Last weekend, thousands of people gathered at a community hall in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa to mourn the death of Sheikh Ali al-Rawishan, a Yemeni public figure and father of the country’s rebel-appointed interior minister. According to eye-witness accounts, two explosive ordinances burst through the hall’s ceiling around 3:30 pm local time before detonating shortly afterwards. The bombs were dropped by Saudi Arabian jets which caused well over 100 deaths and wounded an estimated 600 more during their repeated bombing of the hall. The mass loss of civilian life prompted the Human Rights Watch to condemn the funeral bombing in Sanaa as a war crime– only the latest in an “ever-increasing list of abuses” perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition according to HRW director Sarah Leah Whitson.
Though thousands of civilian mourners were in attendance, the Saudi Arabian military seemingly justified the funeral strike due to the fact that it was reportedly attended by nearly two dozen high-ranking Houthi politicians and military officials, making it an easy and obvious target. However, the disproportionate amount of civilian casualties has led various international human rights organizations to rebuke the Sanaa funeral bombing as a war crime. According to Article 52 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, military targets are explicitly defined as “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage”. Any attacks that would result in excessive civilian casualties despite whatever military advantage might be had are prohibited under international law.
The ongoing civil war in Yemen has been largely overshadowed by its Syrian cousin in the north, but the atrocities committed against Yemeni civilians by the Saudi-led coalition are as equally atrocious as those committed by the al-Assad regime in Syria. In order to properly get a sense of what’s happening today, however, we must first establish some historical context.
Sectarian tensions in Yemen first began back in 2004 when the radical cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi launched an anti-government uprising in the country’s northwestern region that came to be officially known as the Ansar Allah movement, though they are often called the Houthis in the west. The movement was initially founded to protect the Zaidi ethnic group against perceived discrimination and aggressive acts by the government but has evolved to be more and more of a separatist movement with time. The killing of al-Houthi by government forces in 2004 after he refused to turn himself in to authorities for questioning sparked a series of violent conflicts referred to as the six “Sa’da Wars” which flared up from time to time throughout the decade and also gave the movement traction among the disenfranchised Yemeni people who were fed up with the government’s inaction. After making startling advances near the Yemen’s northern border, Saudi Arabia decided to take military action against the Houthis in late 2009.
In 2011, the Arab Spring created internal instability in many Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Yemen, where thousands of people took to the streets demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis capitalized on this instability and managed to capture the Sa’da province in the northwest, forming an autonomous administrative zone around it in the early days of the Yemeni revolution. Unfortunately, the Houthis soon went from being the victim to becoming the aggressor, inciting violence against any political opposition, firing upon protesters, and laying landmines in civilian centers.
Following massive public demonstrations and civil unrest throughout Yemen, the beleaguered Yemeni president conceded to negotiations brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council in November of 2011 and agreed to a transfer of power to his deputy president, Abdurabu Mansur Hadi. However, the terms were rejected by the Houthis as well as many of the other opposition groups in Yemen and thus the violence continued. An election was held in February 2012 to the delight of many Yemeni people but only featured one candidate on the ballot: deputy Hadi, who unsurprisingly won in a landslide victory. Hadi formed a transitional unity government which consisted of the same pre-revolution political forces and which exclude Houthi representation.
This, of course, did not sit well with many Yemeni people– especially the Houthis. Though they had ended the 33 year reign of one dictator’s regime, they were seemingly trading it in for a new one. Clashes between the Houthis, forces loyal to the Yemeni government, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and a few other groups continued in the years following Hadi’s ascent to power, progressively getting deadlier and deadlier. The violence culminated in early 2015 when Houthi forces seized control of the presidential palace, ousted Hadi and his ministers, declared themselves in full control of the Yemeni government, and replaced the Yemeni parliament with a Revolutionary Committee that would be more inclusive of outside groups. Hadi escaped his Houthi-imposed house arrest soon after, recanted his resignation, and condemned the Houthi takeover as nothing more than an illegal power grab. The Houthis then mounted an offensive aimed at flushing out any remaining Hadi supporters that they suspected of collaborating with al-Qaeda and the conflict was soon branded as a civil war by the international community. Though a brief ceasefire was negotiated in September of 2015, it quickly fell apart after the Houthis refused to forfeit the territory and weapons it captured during the fighting.
The Houthi’s rise to power caused great concern for Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim nations in the Gulf who have “fears of Iranian influence, enmity from Houthi cross-border raids and Saudi Arabia’s military response in 2009, and general concern with having a religiously motivated non-state actor in control of areas across the border from a province that has not fit comfortably in the Saudi Kingdom” according to Lucas Winter, analyst for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO). In response to this threat, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of western and Arab countries mounted an offensive campaign against the Houthis codenamed Operation Decisive Storm towards the end of March 2015. Their goal was to “answer the call of President Hadi to protect Yemen and his people from the aggression of the Houthi militia”.
The violence has grown progressively worse in the past two months after UN-sponsored peace talks fell apart in August 2016. Following the failed negotiations, forces loyal to the internationally recognized government of President Hadi made significant military advances in the northwest of the country with coalition air support. Just this past week, the United States joined the fight and began direct strikes against suspected Houthi radar and missile facilities after a failed missile attack on the USS Mason that occurred last Thursday. Though the Houthis are suspected of launching this and similar strikes against US and coalition warships in retaliation for last weekend’s funeral bombing, a news agency controlled by the Houthis denied this claim on the grounds that they are not in control of the area where the radar system and missiles were located. Furthermore, the group claimed the allegations were simply excuses to “escalate aggression and cover up crimes committed against the Yemeni people”.
The ceaseless bombing on behalf of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other nations has caused the destruction of massive swathes of human life and infrastructure and will only further exacerbate Yemen’s status as the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula. Since the bombing campaign started over a year and a half ago, the Saudi-led coalition has been relentless in their attacks against the Houthis. Though the coalition is– at least in theory– fighting the Houthis, civilians have bore the brunt of this conflict. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates that over 4,000 civilians have been killed and another 7,200 wounded in the Yemeni civil war between March 2015 and October 2016, mostly due to coalition airstrikes. This is in addition to another 6,000 people labeled as combatants that have also been killed during this time. 2.4 million people have been internally displaced and 83% of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance according to Amnesty International.
A shocking 14.4 million Yemenis— over half the country’s population– are considered “food insecure”, a rate that has grown 12 percent since the Operation Decisive Storm started. In a December 2015 report, the UN expressed worries that Yemen might face an impending famine due to food and water scarcity. This is largely in part due to a Saudi-imposed naval, land, and air blockade of Yemen, a country which imports over 90% of its food, that began at the onset of the war. The blockade has also kept Yemeni farmers from accessing seeds and fertilizer, meaning that only a fraction of the pitiful four percent of Yemen’s arable land is being used for agricultural output.
These appalling statistics underlie the US’s unnerving relationship with Saudi Arabia. Despite the Saudi Kingdom’s worrying international military actions (not to mention their archaic and intolerant domestic policies), the Obama administration has continued to arm and provide them with weapons, military intelligence, and logistical support. In fact, President Obama has sold more weapons to Saudi Arabia than any previous president: a lofty $115 billion worth of jets, tanks, helicopters, light armored vehicles, and a whole gamut of other harbingers of death and destruction. Through Obama’s second term in office, Saudi Arabia has become the main purchaser of American-made weapons. Among the purchases made by the Saudi kingdom are the 500-pound laser-guided GBU-12 Paveway II bombs that fell on Sanaa last weekend which are made by the US’s third-largest military contractor, Raytheon.
As a self-proclaimed defender of democracy and freedom, American complacency in Saudi war crimes, perhaps even actual involvement in them, is hypocritical to say the least– especially at a time where our Secretary of State John Kerry has denounced Russian bombings in Syria and has called for “an appropriate investigation of war crimes”. Yet Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen have hit civilian targets such as mosques, schools, marketplaces, funeral homes, and hospitals time and time again– even potato chip factories aren’t safe. Even though Riyadh has ignored the US State Department’s request to tone down the civilian bombing in Yemen, the president’s administration has done little to levy any consequences against the Saudis and will likely continue to sweep their actions under the rug. Why doesn’t Kerry demand more accountability and action regarding the equally appalling actions of our allies as well?
Aside from occasionally including it in their news ticker, the media has also been guilty of this deflection. The majority of western news sites have largely remained silent about our own complacency and aiding of possible war crimes while simultaneously hounding Russia for committing similar atrocities in Syria. Yet as this month’s issue of The Economist asks, “If the Saudis, with Western support, can intervene to defend the government of Yemen, why should Russia not defend Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria?” This, of course, is not the first time the US has been caught practicing the opposite of what they preach and it will surely not be the last.
As we’ve seen time and time again throughout history, the only way to break the spirit and zeal of political, religious, and/or ethnic groups like the Houthis is through merciless violence. This, however, is clearly against both international law and human morality– though I must say, neither has stopped the United States nor Saudi Arabia in the past. Since violence only breeds more violence, the solution to this ongoing conflict must be a diplomatic one that addresses the grievances of the Houthi and the millions of hungry, dissatisfied people suffering within Yemen. The same western nations reducing Yemen to rubble must ensure that free and fair national elections take place to democratically elect a leader and a legislature that would best represent the needs of the Yemeni people. Granted, this will not be a smooth segue into democracy because it truly never is, but there are steps that must be taken to ensure Yemen avoids utter catastrophe.
Saudi Arabia [and its coalition] only has two choices – either admit defeat, stop attacks , exit and accept the results or sink deeper in to the swamp of war crimes and the international court
– Hamid Aboutalebi, Iranian political deputy
Assuming that the Saudi-led coalition is successful in their quest to squash the Houthi, President Hadi will re-inherit a country teetering on the brink of societal, economic, and literal collapse– a country that is ripe for the taking by a radical Islamist group such as the Daesh or Al-Qaeda. Much like Iraq and Afghanistan before it, Yemen is likely to become another example of failed American foreign policy, but what will we learn? We must face the reality that we cannot simply continue to use brute force and what essentially amount to scorched earth tactics if we truly want to spread western democratic values to impoverished nations. It has become as clear as a sunny day that our system of going in (or arming and funding others to do it), deposing the “unfriendly” leader of the country, and leaving a power vacuum in their wake is one that is not sustainable for stability nor democracy. Whoever becomes our next president must acknowledge this new reality and avoid dragging our country into another decade of perpetual warfare in the Middle East.