Saudi onslaught

Print edition : November 11, 2016

A community hall in Sana ’a that was hit in air strikes on October 8. This photograph was taken on October 16. Photo: MOHAMED AL-SAYAGHI/REUTERS

Houthi rebels hold posters of their leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and the Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah as they mark the holy day of Ashoura, in Sana ’a on October 12. Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

A video grab of a radar site after a U.S. air strike in Hodeida, Yemen, on October 13. Photo: AP

The United States government could be held “responsible for war crimes” involving the targeting of civilians in Yemen by Saudi Arabia-led forces armed by the U.S.

The West, led by the United States, has in recent months been crying itself hoarse about the alleged “war crimes” being committed by Syrian and Russian forces in the ongoing offensive to liberate the eastern part of the Syrian city of Aleppo. Hillary Clinton, supported by senior figures in the Obama administration such as Secretary of State John Kerry, has accused the Russian government of “committing war crimes” in Syria as the final push to evict the terrorist groups from Aleppo and the rest of Syria intensifies. As the Kremlin has pointed out, the Russian air force is in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government in Damascus and is engaged in the targeting of extremist groups such as the al Nusra and the Daesh (Islamic State, or I.S.). These groups have been classified as “terrorist organisations” by the United Nations and, for that matter, the U.S. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said that it is his patriotic duty to expel all terrorists from his country and regain sovereignty over parts of the country that have been invaded by foreign jehadists.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration and the Western media have been conspicuously silent about the massacre of innocent civilians in Yemen for more than a year and a half. The Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in the impoverished country, which started in March 2015, has already brought the country to the brink of a famine and led to to the death of more than 10,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians. The campaign has had the full political and military support of the U.S. and its major allies, including the United Kingdom. The Obama administration has already sold arms worth more than $110 billion to the Saudi Kingdom since 2008. Sophisticated weaponry worth more than $20 billion was sold after the Saudis started bombing Yemen in 2015. In the past year alone, Britain has sold more than $6 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia. These two countries have supplied the sophisticated armaments that the Saudi-led coalition has been using against Yemen.

With the military campaign led by the Saudis against the Houthi-led forces bogged down and on the verge of defeat, the Saudis have, nevertheless, continued to target civilian areas, including schools, marriage and funeral venues, busy marketplaces and hospitals. A survey by the Yemen Data Project revealed that one third of all Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen targeted civilian areas. The project was started by a group of independent academics and human rights activists. The same civilian areas have been attacked repeatedly by the Saudis. One school building in the Taiz area was reportedly hit nine times. American and British military personnel advise the Saudis in their choice of “military targets”, and the Americans also help in the mid-air refuelling of Saudi fighter jets. Most military experts believe that the Saudis will not be able to sustain their military campaign without American help.

An attack ‘by mistake’

The latest horrific strike by the Saudi air force was in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, on October 8. As mourners gathered for the funeral of a prominent Yemeni citizen, Saudi planes targeted the venue, a well-known landmark which hosts weddings and other social events, killing more than 170 people and injuring over a thousand. Saudi Arabia, after initially denying that its aircraft was involved in the bombing, admitted its culpability and said its air force was given wrong intelligence inputs by its Yemeni allies. Riyadh has offered apologies, along with compensation for the victims. Human rights groups called the strike a “war crime” and “unlawfully disproportionate”. Yemenis refused to accept the argument that the strikes were a “mistake,” as Saudi authorities claimed.

Many of the victims belonged to the country’s political elite and influential tribal groups from northern Yemen. The hall in which the mourners had gathered was repeatedly hit within a span of an hour, even as the first responders rushed to help evacuate the injured. Among those killed was the Mayor of Sana’a, Abdul Qader Hilal, and a number of prominent personalities who supported peace talks and an end to the fighting. Yemenis, even those harbouring sympathies for the ousted central government of Abdu Rabbu Mansur Haddi, expressed outrage in the wake of the latest carnage. The tribes that had remained neutral in the civil war are now more likely to veer towards the coalition led by the Houthis and the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Most of the Yemeni army remains loyal to Saleh. There have been calls for an all-out war to be declared against Saudi Arabia. Saudi border posts have come under attack and hopes for a negotiated end to the fighting are getting dimmer by the day.

The fighting can, of course, stop if Washington wants it to end. After the latest attack, the Obama administration said it had ordered “an immediate review” of its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Remnants of American shell casings were found at the site of the mayhem. The White House National Security spokesman released a statement that the Obama administration was “deeply worried” following the Saudi air strike on the funeral gathering. “U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque,” he said. He warned that the U.S. was “prepared to adjust our policies so as to better align with U.S. principles”. But in the second week of October, the U.S. seemed to have directly entered into the Yemen quagmire by firing cruise missiles targeting three radar installations said to be under the control of pro-Houthi forces.

It was the first direct attack by the U.S. on forces led by the Houthis. The Obama administration characterised the strikes as “limited self-defence strikes” that were conducted to “protect our personnel, our ships and freedom of navigation”. Shells fired from the Yemeni coast apparently targeted an American destroyer. No damage was caused as the shells fell harmlessly into the sea. The Houthis denied that they were responsible and said the U.S. claims “were baseless”. They condemned the “direct American military attack targeting Yemeni soil”. Interestingly, the Pentagon was not absolutely sure who was responsible for the missile launch from the Yemeni coastline. “We don’t know who was pulling the trigger,” the Pentagon spokesman said in the second week of October. He was only sure that it was fired from territory under the control of the Houthi-led coalition. In response to the U.S. action, Iran deployed three of its warships along the coastline of Yemen.

Yemenis angry with U.S.

Most Yemenis are angry with the U.S. for aiding and abetting the Saudi carnage in their country. According to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 13 Yemeni civilians die every day on an average as a result of the Saudi-imposed war. The U.N. estimates that around 2.8 million Yemenis have been forced to flee their homes because of the war. Eighty-two per cent of Yemen’s population of 24 million are in need of aid of some sort or other. Sixty per cent are in dire need of food aid.

“The prolonged duration of the conflict has heightened the disastrous risk of a systemic collapse of Yemen,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein warned in early September. The U.N. report released in September once again warned that the dire situation in Yemen was being exploited by terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the I.S. The U.N.’s Special Envoy to Yemen, Ould Cheikh Ahmad, informed the Security Council that these two terrorist groups “continue to wreak havoc in significant parts of the country”. Western reporters on the ground have reported seeing Al Qaeda fighters and Emirati fighters jointly battling the forces of the Houthi-led coalition.

Ted Lieu, a U.S. Congressman, has written to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing concern that the U.S. government could be held “responsible for war crimes” in Yemen. U.S. support for “an immoral and illegal war” in Yemen coupled with the intentional targeting of civilians would implicate Washington in the ongoing carnage. “The repeated and frequent strikes on civilians show that the issue is not the gross incompetence of the Saudi military coalition. Apologists for the Saudi coalition can perhaps defend a few errant bombs, but not over 70 unlawful strikes. It appears that either the Saudi coalition is intentionally targeting civilians or that it is not distinguishing between military targets and civilians. Both would be war crimes,” Ted Lieu wrote.

Internal Obama administration documents recently accessed by Reuters news agency reveal that U.S. policymakers were aware that the Saudi-led coalition was indiscriminately hitting the civilian populace in the past 18 months. The Reuters report said that State Department officials were privately apprehensive of the Saudi government’s capabilities to target the Houthi-led forces “without killing civilians and destroying ‘critical infrastructure’ needed for Yemen to recover”. State Department officials “had their hair on fire” as reports of civilian casualties in Yemen started multiplying, the report said. The Obama administration lawyers, according to the report, did not come to a definite conclusion on whether or not the U.S. government was a “co-belligerent” along with the Saudis.

The U.S. State Department was aware, according to the authors of the report, that the International War Crimes Tribunal in previous rulings, especially the one relating to former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, had significantly widened the international legal definition of aiding and abetting war crimes. “The Americans have been patronising and directing the war from the very beginning,” said Brig. Gen. Sharaf Luqman, a spokesman for the rebel alliance. But, as recent history has shown, some countries seem to be exempted permanently from answering for their crimes against humanity, especially when that country has assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner.