While Syria’s civil war has dominated our media’s reporting from the Middle East, Yemen’s grave and multifaceted crises have escaped the attention of most Americans. As the country enters a humanitarian and environmental calamity, a new signal from Saudi Arabia may offer a glimmer of hope in Yemen’s civil war.
As in Syria, Yemen’s pro-reform Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011 were attacked by the government, and escalated to civil war. This brought outside intervention from regional and world powers. And like Syria, the country has endured widespread suffering and destruction. The U.S., as one of the players, shares some responsibility: its sometimes-murky role may be getting even more complicated, as the Trump Administration is now reportedly dispatching ground troops to the conflict.
A strongman supported by the U.S.
Yemen, the region’s poorest nation, had long been controlled by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a corrupt military strongman who enjoyed U.S. support. Major demonstrations in 2011, led by the Islah party, a Sunni faction backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, demanded reform of social conditions and an end to Saleh’s corrupt rule. As in Syria, police responded by shooting down protesters in the streets. Escalating protests led to Saleh’s removal, and the presidency passed to the Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
But conflict persisted. The Shi’i-led Ansar Allah, or more commonly the Houthi movement, named for their leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, had been battling President Saleh for a decade, but repaired their relationship with the now-ousted leader, who joined their armed forces in resisting the government. The Houthis eventually seized the northern capital of Sana’a, and President Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden.
Saudi Arabia invades, supported by the U.S. and U.K.
At this point, Saudi Arabia, with U.S. and British support, launched a military invasion. The U.S. objective had focused on the elimination of Al Qaeda’s powerful forces in Yemen (Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, or AQAP), which had attacked the U.S. Cole in Yemen’s Aden harbor in 2000 and killed 17 servicemembers. The U.S., like the Saudis, also feared that success for the Shi’i-dominated Houthis could give the Iranians a foothold in the Gulf.
With the armed intervention of outsiders, Yemen’s problems multiplied. The Saudis undertook large scale bombing attacks, more than a third of which struck civilian, not military, targets, according to human rights groups. With weapons supplied by the U.S. and Britain, the Saudis have bombed targets such as farms, schools, hospitals, markets, mosques and water infrastructure.
Shifting approach from the U.S.
Direct targeted assassinations (including of American citizens) were a notorious weapon used by the Obama Administration, which produced many civilian casualties. Obama finally restricted U.S. weapon deliveries to the Saudis after they bombed a funeral procession in Yemen, killing and injuring 150 people. Trump has revised U.S. sales and announced a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom after his recent visit; the Senate narrowly confirmed Saudi arms sales in June. In Britain, the High Court last month defeated the efforts of human rights groups, by affirming British weapons sales to the Saudis.
Although the U.S. has supported the Saudis in the war against the Houthi, some in the American government reportedly favor supporting the Houthi, as they are also fighting Al Qaeda, as well as the Islamic State forces operating in Yemen. Regardless, the Houthi, who are sophisticated and battle-hardened, appear to have made major advances in their effort to take over Yemen. They have launched missiles deep into Saudi territory, and worn down Saudi enthusiasm for continuing its war. Widespread public revulsion at Saudi and American attacks have also contributed to Houthi success. Although as Shi’i they constitute a slim minority, they appear to have gained the upper hand in a Sunni-majority Yemen, while still trying to defeat a secessionist movement in the country’s south.
An end to devastation from the U.S.-supported Saudi bombing?
This week, Saudi Crown Prince Salman has reportedly leaked to two former U.S. officials his desire to abandon the Saudi war. This news has led many in Yemen to celebrate, in hopes that at least the largest source of outside armed attacks will come to an end, violence which has blocked world efforts to alleviate major food, health and environmental crises.
Fully 70% of Yemen’s population, some 14 million people, are now in need of humanitarian aid. 17 million face food insecurity, with 7 million people relying entirely on food aid. And the destruction, sometimes intentional, of the nation’s water infrastructure has led to what the World Health Organization calls “the worst cholera outbreak in the world.” As of August 14, WHO reported an astonishing 500,000 cases.
Saudi airstrikes escalate the humanitarian crisis
According to researchers writing in the Lancet, “Houthi-controlled areas have been disproportionately affected by the conflict, which has created conditions conducive to the spread of cholera.” They explained, “Saudi-led airstrikes have destroyed vital infrastructure, including hospitals and public water systems, hit civilian areas, and displaced people into crowded and insanitary conditions. A Saudi-enforced blockade of imports has caused shortages of, among other things, food, medical supplies, fuel and chlorine, and restricted humanitarian access.”
The worst of the humanitarian crisis, in other words, is on our conscience as suppliers of the Saudi attack. And cholera isn’t the only water-related crisis, as an outright water shortage is looming as an even worse problem.
Yemen’s water crisis, which predated the war but which was greatly exacerbated by it, may lead it to become, in the words of the Times of London, “the first nation to run out of water”– and the capital city of Sana’a could be the first capital to run dry. The city’s water supply is obtained entirely from groundwater, which is being rapidly depleted, with climate change contributing to a decline in the rainfall that replenishes it. in Sana’a, according to U.N. research, “the water table was 30 meters below surface in the 1970s but had dropped to 1200 meters below surface by 2012.”
The fate of the people of Yemen
Yemen’s civil war is not over yet, despite the hoped-for Saudi moves. Houthi forces still face the opposition of the Sunni Islah party (with which they had briefly allied in the Arab Spring); as well as that of Hadi’s ousted government in exile (still backed by the Saudis) ; of southern secessionists; and of AQAP and ISIL forces in Yemen. Crises of poverty, unemployment, refugees, disease, and food and water shortages will then confront them should they take power. Whether the people of Yemen could then begin to emerge from the calamaties of war remains to be seen.
Tom Wright lives in Olympia and does a lot of interesting things besides writing about issues from the perspective of someone who reads books that were published before the year 2000.
With help from the U.S., England, France, and others, Saudi Arabia has carried out aerial strikes that have killed over 10,000 people in Yemen’s civil war. The number includes nearly 4000 civilians, and over 3 million people displaced. The US has has provided Saudi Arabia with intelligence and refueled the planes making the strikes. In April of this year President Trump authorized a disastrous raid into central Yemen, killing civilians, including several children, and a Navy Seal.
The war has been catastrophic for the people of this small country not only due to the death and devastation visited on them courtesy of US bombs delivered by the Saudis. As repeated bombing and fighting have destroyed bridges, roads, hospitals, sewage systems, and factories, malnutrition is rampant; garbage is everywhere and wells relied on for drinking water are increasingly polluted. In this environment, an outbreak of cholera has already killed nearly 2000 people and infected 500,000. In more than a decade of seemingly unending humanitarian crises, the crisis in Yemen is now deemed the world’s worst.