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The Forgotten War: The Conflict in Yemen and the Crisis of Global Leadership

On January 21 2014, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi addressed the delegates of the country’s National Dialogue Conference. The ten-month project that had aimed at creating a new governmental structure in Yemen was now coming to a close. In his final remarks, Hadi boldly heralded the beginning of a “new path for Yemen.” Out of all the countries the Arab Spring had set fire to, Yemen had been the most triumphant. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country despotically for 33 years, had peacefully abdicated his power to President Hadi. “No one can stop the process,” the Turkish ambassador to Yemen remarked.

A year later, however, the promise of a new dawn for Yemen seemed to be crumbling. In January of 2015, Houthi rebel forces, a political insurgent group belonging to the Zaidi sect of Shi’ism, laid siege to the Sanaa Presidential Palace. They dissolved the parliament and forced President Hadi and his Prime Minister into house arrest. Meanwhile, the UN special envoy to Yemen fled to Riyadh, where concern over the situation in Yemen had turned to panic.

Three months later, on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabian F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets ripped across the Sanaa sky-line. Launched by a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf and Western allies—including the US, UK, France and Canada, the military effort sought to stamp out the Houthi rebellion. Dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm,” the attack’s opening wave resulted in 13 civilians causalities.

Their deaths, and the rubble from which their bodies were dug, was the prelude to a narrative that would come to define Yemen for the next year and a half. It is the story of 10,000 civilian casualties, 2000 of them children, of famine and cholera ripping through Yemeni communities, of schools being occupied by militias and kids learning how to wield AK-47 rifles, of funerals being turned into massacres, and of aid packages being blocked on the borders of Sanaa.

And it is mostly an unknown narrative.

The civil war in Yemen, although one of the most pressing humanitarian situations, with over 80% of the population in some need of aid, has received little international attention, both from the media and from politicians. As Yemen crumbles, the world looks away. The question is, why?

Yemen is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. The city of Sanaa hosted the societies described in the Koran and Bible. Its streets and mud-brick buildings have weathered over 2000 years of history. Its politics, according to Martin Reardon of the Soufran group, are “among the oldest, most complex and most dynamic in the Middle East.” And yet, the international community has often dismissed Yemen’s internal struggles and viewed the country strictly through a counter-terrorism lens. This has proven fatal.

Saleh once described Yemeni politics as “dancing on the heads of snakes.” Indeed, during his time in power, Saleh struggled to consolidate authority in southern Yemen while also facing dissident movements in the north—the most notable being the 2004 Houthi insurgency that would one day usurp President Hadi. Nonetheless, during his time in power, Saleh managed to bring the Yemeni army under his control by placing family members and trusted partners as commanders. He struck deals with terrorist organizations, misused foreign aid money, and violated human rights in his multiple campaigns against the Houthis.

Despite this, Saleh could always count on support from the West. While Yemen held little strategic value for Western countries, the growing presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) worried the international community, and they came to see Saleh as a Middle Eastern leader willing to cooperate on counter-terrorism. Saleh’s intentions and agendas were never questioned because they were never even considered, and the Yemeni president capitalized on this. Saleh allowed the US to conduct strikes in Yemen and welcomed foreign aid to further counter the presence of AQAP. Meanwhile, he struck deals with AQAP leaders with the goal of exploiting western aid for his own means.

Ultimately, Saleh was unable to retain his grip on power. In 2011, he was forced to abdicate his seat to his Vice President, Hadi. However, the international community cooperated with Hadi as they had with Saleh, doing little to understand Hadi’s actual motives and background, or the state in which Saleh left the country, or the fact that Saleh remained a very influential figure in Yemeni politics.

As the poorest country in the Middle East and a historically isolated society, Yemen is often viewed solely through the prism of counterterrorism. Thus, it has been easy, and even convenient, for the West to dismiss Yemen’s internal politics. The Pentagon authorized support for Operation Decisive Storm, and later Operation Renewal of Hope, without fully considering the implications. Officials in the US State and Defense departments expressed doubt about whether the Saudis were prepared for such a mission, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the chief of US command, noted that he didn’t know the Saudi’s objectives when he approved US support. Yet, despite the doubts, the US, UK, France and Canada have continued to voice support for the Saudi coalition.

The situation in Yemen isn’t getting the attention it deserves, explained NYU Professor Michael Posner, who worked in the State Department during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, in an interview with The Politic.

“The region is overwhelmed,” he said. “Those focusing on Middle Eastern strategy are overwhelmed.”  

This disoriented policy planning coupled with the US’ tendency to support, often blindly, the actions of Saudi Arabia has proved consequential. The international community’s negligence towards Yemen has led the country to be torn apart by a proxy war waged by a state with questionable motives and expertise.

Saudi Arabia began Operation Decisive Storm under the claim that it was a “war of necessity, not of choice.” The Gulf Cooperation Council saw in Yemen the possibility of a full state collapse and launched the military intervention to re-establish Hadi’s authority, eliminate Saleh’s influence, and demilitarize the Houthi fighters. But the Saudi-led intervention soon became a direct violation of the international laws of war, and as the airstrikes continue, Saudi Arabia’s role and intentions in the Yemeni conflict have become difficult to discern.

In an interview with The Politic, Professor Abbas Amanat, of the Yale History Department, explained that Saudi Arabia sees a chance to solidify its regional power in Yemen. After all, Saudi Arabia rose to prominence during the oil-age, powered by its immense petroleum wealth, and is still defining its role as a power player in the region. Up until the 1970s, the US and UK’s strongest hold in the Middle East was Iran, but after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, they turned to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia became, as Amanat pointed out, the “darling” of the US.

But Saudi Arabia’s regional power was never truly solid. The country has historically faced criticism for its promotion of Wahhabism—a puritanical stand of Sunni Islam, and to the east, Iran’s Shi’a government has consistently contested Saudi authority and influence. By 2003, Amanat explained, Iran had obtained a handful of allies in the region: the Kurds, the Shi’a populations of Bahrain, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Assad in Syria. The Saudis, he said, felt “under siege.”

Things got more complicated in 2015. In January, just weeks before the siege of Sanaa, King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne and issued a decision that would forever change the country’s politics. He declared that he would be the last King of his generation and that the throne would be passed down to his nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef—not one of his brothers. Prince Nayef’s successor would be his younger cousin, Muhammad bin Salman, who was appointed defense minister by the new King.

At the same time, sinking oil prices and regional instability threatened the legitimacy of the new King. Additionally, deputy crown prince Salman sought to make a name for himself, believing that he will one day assume power. These manifold interests intersected in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia saw the opportunity to consolidate its regional authority.

The war Saudi Arabia is now waging in Yemen is largely a quest for legitimacy. Saudi Arabia seeks to prove that it can be a regional leader and that it can do so independently from the US. “It’s an adventurist war,” Amanat explained. Essentially, they want to prove that “they are not the lackeys of the Americans.”

Saudi Arabia claims that the airstrikes are important for its national security, claiming that Iran is backing the Houthis. The Houthis are predominantly Shi’a, but they are Zaidis, a sect distinct from Iran’s Twelver Shi’ism. There is mixed evidence regarding Iran’s role in Yemen, yet, Saudi Arabia and its allies have continued to advance bold claims about Iran’s involvement. Meanwhile, Iran welcomes the idea that it is playing an important role in Yemen, seeing in the conflict yet another opportunity to counter Saudi influence. Thus, Yemen has become a proxy war, the stage in which Saudi Arabia tries to consolidate itself and fight Iran at the same time.

According to Amanat, the worst error of the Obama administration was to allow Saudi Arabia to engage in Yemen, something the Saudis would have never dared 50 years ago. But now, with the benefit of US support, Saudi Arabia believes itself capable of anything. US military aid in Operation Decisive Storm, and later Operation Renewal of Hope, has mostly come as weapons sales. The US has been selling billions of dollars in weaponry to Saudi Arabia: “They’ve armed them to the teeth,” Amanat explained.

On top of everything, the war in Yemen is exacting a terrible humanitarian cost and with serious implications for regional stability. Yet, American, British, Canadian and French support for the operation continues, much to the outrage of human rights organizations worldwide.

There is obviously an economic factor at play. The financial deals—military and otherwise—the US and Canada have been making with Saudi Arabia are worth billions of dollars. There is also the question of oil access and security. But, as Amanat contends, these reasons aren’t enough to explain why some of the most influential countries in the world are choosing to support an extremely dangerous war.

Last year, when it became evident that the Saudi-led campaign was committing severe war crimes, the US showed hesitation in its support, but not enough to take meaningful action against the Saudis. When Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Riyadh in August to try to build a path towards resolution, Yemeni citizens and government officials were hopeful. Kerry was known to be a supporter of a diplomatic approach, and many thought he would be able to ease the airstrikes. But the plan Kerry laid out in Riyadh was vague and the global community failed to push the Saudis into actually implementing a diplomatic solution. According to Farea al-Muslimi, a Beirut based Yemeni political analyst, the US’s general attitude treated Yemen as an afterthought. It seemed like the US and the global community were dismissing the severity of the Yemen conflict in favor of maintaining friendly relations with the Saudis.

In his last speech to the UN, Obama called upon nations to end proxy wars, insisting on diplomacy and finding “a common humanity.” A day later the US Senate debated whether to halt $1.5 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Multiple senators, from both the republican and democratic party expressed concern over what was happening in Yemen. But, ultimately, the Resolution of Disapproval failed to pass. The main reason: US senators were concerned about how their partnership with Saudi Arabia would be affected.

Meanwhile, in the UN Security Council, four out of the 15 members are in support, or form part of, the Saudi Coalition; three of them have veto power. While the UN has passed resolutions pertaining to the Yemen conflict and has tried to organize peace talks, its efforts have fallen short.

In 2015, the Dutch tried to pass a resolution calling for an international human rights inquiry into the situation in Yemen. Holland’s resolution echoed the words of UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein who had earlier called for a similar approach. But the Dutch encountered opposition from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. In the end, the UN passed a resolution calling for an investigation to be carried out by a Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) of experts from Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Ultimately, the investigation, an internal coalition effort, failed to meet international standards for credibility and transparency. The US watched on, refusing to step in. On another occasion, the Saudis bullied the UN into withdrawing a child war-crimes condemnation under threats of withdrawing funding, and now, Saudi Arabia, despite its blatant war crimes in Yemen, has been re-elected to its regional seat on the Human Rights Council.

Overall, it seems like the entire international community is allowing the Saudi coalition to conduct unjustified air strikes on Yemen without a qualm. And it’s not because of inability to contain the crisis. According to Iona Craig, a freelance journalist that has covered Yemen since 2010, the US has the power to limit Saudi aggression in Yemen.

“They can flick it like a switch” she explained in an interview with The Politic, if only they would withdraw their weapons and support.

Yet, they likely won’t. In the past, as Craig outlined, the Saudis have threatened to stop providing the US and UK with intelligence pertaining to terrorism operations. With the recent events concerning the Islamic State, whose presence has been growing in Yemen, and AQAP’s continued offensive, the West seems so intent on battling terrorism to even consider the fate of countries like Yemen.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not considering what the war on Yemen means for them. In the Pentagon, for example, officials fretted over Saudi Arabia’s October airstrike on a funeral. The US’s involvement could mean they are pinned down as war criminals.

And it’s not just the US who is concerned. British ministers apparently lied to the UK Parliament to secure British support for the coalition. According to the British Arms Trade Treaty, the UK’s weapons deals with Saudi Arabia are war crimes, and those that conducted them, are war criminals.

When asked in an interview for The Politic about the US’s, UK’s, Canada’s and France’s culpability, Unni Karunakara, MSF President from 2010 to 2013, answered with certainty.

“The US lost moral authority years ago” he said. “We disconnect our trade, our economic concerns from national and global political concerns.”

Indeed, it is a fatal mistake to believe Yemen is an isolated conflict, that other countries’ interests aren’t entangled in crisis, and that the global community is powerless to stop it.

The US recently called upon all parties to cease aggressions and look for diplomatic solutions. But, it failed to address the fact that it too is party to the conflict. The UK has also skidded around the matter of condemnation. Canada expressed concern over the deteriorating situation in Yemen, but continued to be Saudi Arabia’s second most prolific weapons supplier. No country has been willing to be open about what is occurring in Yemen because recognizing the entirety of the situation would also mean recognizing their guilt.

So Yemen is shoved aside, the complexity of the situation explained as another religious sectarian war—something the UN Security Council can blame on history, not themselves. And they get away with it because Yemen, a historically isolated country, the poorest in its region, has never held the world’s interest.

“Yemen has never been strategically important, or financially important,” Craig explained. The world never cared for it in the past, and now, when it is being torn apart, the world finds it easy to look away.

Yemen has often been referred to as the “forgotten war.” But, as Craig argued, “you can’t forget something you never knew.”

Around the world, diplomats will continue to discuss the Middle East, prod at Syria and Iraq, entangle themselves in economic and political ambitions, and likely leave the Yemeni crisis unaddressed. Meanwhile, Yemeni citizens will listen for the shrieks of fighter jets in the skies above them. They will dig through the rubble of hospitals and town halls, carry the wounded in makeshift stilts and try to continue with the routine of everyday life in the missile-struck silence of the world.