bombing. She wrote, “In some moments, I felt that the conflict in Yemen is much more of a war against civilians than a war against armed groups.”

Ignoring the outcry from these high-profile human rights groups, Saudi Arabia just bombed yet another port, a main one used to transport aid to civilians in northern Yemen. In response, Save the Children’s Edward Santiago said, “The bombing of Hodeida port is the final straw. … The impact of these latest air strikes will be felt most strongly by innocent children and families.”

Not only has the United States blessed the brutal Saudi air war on Yemen, it has taken an active role in it. Recently “the Pentagon more than doubled the number of American advisors to provide enhanced intelligence for airstrikes,” the Los Angeles Times reported. This has directly contributed to a surge in airstrikes and subsequent civilian casualties. The L.A. Times rightly pointed out that Yemen’s plight has been “vastly overshadowed” by the U.S. war on Islamic State.

In a nutshell, when Yemenis toppled their longtime former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the wake of Arab Spring revolutions such as those in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, they ended up with Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as their new leader.

But Hadi was pushed out by a Shiite rebel group known as the Houthis, even as a low-level U.S. drone war continued against al-Qaida. Fearing Iranian aid to the Houthis along its southern border, Saudi Arabia punished Yemen with an aggressive air war actively sponsored by the Obama administration.

Adding to the air war, a new, aggressive, ground-based effort began in earnest in early August. The United Arab Emirates, a small but extremely wealthy country, has deployed a major contingent of troops on the ground in Yemen. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE is a major U.S. ally and a loyal customer of American military weaponry.

A recent analysis found that U.S. arms sales to the Middle East exploded under President Obama, peaking at more than $40 billion in 2012, compared with just over $10 billion under George W. Bush. The $60.7 billion worth of weapons during Obama’s tenure went mostly to Saudi Arabia (67 percent) and the UAE (21 percent), the two main aggressors in Yemen.

Among those weapons were cluster munitions, which Saudi Arabia has allegedly deployed against Yemen’s civilians. Cluster bombs are widely banned by most of the world, except for a handful of countries—including the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. They are condemned specifically for indiscriminately affecting civilian populations. But, as so many humanitarian groups are pointing out, the well-being of ordinary Yemenis seems to be a low priority for the warmongers.

Although Saudi Arabia cites its fear of Iranian influence as impetus for the war (couched in rhetoric about restoring Hadi’s rule), there is little evidence that Iran is actually helping the Houthis.

Certainly the Iranian regime has sent aid shipments to Yemen, many of which have been thwarted by Saudi Arabia despite the desperate need. But there is no evidence of military or logistical Iranian support.

Bizarrely, even Obama has asserted that Iran has not boosted the Houthi rebellion. On the contrary, he claimed Iran tried to discourage the Houthis, telling the press, “There were moments where Iran was actually urging potential restraint.” Obama has had to portray Iran as a “rational” actor in his administration’s recently brokered nuclear agreement with the Islamic Shiite regime. So why has he remained silent on Saudi bloodshed in Yemen, and worse, actively participated by providing advice and weapons?

The answer may lie in the fact that the U.S. has long waged its own one-sided drone war in Yemen and shamelessly continues to do so even as the country is falling apart. On Aug. 12, the latest drone strike in the eastern part of the country reportedly resulted in the extrajudicial assassinations of five suspected members of al-Qaida. The drone wars have gone hand in hand with greater terrorist threats rather than fewer, evident in al-Qaida’s Yemen chapter recently calling for more anti-U.S. attacks.

The richest and most powerful country in the world—the United States—is aiding the richest and most powerful countries in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia and the UAE—in bludgeoning the poorest in the region and one of the least powerful countries in the world: Yemen.

What is remarkable about the Obama administration’s silence on Yemen’s civilian suffering is that it is mirrored by everyone else’s muteness. Neither right- nor left-wing forces in the United States have taken much interest in the carnage and starvation there.

International human rights groups like UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children are united in their denunciation of the catastrophic war in Yemen. The rest of the world would do well to heed the call for an immediate end to the atrocities.


Sonali Kolhatkar

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