Terror from the air

Print edition : June 12, 2015

People run for cover as smoke billows following air strikes on the residence of Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the capital, Sana'a. Warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition bombed Saleh's house in central Sana'a following a night of intensive strikes against shia rebel positions, witnesses said. Photo: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP

Houthis carry coffins of their fighters in a funeral procession in Sana'a. The bombing of Yemen has been going on since March 26. Photo: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS

Yemen's exiled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi (centre), surrounded by security forces, upon his arrival for the opening of the "Riyadh Conference for Saving Yemen and Building Federal State" in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on May 17. The Houthis, who are fighting forces loyal to Hadi and have seized large parts of the country including the capital, want talks to be held in Yemen and stayed away from the meeting. Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

Boys wait to fill buckets with water from a public tap amid an acute shortage of water in Sana'a. The bombing has seriously damaged the poor country's infrastructure. Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

The United States pays lip service to the issue of a political solution in Yemen even as it supports a Saudi-led bombing campaign that has devastated the poor Arab nation and left it on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, has been subjected to unprovoked aggression by its wealthy neighbour, Saudi Arabia, since the last week of March. The Saudi kingdom has assembled an alliance that includes all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states with the honourable exception of Oman. Other non-GCC monarchies in the region such as Jordan and Morocco have been participating in cowardly air raids targeting heavily populated Yemeni cities. A Moroccan F-16 fighter jet was shot down over Yemen in the first week of May.

The Saudis failed to get Pakistan involved in their latest military adventure despite a great deal of arm-twisting. They had also hoped to prevail on Egypt to support their initial plans to launch a ground invasion. But better sense has prevailed in both Cairo and Islamabad. Both the Egyptian and Pakistani governments are indebted to the Saudis and the rich GCC countries for bailing them out of dire financial situations in recent years. However, in both countries the military has concluded that it is a fool’s errand to be involved in the domestic affairs of another Muslim country, especially one with a volatile history. Public opinion in Pakistan was solidly against the dispatch of troops to Saudi Arabia; only organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba supported the move. It has been reported that the Saudis also had an additional demand that only Sunni members of the Pakistan Army be sent.

Saudi munificence may have persuaded countries like the rump Republic of Sudan and Senegal to pledge troop support to the ongoing military misadventure, but there have been protests in both countries against the move.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also pledged support. Two years ago, the two countries had fallen out bitterly over the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Now, the Saudis are supporting an offshoot of the Brotherhood in Yemen, the Islah Party. Saudi King Salman’s brother, the late King Abdullah, who passed away earlier in the year, had described the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organisation”. The Brotherhood is also banned in the United Arab Emirates.

The bombing raids on Yemen targeting major cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taez have caused immense damage to the impoverished nation’s infrastructure. Airports, hospitals, factories and schools have come under attack. The United Nations estimates that over 1,500 civilians have been killed so far, many of them women and children. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has described the situation in the country as catastrophic. A spokesman for the FAO said Yemen imported 90 per cent of the food it needed. For the past two months, it has not been able to import anything owing to a Saudi-imposed blockade. The agricultural sector has virtually been destroyed with the Saudi-led alliance targeting irrigation systems.

Even before the Saudis started their bombing campaign, there was 40 per cent unemployment in Yemen, which has a population of 24 million. At the end of 2014, the U.N. had estimated that 60 per cent of the country’s population was in need of humanitarian assistance. Ever since the bombing started, 12 million Yemenis have become “food insecure”, according to U.N. estimates. The country now is in dire need of food, medicines and other basic necessities. The Saudis even made it difficult for aid agencies to distribute relief during a five-day humanitarian ceasefire in the third week of May.

Helping the Saudis maintain their draconian blockade is the United States. Seven Iranian ships carrying relief materials to Yemen were stopped by the U.S. Navy in late April. The Saudis threatened to block an Iranian ship carrying much-needed aid after the recent ceasefire agreement from docking in Yemeni waters. The U.S. has intervened militarily in many countries on the pretext of the so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) vulnerable populations doctrine. So far, there has not been a single word of condemnation from the White House on the havoc wrought by Saudi bombs on the civilian population of Yemen. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did, however, say in the first week of May that the U.S. was “deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation that is unfolding in Yemen”. Despite the use of massive U.S.-supplied air power and the deployment of banned weapons like cluster bombs against them, the Yemeni forces, consisting mainly of the majority of the Yemeni army loyal to the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the Houthi militia, are refusing to give up. The Saudis have conspicuously not targeted areas that have now fallen under the control of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In Syria too, the Saudis, along with Turkey and Qatar, are bolstering al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in the region.

Many observers of the West Asian political scene are now comparing the actions of Saudi Arabia to that of Israel. The Saudis, like Israel, have been intervening militarily in the affairs of their neighbours. In Bahrain, they sent in their army to quell the popular pro-democracy movement. And like Israel, the Saudis are also targeting prominent leaders for assassination. The house of Saleh in a populated area of the Yemeni capital was targeted by Saudi warplanes in the first week of May. The Saudis also declared the entire province of Sada in the north-east of Yemen as a no-go area for civilians; many of the civilian casualties of the latest war in Yemen occurred there. “The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, with or without prior warning, is in contravention of international humanitarian law,” said Johannes Van Der Klaauw, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen.

The Yemenis have always indicated their willingness to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict but have demanded a complete stoppage of the Saudi-led attacks on their country before talks can begin. The Houthis and their allies have refused to go to Riyadh or the capitals of the Gulf countries that are part of the Saudi-led military coalition for peace talks. Houthi leaders have also said they prefer that talks are held between the different political factions within their own country.

“We demand a complete end to the aggression against Yemen and the lifting of the blockade to resume the political dialogue under the sponsorship of the U.N.,” the spokesman for the Houthi leadership said in the second week of May. Earlier, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a call for an early end to the fighting and for talks to be held under U.N. auspices.

The new Saudi leadership under King Salman planned the attack on Yemen even as talks on power-sharing between the various political factions in that country reached a crucial stage. The Saudi leadership was privy to the talks and knew that a political settlement was on the anvil. The war against Yemen, according to diplomatic sources, was part of an Israeli-Saudi game plan to scupper the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. By trying to paint the Houthis as Iranian surrogates, the Saudi leadership hopes to score important propaganda points in Washington. They also wanted to draw Iran into the military conflict at a time when it is engaged in delicate negotiations as it prepares for the signing of the formal nuclear deal in June. Although the Barack Obama administration seems to have seen through the game plan, it is happy to sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia to bomb the hapless people of Yemen and has given the Saudi monarchy a long rope in that country. “The Saudi air force could not carry out day-in-day-out bombing missions in Yemen without help from U.S. trainers and maintenance experts and the flow of spare parts and ammunition,” Bruce Reidel, a Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institute and former top functionary of the Central Intelligence Agency, told The New York Times. Saudi Arabia has spent $500 billion in the last 20 years on defence purchases; most of the money has gone to the U.S. At a recent Camp David meeting attended by Gulf leaders, the Obama administration signalled that it was for a speedy political solution of the situation in Yemen. President Obama also offered security guarantees to the GCC countries. The Gulf monarchies know fully well that they are totally dependent on the U.S. for their security. All of them host big American military bases on their territory. Anyway, as a commentator noted, it is not a so-called “nuclear Iran” that the monarchs are afraid of, but the emergence of a prosperous and vibrant Iran that would play its rightful role in the region.

The Houthis too are playing a waiting game. They also have sophisticated weaponry which the Americans provided in the last decade when the government in Sana’a was aligned to Washington. The U.S. supplied more than $500 million worth of arms to the Yemeni government from 2006 onward. Much of this weaponry is now in the hands of the Houthis and their allies after they captured Sana’a in January. But they have desisted so far from using their missiles and rockets against Saudi targets across the long common border. Their support on the ground seems to be only growing as the Saudis keep bombing them and trying to starve them into submission. The man the Saudis want to reinstall as President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, remains safely ensconced in Riyadh while his countrymen are being subjected to terror from the air.

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