Mischaracterising the conflict in Yemen
The US Senate narrowly defeated a measure introduced by Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, that would have prevented the sale of $500 million in US precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Paul and other co-sponsors of the measure, including Democrats Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Al Franken of Minnesota, maintained that the weapons would be used in Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen.
The senators and other critics repeatedly framed the conflict in Yemen as a “Saudi war against Yemen” and maintained that Saudi Arabia intentionally targets civilians in the conflict. The first allegation is a gross mischaracterisation of the conflict and the second is equally suspect. Both overlook important facts.
Many Yemen specialists say the conflict is a civil war that began months before Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in March 2015. To frame it as a Saudi war against Yemen ignores the fact that the Houthi rebels had advanced on the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, forcing the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to move to Aden. The Saudis intervened six months later after a formal request for military assistance from the Hadi government.
This conflict began when the Houthis and their allies, including supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in 2012, tried to impose their will on the rest of the country. It will be resolved when they go back to the negotiating table and realise the futility of their project, which has threatened to tear the social fabric of Yemen.
Chances are good that if Saudi Arabia stopped its military support of the Yemeni government, the violence would continue unabated for the foreseeable future.
As for the issue of collateral damage, there is little doubt that the violence has taken a toll on the civilian population. Unfortunately, wars always do and modern warfare seems to be especially harsh.
However, the notion that Saudi Arabia is intentionally targeting civilians has very few supporters in the international community. Contrary to the claims of Senators Paul and Murphy and other critics, Saudi Arabia has taken many measures to minimise civilian casualties, including seeking and receiving the assistance of the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Arab coalition, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, has thousands of sites that are on a no-hit list. The spokesman of the coalition admitted that mistakes have been made due to faulty intelligence and other factors but there is a big difference between mistakes and targeting civilians as a matter of policy.
Saudi Arabia is aware of the toll that the war has taken on the civilian population in Yemen. The Saudi government intervened in large measure because it knew that Yemen would not enjoy any semblance of peace or prosperity if it was to fall victim to not one but two militant, non-state actors: The Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in the north and the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the south-east.
Those two groups have shown repeatedly that they will subject the beleaguered people of Yemen to hardships and horrors to serve their own narrow self-interests. In addition, they demonstrated enmity towards Saudi Arabia by breaching the Saudi border and conducting guerrilla-style attacks against border areas and personnel.
There are three other aspects of this complicated conflict that have not received much attention in the West. The first is that several hundred Saudi civilians have been killed during the conflict, in addition to several hundred military personnel.
The second is that the Houthi rebels have repeatedly used tactics that put Yemeni civilians in harm’s way, including hiding military personnel and weapons in civilian facilities such as schools. It is well-documented that the Houthis have used landmines extensively, which often take a heavy toll on civilian populations, especially children.
For all the focus on the humanitarian needs of the Yemeni population and shortages in food, fuel and medicine — all of which are severe — little attention has been paid to the fact that Saudi Arabia has provided more than $8.2 billion in aid to Yemen from April 2015 through April 2017. The King Salman Centre for Humanitarian Aid and Relief has provided close to $850 million in relief assistance, including food shipments to areas controlled by the Houthi rebels. More than $1.1 billion has been provided to Yemeni citizens living in Saudi Arabia.
While the Saudi-led Arab coalition has taken concrete measures to minimise collateral damage, the Houthi rebels and Saleh and his supporters show no regard for the toll the war they started has taken on their countrymen and women.
Instead, they engage in bombastic rhetoric and empty slogans. This war began when the Houthis and their allies took up arms. It will end when they put their arms down.