America Should See Saudi Arabia's War on Yemen for the Horror It Really Is
More than a million cases of cholera have been reported, the largest recorded outbreak in history. A recent epidemic of diphtheria reached all but one of Yemen’s 23 governates. As many as 18 million people are food insecure and 14 million are at risk of starvation. Meritxell Relano, representing the UN’s Children’s Fund in Yemen, explained: “water and sanitation systems are collapsing. More than half of Yemen’s health facilities are out of service, cutting off nearly 15 million Yemenis from access to safe water and basic healthcare.” As if these woes weren’t enough, it is also estimated that three million people have been displaced.
Of course, Saudi Arabia’s MbS denied any blame. “It is very painful … and I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.”
His claims are wrong and distorted. The Houthis have behaved badly, but the conduct of the coalition is far worse. Saudi airstrikes, described as “indiscriminate or disproportionate” by Human Rights Watch, have caused at least two thirds of infrastructure damage and three-quarters of casualties. Observed Yemeni-American Rabyaah Lthaibani: “For three years now, the Saudi Coalition has bombed hospitals, schools and wedding parties. They have systematically targeted roads and farms and blocked ports so lifesaving aid and other goods could not reach people facing famine and the world’s fastest-growing cholera outbreak.”
This would be outrageous under any circumstance, but attacks on civilians appear to be conscious strategy. A UN panel of experts recently charged that Riyadh was using starvation as a weapon of war. Most obvious is the blockade which, reported Human Rights Watch, “has severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians, in violation of international law.”
But the coalition’s crimes go much further. Matthew Reisener of the Center for the National Interest cited “mounting evidence that Saudi Arabia has deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure to manufacture a food insecurity crisis in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled areas. Hundreds of airstrikes have purposefully targeted farms, marketplaces and food-storage facilities, while over two hundred fishing ships have been destroyed in coalition bombings.”
A different kind of human horror also comes from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Last June Human Rights Watch and Associated Press reported that Abu Dhabi and its local allies operated 18 secret prisons in Yemen’s south where prisoners were tortured. According to AP: “Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaeda militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuses is routine and torture extreme.” In addition, American forces were reportedly stationed at some of those facilities, though U.S. officials denied involvement in human rights violations.
What could justify U.S. complicity in another state’s murderous war of aggression?
One of many poor arguments is one from the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, who argued that U.S. have to be involved, “to keep the region from falling apart,” because “the collapse of any friendly regime there is bad for us.”
The reality is that Washington has done far more to destroy Middle Eastern order than preserve it. The invasion of Iraq, bombing of Libya, and support for jihadist radicals in Syria boosted militarist and Islamist movements throughout the region and greatly enhanced Iran’s influence. Today, Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, and America’s assistance in that war, has continued this process.
Whether Hadi was nominally friendly toward America no longer matters. Since his ouster he allied with Islamist radicals and is no friend of democracy or human rights. Moreover, by calling in airstrikes on his own people Hadi lost whatever legitimacy he once possessed. By helping kill thousands of civilians in attempting to restore him to power, Washington ensured that much of the population will be unfriendly, whatever the character of the regime that emerges. One Yemeni described the destruction of his apartment by a Saudi airstrike to The New Yorker’s Nicolas Niarchos, angrily stating, “America is the main sponsor of all that is happening to us.”
Secretary Mattis claimed that ending U.S. combat support would allow the Houthis to use ballistic missiles to threaten “vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea.” Alleged proof of this was an earlier Houthi missile attack on an American warship. That attack led other administration officials to express concern about navigational freedom, especially in the Bab-el-Mandeb waterway.
But Yemenis attacked the U.S. vessel because Washington is helping their killers, Saudi Arabia. Before this war, Houthis did not target Americans and they had no reason to. In peace the Yemenis rely on Gulf trade and they would never want to impede it. Yet now the Saudi-led coalition has blockaded Yemen and its access to the Gulf. By internationalizing the war Riyadh has also internationalized the weapons. As U.S. Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan complained and noted, previously “there was no explosive boat that existed in the Yemeni inventory.”