The United States is tangled in a brutal war in Yemen that is pushing the impoverished Arab nation to the edge of famine and collapse. Like many Americans, I struggle to understand how this war serves our vital national interests, and I wonder how our government can quietly accept egregious violations of human rights that it criticizes elsewhere.
Shiite Houthi rebels ousted the Yemeni president in 2014, and an Arab military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and logistically supported by the U.S. aims to restore him to power. The White House claims we are in this fight because the Houthis are receiving support from Iran, and we must roll back Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East. This is a serious argument because Iran has supported forces in the region hostile to us. The Houthi rebels overturned a fragile truce in their country and sparked a civil war. This is a serious challenge to the order that America and its allies uphold in the Middle East.
We also should worry about how the war in Yemen will affect our battle against al-Qaeda and Islamic State. In 2015, Maine Sen. Angus King — a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees — warned that the growing civil war in Yemen could become fertile soil for terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida. While he criticized the Houthi rebels for driving out a president with strong anti-terrorism credentials, he also stated that we must not lose sight of our priorities in the region: “We may not be sympathetic to the Houthis or Iran, but nobody likes ISIS.”
But what the Saudis are doing in Yemen, with weapons and logistical support from the U.S., does not look like restoring order. The rebels and the Arab coalition have been accused of human rights abuses, including bombing hospitals. But evidence is piling up that the Saudi-led alliance deliberately targets civilians. A United Nations report released in January identified 119 coalition airstrikes that appeared to violate international humanitarian law.
On Oct. 8, a funeral home was hit in the rebel-held capital San’a, killing around 140 people. Reports indicate that fragments of the bombs found in the destroyed funeral home were U.S.-made MK-82s, which we sell to our Saudi clients. Other reports suggest it was a “ double tap,” when jets return after the initial bombing to hit those people who rush to the rubble.
If double tapping sounds familiar, it is because our government rigorously (and rightfully) denounces it when the Syrian and Russian air forces practice it in Aleppo.
As a result of the war, Yemen has quietly joined Syria among the direst humanitarian crises in the world. Aid organizations warn that severe damage to roads and infrastructure and a sea blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition have put 7 million people in severe food insecurity. Save the Children, an international aid organization, told a British parliamentary inquiry about the Yemen war that “hundreds of thousands of children are at risk of dying from malnutrition-related causes and other diseases, and the threat of famine remains real.”
I have been working for the past year and a half for a humanitarian organization in eastern Ukraine, where we struggle to assist a much smaller number of war-affected civilians facing much less dire conditions. So these numbers from Yemen profoundly trouble me, and they make me wonder what can justify such a human cost.
That cost will continue to rise as the war creates the conditions in which terrorist groups thrive: vicious Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence, collapsing infrastructure and education, and a brutalized civilian population. In a cold, realpolitik analysis, should we be backing Saudi Arabia, a sometimes-sponsor of radical Islamism with troubling ties to al-Qaida, against Shiite forces that are the sworn enemies of al-Qaida and Islamic State?
Distracted and exhausted by the no-win situation in Syria, President Barack Obama seems content with this incoherent policy and with farming the war out to the Saudis. The White House has expressed some disapproval of the coalition’s brutality, but hasn’t taken any move that would actually address it, such as freezing arms sales. And Americans, distracted and exhausted by our political dramas, let it all happen.
Some elected officials struggle to bring Yemen to the public’s attention. Sens. Rand Paul and Chris Murphy led a bipartisan attempt to block further arms sales, but three-quarters of the Senate voted to table the resolution, effectively killing it. Both King and Sen. Susan Collins voted to let the sales continue, apparently not heeding King’s earlier calls to remember who we really need to be fighting in the Middle East.
Until our leaders are prepared to expose Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen to even basic moral scrutiny, it would do better to take no part in it at all.
Brian Milakovsky is from Somerville. He works for a humanitarian organization in eastern Ukraine.