By THOMAS KELSALL AND KELLY HUGHES
The Forgotten War:
Although the war in Syria has captivated the globe, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is currently taking place in Yemen; a failing state embroiled in a catastrophic civil war.
The conflict features large civilian casualties, war crimes, an IS insurgency, and foreign involvement from countries all around the world, including Australia and the United States (US).
The United Nations said the bombing campaign led by a Saudi Arabian coalition is to blame for 60% of civilian casualties. The US and many of its allies provide logistical support, intelligence and weapons to the Saudi bombing campaign.
Despite clear evidence of the US government’s complicity in Saudi war crimes, the US senate voted 55-44 against a resolution to end military support for the war.
But why are the US and its allies invested in such a brutal bombing campaign in a relatively small Arab country? To answer this question, it is crucial to understand who is fighting in the war, and the implications Yemen has on the larger geopolitical interests in the region.
Who is fighting Whom?
While the graphic below does not encapsulate the full complexity of the war, it provides an overview of the rivaling factions fighting for power within Yemen, and the foreign powers trying to gain influence in the region.
Why did the war start?
After years of intermittent violence, North and South Yemen entered a tense unification under the rule of authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1990.
President Saleh struggled to maintain control over Yemen’s rivalling factions, and the Shiite minority ‘Houthi’ grew increasingly frustrated with the discriminatory rule of the Sunni led government. This sparked an insurgency in Northern Yemen in 2004.
During the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 Yemeni citizens protested President Saleh’s corrupt and ineffective government. This forced him to hand over power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
In the midst of the political upheaval, President Hadi struggled to deal with attacks from Al-Qaeda, food insecurity, corruption, unemployment, and civil and political unrest.
By 2014, the ongoing Houthi insurgency successfully captured Yemen’s capital Sana’a. This forced President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia, where he remains today.
Saudi Arabia, fearing an Iran supported Shiite government on its border, intervened on President Haidi’s behalf with a coalition bombing campaign against the Houthis in March 2015.
The war is now waging between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis, with the complicating presence of IS and Al-Qaeda.
Yemen is part of a larger regional conflict
The large number of foreign countries involved in Yemen highlights the wider geopolitical rivalry at stake between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The tension between the two countries is dubbed ‘The Middle East Cold War’. Their struggle for influence has parallels to the 20th century Cold War between the US and Soviet Union.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are not in a direct war, but rather fight ‘proxy wars’ in other countries by supplying arms and supporting groups aligned with their interests and ideology.
Recent US interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have catastrophically destabilized the Middle East.
The power vacuum from the removal of dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi has assisted the rise of Sunni, Shia and extremist militia groups in the region.
The 2011 Arab Spring protests also aided this process by putting immense political pressure on long time authoritarian leaders.
The wealth and political stability of Saudi Arabia and Iran have allowed them to exploit the chaos in the region and pursue their diametrically opposed ideological and financial interests. The two rivals have supported opposing groups in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Morocco and now Yemen.
The region is being torn apart by the competing interests of the Cold War, as well as the violent presence of extremist groups like IS. As a result, the Yemeni people have become human pawns in a wider proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Why is the US involved?
Image Source: ABC
The US views Saudi Arabia as one of its most important strategic allies. Since World War II, Saudi Arabia has been vital to the US’s fight against communism and terrorism.
They also share an important financial relationship.
In May 2017, President Donald Trump signed a $350 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, significantly boosting the business of US defence contractors. And since 1973, the US has imported on average 1187 barrels (188,799 litres) of Saudi crude oil and petroleum every day.
The US also shares a negative view of Iran. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 overthrew the US backed Shah of Iran and installed the anti-American Ayatollah Khomeini.
The US Embassy hostage crisis and President George W Bush’s declaration that Iran is part of an “axis of evil” strained relations further.
Therefore, maintaining good relations with the Saudis and limiting Iranian influence in the region is a key foreign policy objective for the US.
The public pretext for US involvement is to prevent Yemen from becoming an extremist hotbed. But when Hadi’s government collapsed, the US had to remove all its troops from Yemen, undermining its ability to combat extremism in the country.
The US now provides logistical support for the Saudi coalition fighting the Houthis. This includes sharing intelligence and refueling Saudi bombers in the air, giving them significantly more lethal capacity.
Western support for the brutal Saudi campaign is not limited to the US. The UK has shown unwavering support for the Saudi government, selling the country 48 highly advanced fighter jets earlier this month.
Australia is also a quiet supporter of the brutal war.
Despite the naval blockade targeting civilians in Northern Yemen, the Australian Navy has conducted joint training exercises with Saudi Arabia in waters not too distant from the site of the blockade.
What is the human cost of the war?
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has bypassed epidemic levels.
According to the UN, the death toll surpassed 10,000 at the beginning of 2017, with at least 40,000 wounded.
Since March 2015, some 3.3 million people have been displaced.
Because of thee unliveable conditions, the mass displacement of war has caused diseases such as cholera to re-emerge and spread at an extraordinary rate, with 7,000 new cases discovered per day.
The disease is curable but requires clean water, salts, gloves and oral rehydration.
The situation has been dubbed the worst-recorded cholera outbreak in the world, and there are predictions the disease could affect one million Yemenis by the end of 2018.
In March 2016, the Yemeni government ceased supplying money for the Public Health Department and, as a result only 50% of hospitals in Yemen are operational with mass shortages of staff and supplies.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reports that more than 5000 children have been killed or injured in the Yemen war, with “an average of five children every day since March 2015”.
The threat of starvation is a daily consequence for the people of Yemen, with 8.4 million civilians at risk.
Image Source: BBC
The current population in need of urgent humanitarian assistance stands at 22. 2 million– almost the entire population of Australia- with 11 million of those being children.
Peace deals have been organised by the UN to alleviate the crisis, but their efforts to negotiate any sort of peace agreement have failed three times.
Evidence of War Crimes
Strong international condemnation over Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen have incited calls to restrict the targeting of civilians.
However, there is little evidence of change or progress on this issue.
Human Rights Watch called on the UN in late 2017 to launch an international investigation into the war crimes.
They also wanted the Saudi-led coalition to return to its “list of shame” for harming and killing innocent children.
In response, Saudi Arabia has been placed on a UN blacklist for killing and injuring children and attacking dozens of schools and hospitals in Yemen.
Yemeni officials say the Saudi-led coalition has not allowed ships to deliver much needed aid. The UN is calling for a lift of the blockade, warning that Yemen could suffer the worst famine in decades.
List of War Crimes
Both sides of the conflict are committing war crimes, but the air and naval power of the Saudi coalition has allowed them to attack indiscriminately; targeting innocent Yemeni civilians in their homes and hitting medical facilities, harming those in need of medical assistance.
Here is an incomplete list of known Saudi-coalition war crimes.
- Bombing of a hospital for the blind, 81 killed, January 2016.
- Bombing of a Medicine Sans Frontiers (MSF) hospital ,11 killed, August 2016.
- Bombing of funeral procession, at least 140 killed, 600+ wounded, October 2016.
- Purposeful targeting of urgent supplies, such as a bombing of a desalination plant cutting off millions from their only source of clean water, December 2016
- Bombing of civilian market, 54 killed, December 2017.
- Bombing of civilian farm, 14 members of the same family killed, December 2017
- A naval blockade of crucial medical supplies for treating Cholera, also preventing food from reaching 75% of the population, March 2017
Image Source: ABC
A tragic combination of blockades, targeted attacks and indiscriminate/unpredictable violence has created a breeding ground for famine, cholera, malnutrition, child suffering and civilian deaths.
Is there an end in sight?
The Houthis seem too weak to conquer Yemen, but too powerful to back down from Saudi-led forces, thus the battle lines have barely moved.
Countries who are backing the Saudi-led coalition or the Houthis, see their part in the war as a way of exuding dominance and influence over the Middle East.
This is an enormous problem for Yemen because their country is being used as leverage for economic deals, such as controlling oil, trade etc.
To compound this, the war-torn country is a breeding ground for terrorist groups, who see Yemen as a prime opportunity to incite a new wave of IS militant influence.
Mark Mitchell, the Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defence warned the U.S. Congress late last year,
“The areas that we’ve seen that are the most troubling and provide the most potential for [IS] in particular to establish a new base — first of all would be Yemen, which….has a failed government and is wracked by a civil war,” Mr. Mitchell said.
Just two days ago a bipartisan resolution in the US senate failed to pass, which would have ended US involvement in the Yemen war.
On the same day, President Trump welcomed Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, the main force behind the Yemen war, to Washington to discuss their relationship and future arms sales.
Silent support is mounting as the war in Yemen errs on the side of a genocide.
The West’s three pillars of freedom, democracy and human rights are undermined by their complicit relationship with such a ruthless regime.