Why the US-backed coalition in Yemen is a threat to peace


When the Romans conquered Modern day Yemen they named it Arabia Felix or "Happy Arabia". However, the ongoing civil war, worsening humanitarian crisis and frustration of peace negotiations by neighbouring countries renders this description a dark ironic joke.

On Wednesday 1st July 2015, the United Nations designated the war in Yemen as a Level 3 humanitarian crisis, its most severe category. The U.S. responded the day after by issuing a joint press statement by department spokesperson John Kirby arguing for "a pause" in fighting which “would allow international aid organisations to deliver urgently needed food, medicine, and fuel to citizens throughout Yemen”. However, if the situation in Yemen is going to improve the international community needs to do more than simply issue nagging press releases.

There have been repeated attempts to end the conflict through negotiation, however each has collapsed through a combination of poor commitment from the warring factions involved and increasing meddling by neighbouring countries. These are split between the 10 states in an anti-Houthi coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and Iran, which has been waging a relentless PR campaign condemning the coalition. As a result, first the National Dialogue then the Riyadh Conference and now the recent Geneva conference have all disintegrated without result.

Recent UN investigations have revealed the humanitarian toll this unceasing conflict is having upon the civilian population. UN agencies say that, since March, 4.4 million people have received assistance, but this is only a fraction of those who desperately need help. The violence has killed more than 2,800 people, displaced one million and left more than 21 million people, 80 percent of the population, in need of some form of humanitarian aid and or protection. The Saudi-led coalition has also enforced a naval blockade which has prevented essential aid from reaching those in need. Both Yemeni military and Houthi are also accused of child conscription by UNICEF and Islamic relief. Indeed, in November 2009, over 400 children walked to the UNDP office in Sana’a to protest against the alleged Houthi abuse of children’s rights.

Modern Yemen was created in 1990 when North Yemen and Communist South Yemen merged and was tested during a brief civil war in 1994. However, regional tensions resurfaced in the summer of 2009 when government troops and Houthi rebels from the Shia Zaidi sect clashed in the north, killing hundreds and displacing more than a quarter of a million people. The recent, and frankly unexpected, success of Houthi rebels in capturing vast swathes of the country including the capital Sanaa led first to Hadi’s resignation on January 22 and subsequent flight to Saudi Arabia in February. The Houthis then declared themselves in full control of the government on 6 February, dissolving parliament and putting a Revolutionary Committee led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi in charge of the country

In response, several states led by Saudi Arabia also mounted a military intervention in Yemen codenamed "Operation Decisive Storm". The Saudi-led coalition sided with Hadi’s government in exile and have been shelling Houthi positions from land and sea and hitting them with airstrikes. These have had a disastrous effect on civilians and on the country’s infrastructure with refugee camps and UNESCO heritage sites also targeted. The US is openly supporting the coalition by "providing intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, advisory and logistical support". Indeed, Human Rights Watch has even accused the US of supplying CBU-105 cluster munitions, prohibited in international law. The bombing has allegedly been scaled back as part of a new initiative "Operation Restoring Hope" however strikes continue to plague civilians and hamper humanitarian efforts by damaging airports such as Sana’a and Al Hudaya essential for transporting food and medical supplies.

The reasons for US involvement are largely strategic and have less to do with restoring a democratic government than preventing Iran’s growing power in the region. Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, stated that “The US ‘doesn’t want to see a threat to the [Bab Al Mandeb] strait and something that could affect the security of the Suez Canal". The U.S is so concerned with curbing Iranian control of the Bab Al Mandeb strait that they are unwittingly paving the way for Daesh control which would threaten global shipping through the Suez and provide Daesh with a massive source of revenue in tolls. Instead of simply attempting to bomb the rebels into submission, the anti-Houthi factions, be it Hadi’s government, the Saudi Coalition or the US, need to focus primarily on diplomatic solutions that don’t further harm civilians and economically cripple Yemen.

Admittedly, the most recent diplomatic endeavours in Geneva yielded little however this was principally the fault of the respective combatants and should in no way be taken as an indication that no diplomatic resolution can be found. The Geneva talks broke down before they ever got started; the two parties never even made it into the same room as each other. Even if they’d managed to get through the door, both sides chose to send second-tier political leaders to Geneva, with full knowledge that such leaders would not be able to make significant concessions or breakthroughs on their own.

U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s appeal for a two-week humanitarian truce on the occasion of the Holy Month of Ramadan was simply cast aside by Ahmed al-Masiri, the leader of the Southern Resistance forces loyal to Hadi. He retorted that a humanitarian truce was "out of the question", stating "Ramadan is a holy month in which jihad is permissible". The fundamental problem was that the factions loyal to Hadi proposed such extortionate grounds for a ceasefire that the Houthi rebels could never have accepted them. While the Houthis sought a mutual ceasefire, the Saudis demanded nothing less than total surrender as the precondition for negotiations. Given that the Houthis have suffered relatively few territorial losses since the Saudis began their campaign, this was evidently never going to happen. However, this was no accident and was indicative of a lack of true commitment to ceasefire and negotiation on the part of the coalition. This ambivalence was echoed by Al-Masri who flippantly stated “We agreed [to come to Geneva] to please the UN, so that they don’t say we are against peace or that we are stubborn”. In such an atmosphere negotiation was impossible and will continue to be so unless the international community acts. The UN must stop pussyfooting around proposing talks doomed to failure and enforce ceasefire negotiations with the threat of economic sanctions and a peacekeeping operation. The possibility of peace being enforced in the current situation, with Houthi control of Yemen, would drive Hadi and the Saudi Coalition to the table.

Saudi Arabia and its allies (including Britain and the US) must also be held accountable for the atrocities committed in their bombing campaign. At the very least the U.S must cease supplying illegal munitions for use in Yemen. The Houthi rebels have displaced a democratic government, but simply carpet bombing the country isn’t going to get rid of them. Indeed, the impact of the bombing upon Houthi forces has been slight where as the damage to essential infrastructure has been devastating. A reduction in the bombing campaign and an actual commitment to diplomatic proceedings will not only have humanitarian benefits but also limit the potential expansion of Daesh into Yemen. If the Houthis are suddenly forced back and Hadi’s Sunni government weakly re-established in charge of an economically crippled country with divided security forces Yemen will be an easy target for Daesh at which point the US coalition against the Islamic State will start bombing them instead. A reduction in bombing will also allow humanitarian aid greater access to the country which will repair infrastructural damage, which can hopefully stem the tide of refugees fleeing the conflict and economically burdening neighbouring countries.

As late as September last year, President Obama was calling Yemen a bastion of successful anti-terrorism policy. Speaking in defence of “using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground” he cited Yemen as an example of where this tactic has been “successfully pursued … for years”. The irony here is paramount, not only is Yemen not a bastion of counter terrorism, it looks set to become increasingly dominated by Daesh if the bombing campaign lauded by Obama continues. For the moment at least his comments are as ambitious as the Romans' "Arabia Felix".

Find more from the OWP on their website and on Facebook.