Looking Away: America’s Secret War in Yemen

On October 8, 2016, a U.S.-backed airstrike led by Saudi Arabia “wrongly” targeted a funeral ceremony in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, killing at least 100 people and injuring another 500. Among the victims were military personnel and officials, but also hundreds of civilians, including women and children, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The funeral bombing is but one example of a series of unlawful attacks that the Saudi-led coalition has conducted, with the support of the United States, on Yemeni civilian infrastructure. Since the beginning of the war 19 months ago, the coalition has repeatedly targeted schools, markets, hospitals, weddings, and homes.

In March 2015, a civil war broke between partisans and opponents to Mr. Hadi, whom superseded Yemen’s previous authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in a precarious political transition supported by Western countries. Weakened by rampant poverty, incessant attacks from Al Qaeda, and growing food insecurity, Mr. Hadi found his stronger contender in the Houthi movement loyal to the former president. On March 25th, Houthi forces—with the presumed material support of Iran—drove Mr. Hadi out of power, forcing the president to flee the country, and hence marking the beginning of the coalition’s military interventions.

The ongoing war is characterized by unusual violence against unarmed civilians, whom find themselves targeted in an escalating air campaign, which rarely abides by the international principles of military necessity and distinction.

Yet, the innocent victims of a reckless air campaign led by the coalition have gone largely unnoticed in the West. Failing to recognize the U.S. role in a lawless war, the mainstream media continues to ignore a conflict in which the Unites States—among other Western powers—is becoming ever more deeply entangled.

The prolongation of the civil war, which started in March 2015, seems to both exacerbate these attacks on civilians while also deepening U.S. involvement.  Assumptions that the Shiite Houthi rebel group is backed by Iran have goaded the Saudi-led coalition into amplifying military intervention, including an increased reliance on U.S. support in order to engage in a proxy war against Tehran.

With increasing levels of violence, disproportionate uses of force, and collateral damage, the coalition’s incapacity or unwillingness to discriminate between civilian and military targets—which blatantly violates international law—raises important questions about the United States’ legal and moral accountability in this conflict.

Even as it goes largely unnoticed in mainstream media, the Yemeni humanitarian catastrophe is not only tolerated by the American government, but is also precipitated by its foreign policy.

The U.S. has gradually become entangled in the conflict—carrying out its first attack only recently when a US warship, the USS Masson, was targeted by two missiles launched from Houthi-controlled territory. But American involvement has deeper and more problematic roots. The coalition has benefited since the beginning of the war from preferential arms sales (including the bombs that targeted the funeral ceremony), as well as essential information gathering. In fact, the entire Saudi-led air campaign, which is responsible for most of the civilian casualties in Yemen, is highly dependent on US support, according to U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, as the United States provide Saudi and UAE forces with crucial mid-air refueling, weapons, and intelligence on targets.

But how should the United States respond when its weapons and intelligence are used to rage a brutal war against a civilian population?

So far, the US has reacted with quiet indifference—while discretely escalating its involvement and more swiftly responding to the interminable war. This includes an offer from the Obama administration to give Saudi Arabia more than $1.5 billion in weapons, military equipment, and training. It also includes a US-backed blockade, which triggered what the United Nations called a “forgotten humanitarian crisis.”This naval blockade imposed by the Saudi coalition has exacerbated the shortage of food, water and medical supplies in Yemen, worsening one of the region’s weakest and poorest countries. With 14.4 million Yemenis who are food insecure—58% of the population—the country is on the brink of widespread famine. Even as it goes largely unnoticed in mainstream media, the Yemeni humanitarian catastrophe is not only tolerated by the American government, but is also precipitated by its foreign policy.

At the same time, U.S. participation in the war in Yemen is given far less attention than the ongoing war in Syria, overlooking the responsibility of the United States in practices that regularly violate international law. Recent debates over the Middle East, whether in mainstream media outlets, or throughout the American presidential election, have centered on the fight against ISIS and the war in Syria. The focus of the United States is not on the government’s questionable support of an unlawful war in Yemen, but on Assad’s and Putin’s own violations of human rights in Aleppo and Mosul.

Maybe the United States’ seemingly endless military intervention in Yemen, beginning with the Global War on Terror in 2001, partially explains how US involvement in the civil war has gone unnoticed. Driven by the ambition to restore political stability in the Middle East, the United States sees a clear interest in maintaining Yemen’s own political stability, a collapse of which would propel Islamic extremists to power. However, the media fails to convey that the Yemeni Civil War is not at all a war on terror, but rather an armed conflict between two legitimate political organizations.

With an estimated 3500 civilian deaths since March 2015, America’s role in Yemen cannot be addressed without ingenuous and attentive coverage from Western media. That is, light must be shed on the nature of the war and the reasons for US involvement. This concealed war is not fought against terrorism; it is a war fought against Iranian expansionism for Saudi Arabia—a proxy war that propelled the Yemeni people onto the battlefield.

One justification for the growing role of the United States is that, by supplying American equipment and intelligence, the government is able to scrutinize and monitor the conduct of the coalition. But how does that argument hold in regard to international law? Shouldn’t the United States yield under the pressure of international standards, shifting its strategies and support to the coalition? Can Saudi Arabia be coerced by the United States to abide by the laws of war?

In fact, there is a growing concern among State Department officials and government lawyers that US support for the campaign could implicate the United States in alleged war crimes and violations of human rights. That is, there is a basis for legal prosecution of American officials.

To this day, the threat of prosecution for war-crimes, for which the U.S. is liable due to its co-belligerent status of the US, has not effectively shifted U.S. conduct and decisions in regard to the Yemeni Civil War—as in many other previous conflicts in the Middle East.  Despite the systematic violations of human rights committed by the Saudi coalition with the help of US intelligence sharing and military support, and despite the United States’ own role in facilitating the rooting of a “forgotten humanitarian crisis,” it appears that the US government will continue to quietly support Saudi Arabia in a lawless and brutal conflict. The United States’ entanglement, unchallenged by the media, will lead to ever more deaths and suffering in an effort to please its longtime partners in the Middle East in their struggle against the regional expansionist claims of Iran.