Yemen

Savaging a nation

Print edition : September 18, 2015

In Yemen's Red Sea port city of Hodeida, after an air strike on August 23. Photo: REUTERS

Houthi militants secure an area where a demonstration against the air strikes is underway in Sana'a on August 24. Photo: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS

Houthi supporters demonstrate against the air strikes in Sana'a on August 24. The northern-based Houthis, a Shia Muslim group, took control of Sana'a in September 2014. Arab countries intervened in the conflict in March to halt a Houthi advance into the south which caused the Saudi-backed government to flee to Riyadh from its refuge in the southern port of Aden. Photo: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

After Saudi warplanes targeted a truck loaded with cooking oil canisters at Nqeel Yaslih near Sana'a on August 17. Photo: KHALED ABDULLAH/Reuters

A grave humanitarian tragedy unfolds in Yemen as the Saudi Arabia-led alliance backed by the U.S. continues its relentless bombing.

The bombing of Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, by the military alliance led by Saudi Arabia and armed by the United States—has resulted in its infrastructure being reduced to rubble. According to international organisations, more damage has been done to Yemen in four months of war than to Syria, where intense fighting has been going on for more than four years.

According to the United Nations, more than 400 children have been killed in Yemen since Saudi Arabia and its regional allies launched their intensive aerial blitz and ground attacks. The official estimate of the death toll by the U.N. is 2,000 but many observers of the region estimate that the actual number is much higher. More than 1.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has issued an alert on Yemen stating that the “fighting shows no signs of a resolution”. The agency reported in late August that millions of people were on the brink of starvation and that “basic services that children depend on have been decimated”.

Saudi Arabia has specifically targeted the ports. The Yemeni population depends on imports for 90 per cent of its food supplies. With the ports either destroyed or blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition, even U.N.-brokered humanitarian aid has not been able to get through. The World Food Programme (WFP) stated in the third week of August that the number of “food insecure” in Yemen came close to 13 million. The U.N. agency said that one in five Yemeni was suffering from severe food insecurity. “Even before the crisis began, Yemen had one of the highest malnutrition rates in the entire world. What we are seeing now is the increase in severe malnutrition cases because of the lack of access to our programme operators to provide the assistance that is necessary,” said Etharin Cousin, the WFP’s executive director, after a visit to the devastated country in the third week of August.

The U.N.’s envoy to Yemen, Ould Cheikh Ahmed, issued a warning in late July that Yemen “was only one step away from a famine”. The latest UNICEF report said that 10 million children, constituting half of the country’s population, were in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The report also stated that half a million pregnant women in the areas most affected by the war were at a great risk as they had no access to hospitals or even basic medical facilities. After a visit to Yemen in August, Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that “the humanitarian situation is nothing short of catastrophic”.

The international community has mainly chosen to remain silent as the grave humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in full view. Iranian ships carrying humanitarian cargo have not been allowed entry by the military coalition supported by the Barack Obama administration. There have been baseless allegations that the Houthi resistance is militarily supported by Iran. U.S. diplomats admit that Iran had tried to dissuade the Houthis from taking over the capital, Sana’a. Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, recently told the U.S. media that “it remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen”. Iran’s political and diplomatic priority has been to get the U.S. sanctions on the country lifted. The last thing it wants is to get involved in another unending regional war. In fact, Saudi Arabia launched its attack on Yemen as soon as it became clear that a nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S. was imminent.

Despite warnings from international organisations, Saudi Arabia has continued with its relentless bombing campaign. The latest port city to be attacked is Hodeida in northern Yemen. The port was used to transport aid to civilians. U.S. officials admitted that Saudi Arabia and its allies were using banned cluster munitions against hapless civilians. The Obama administration has provided cluster munitions and sophisticated weaponry worth more than $60 billion to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The U.S. has been providing “enhanced intelligence for air strikes” to its allies who have been bombing Yemen for the past four months. In recent months, the Pentagon has doubled the number of advisers providing intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition. The U.S. Air Force provides mid-air fuelling for Saudi aircraft while the U.S. Navy is helping Saudi Arabia enforce the blockade. The blockade is supposed to prevent the smuggling of arms to the Houthi-led resistance but as international aid agencies have emphasised, it has prevented the import of basic commodities desperately needed by the beleaguered populace. The “enhanced intelligence” provided by the U.S. has not even limited the number of strikes against civilian population centres. The U.S. had until now given only its closest ally, Israel, a free hand to launch military attacks against neighbours. Now, Saudi Arabia, another close military ally of the U.S., has been given the same privilege.

Amnesty International has called upon the U.N. to create a commission of inquiry to investigate what it has described as “war crimes” committed during the conflict. Amnesty, which investigated eight air strikes which killed 141 civilians, including children, stated in its report that the Saudi-led air campaign had “left a bloody trail of civilian deaths”. The organisation said that such acts could be classified as “war crimes” as its investigations had shown that the air attacks targeted civilian areas that were completely devoid of military presence.

The Saudi-led coalition is backing fighters comprising tribal militias, southern separatists and sections of the Yemeni army backing the exiled President, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. These forces, backed on the ground by Saudi and other Gulf troops, are fighting Yemeni forces led by the Houthis, a political movement comprising people belonging to the Zaidi sect and supporters of the former President, Abdullah Ali Saleh. The Zaidis, who are close to the Shias in their religious outlook, constitute a sizable chunk of the Yemeni population.

Saudi Arabia started the war when the major political parties in Yemen were on the verge of signing a U.N.-brokered peace deal. The Houthi-led fighters had at the time taken control of most of Yemen and its major cities, including Aden, the port city in the south. Jamal Benomar, the U.N. Secretary-General’s representative to Yemen at the time, said that the Houthis were prepared to withdraw from Sana’a and share power with all the parties.

The U.N. was preparing for the deployment of a “national unity force” in the capital, comprising fighters from all the factions. Before the deal could be formalised, Saudi Arabia started its bombing campaign, and the war began. Saudi Arabia refused to participate in the U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva in June. It also refused to adhere to two U.N.-brokered humanitarian truces despite giving an assurance to that effect earlier. Saudi Arabia seems intent on capturing Sana’a before calling a halt to the bloodletting it has unleashed.

In early August, after months of intensive bombing, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops and armoured vehicles to Aden. This helped them to militarily turn the tide against the Houthis and their allies. For the time being, they have been ousted from Aden and a few other cities in the south. But in the last week of August, the Houthis and their allies launched counter attacks in the south to show that they are far from being a defeated force.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and its allies are finding it difficult to keep the peace in Aden. In the last week of August, the Islamic State (I.S.) announced its presence in the city by carrying out an attack on an army post manned by troops supported by Saudi Arabia. The I.S. has declared both the sides in the Yemeni conflict as enemies and apostates. As it is, there are reports that the different groups that had aligned themselves with Saudi Arabia in the south are now at one another’s throats. They are a disparate group, ranging from southern separatists to the Islah, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is hand in glove with the Brotherhood. In Egypt, it is fully backing the government’s draconian steps against the Brotherhood.

The Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), on the other hand, has preferred to fight the Houthi-led coalition with the tacit support of Riyadh.

When the war broke out four months ago, the main focus of the Houthis was on Al Qaeda, which has a strong base in the country. Al Qaeda suicide bombers killed hundreds of Yemenis in Sana’a earlier in the year. Since the bombing began, Al Qaeda has captured three more towns. It has been in control of the port town of Mukalla for several months now.

Katherine Zimermann, an expert on the region and a research fellow in the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the turmoil in Yemen benefited the Al Qaeda franchise there. Al Qaeda is “much stronger on the ground today. The coalition forces, particularly Saudi Arabia, are willing to risk strengthening Al Qaeda in the process of defeating the Houthis,” she told the Bloomberg agency.

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