October 18, 2015

Yemen: What the Saudi-US War has Wrought

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE bombing of Yemen, one of the world's poorest countries by the Saudi Arabian led and US supplied military alliance has resulted in the country's infrastructure being reduced to rubble. According to international organisations, more damage has been done to this country in four months of war than in Syria, where intense fighting has been going on for more than four years. According to the UN, the conflict in Yemen has killed more than 400 children since the Saudis and their regional allies launched their intensive aerial blitz and ground attacks. The official estimate of the death toll by the UN is two thousand but many observers of the region estimate that the actual death toll is much higher. More than 1.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes. The 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 are on the brink of starvation and that “basic services that children depend on have been decimated”. HUMANITARIAN TRAGEDY The Saudis have concentrated their American supplied fire power on ports. The Yemeni population depends for 90 percent of its food supplies on imports. With ports either destroyed or blockaded by the Saudi led coalition, even UN brokered humanitarian aid has not been able to get through. The World Food Program (WFP) stated in the third week of August that the number of “food insecure” in Yemen had come close to 13 million. The UN agency said that one in five of the country's population is 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 program 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 UN's envoy to Yemen, Ould Cheikh Ahmed, had 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 is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The report also stated that half a million pregnant women in the areas most affected by the war are at a greater risk as they have no access to hospitals or even basic medical facilities. Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after a visit to Yemen in August, said that “the humanitarian situation is nothing short of catastrophic”. The international community of nations has mainly chosen to remain mute 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 Obama administration. There have been baseless allegations that the Houthis are being militarily supported by Teheran. American diplomats admit that Iran had tried to dissuade the Houthis from taking over the capital, Sana. “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen”, Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswomen for the US National Security Council recently told the US media. Iran's political and diplomatic priority has been to get the American sanctions on the country lifted. The last thing it wants is to get involved in another unending regional war. In fact, the Saudis had launched their attack on Yemen as soon as it became clear that a nuclear deal between Teheran and Washington was imminent. Despite the warnings from international organisations, the Saudis have continued with their relentless bombing campaign, specifically targeting ports. The latest port city to be attacked was Hodeida in northern Yemen. The port was being used to transport aid to civilians. American officials have admitted their Saudi allies have been using banned cluster munitions against hapless civilians. The cluster munitions along with sophisticated weaponry worth more than $60 billion were provided to Saudi Arabia and the UAE during the tenure of the Obama administration. The Americans have been providing “enhanced intelligence for airstrikes” to their allies who have been bombing Yemen for the last four months. In recent months, the Pentagon has doubled the number of advisers to provide intelligence to the Saudi led coalition. The US air force also provides mid air fueling for the Saudi aircrafts while the American Navy helps in enforcing a blockade on the impoverished and war ravaged country. The blockade is supposed to prevent the smuggling of arms to the Houthi led resistance but as international aid agencies have emphasized, it has prevented the import of basic commodities desperately needed by the beleaguered populace. The “enhanced intelligence” provided by the United States has not even limited the number of strikes against civilian populations centers. The US so far has given a free hand to launch military attacks against neighbours only to its closest ally, Israel. Now Saudi Arabia, another close military ally has been given the same privileges. WAR CRIMES Amnesty International has called on the UN to create a commission of inquiry to investigate what it has described as “war crimes” being committed by Saudi in the conflict. Amnesty, which investigated eight air strikes that 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 has said that such acts could be classified as “war crimes” as their investigations had shown that the Saudi led air attacks targeted civilian areas that were completely devoid of military presence. The Saudi led coalition is backing fighters comprising of 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 of people belonging to the Zaidi sect and supporters of the former Yemeni president, Abdullah Ali Saleh. The Zaidis, who are close to the Shias in their religious outlook, constitute a sizable chunk of the Yemeni population. The Saudis had started the war when the major political parties in Yemen were on the verge of signing a UN brokered peace deal. The Houthi led fighters had at the time taken control of most of Yemen and its major cities, including the port city of Aden in the south of the country. Jamal Benomar, the UN secretary general's representative to Yemen at the time has said that the Houthis were prepared to withdraw from Sana and share power with all the parties. The UN was preparing for the deployment of a “national unity force” in the capital, comprising of fighters from all the factions. Before the deal could be formalised, the Saudis started their bombing campaign and the war began. The Saudis had refused to participate in UN sponsored peace talks in Geneva in June. The Saudis also refused to adhere to two UN brokered humanitarian truces despite giving prior assurances. The Saudis seem intent to capture the capital Sana and then only call a halt to the bloodletting they have unleashed. In early August, after months of intensive bombing, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops and armoured vehicles to Aden, the country's second biggest city. This helped them to militarily turn the tide against the Houthis and their allies. They have been for the time being ousted from Aden and a few other cities in the South. But in the last week of August, the Houthis and their allies have launched counter attacks in the South to show that they are far from being a defeated force. Meanwhile, the Saudis and their allies are finding it difficult to keep the peace in Aden. In the last week of August, the Islamic State (IS) announced its presence in the city by carrying out an attack on an army post manned by troops supported by the Saudis. The IS 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 with the Saudis in the South are now at each other’s throats. They are a disparate group, ranging from southern separatists to the Islah, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Yemen, the Saudi are hand in glove with the Brotherhood. In Egypt, the Saudis are fully backing the government's draconian steps against the party. 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 the al Qaeda, which has a strong base in the country. Al Qaeda suicide bombers had killed hundreds of Yemenis in the capital Sana, earlier in the year. Since the Saudi imposed war began, the al Qaeda has captured three more towns. They have been in control of the port town of Mukalla for several months now. An expert on the region, Katherine Zimermann, a research fellow in the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said that the turmoil in Yemen has benefited the al Qaeda franchise there. Al Qaeda is “much stronger on the ground today”, she told the Bloomberg agency. “The coalition forces, particularly Saudi Arabia, are willing to risk strengthening the al Qaeda in the process of defeating the Houthis”.