The U.S. is quietly helping Saudi Arabia wage a devastating aerial campaign in Yemen


One week before the Brussels terrorist attacks, a Saudi-led coalition bombed a market in Mastaba, Yemen. Although more people died in Mastaba than in Brussels — 106 versus 34 — the media and the international community in general ignored that earlier atrocity, as they’ve ignored most of the 150 indiscriminate aerial attacks reported by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch in the last year.

The problem, however, is worse than inattention; the West is actually supporting — by way of arms and military assistance — this all-but-invisible war.

Saudi Arabia has stated that its goal in Yemen is to restore to power President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who fled the capital, Sana, in the wake of a coup by Houthi militia forces, and to preempt Iranian designs to control the country. Whatever one makes of those ambitions, it’s undeniable that the Saudis are violating international law as they carry out attacks with no apparent military target and use banned weapons, such as cluster bombs. Aerial strikes have hit schools, hospitals, markets and homes. According to the U.N., they account for 60% of the 3,200 civilians killed in the conflict.

It’s relatively well known that the U.S. and Britain are contributing to the war effort as the lead providers of the Saudi coalition’s arsenal. Saudi Arabia has been on a global arms shopping spree and is now the world’s largest purchaser of weapons. It contracted for at least $20 billion in weapons from the U.S. and almost $4.3 billion in weapons from Britain in 2015. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s main partner in the Yemen war, is not far behind, as the world’s fourth-largest purchaser of weapons, acquiring $1.07 billion from the US and $65.5 million from Britain last year.

The brutal reality is that some of these bombs have landed on innocent Yemeni men, women and children. This is why many human rights and humanitarian organizations, as well as the European Parliament, have called for an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

What remains unknown is the exact nature of the U.S. and British military role in the Saudi campaign. The U.S. Defense Department has vaguely stated that it is providing “targeting assistance,” which as a matter of law means it is liable for unlawful strikes in which it takes part. So what, exactly, does this targeting assistance looks like? Did it assist with the strike on the market? Did it help target the Doctors Without Borders medical clinic that the coalition struck repeatedly last October? What about the cluster bomb attack on Sana University in January?

Britain, for its part, has said it is providing “military training on compliance with the laws of war” — operating out of the Riyadh Command Center — with estimates ranging widely from six to 150 trainers. But what exactly are these people doing? If they are assisting with the targeting, this could make them a party to the conflict. If they are merely offering advice, it is patently clear that the Saudis are disregarding it.

One appropriate way for the Saudis — and the U.S. and Britain — to address the streams of evidence about unlawful airstrikes in Yemen would be to support an independent, international investigation into the conduct of both the coalition and the Houthi armed group, Ansar Allah, which is currently in power in much of the country.

Member states of the U.N. Human Rights Council attempted to pursue just such an investigation, but the Saudi-U.S.-Britain trifecta effectively quashed it. Instead, they backed a “domestic investigation” in Yemen led by the quasi-exiled, Saudi-supported President Hadi. It is no surprise that the body he announced last September has made no progress The coalition also hastily announced the creation of a committee to “promote compliance with the law” but made clear that it would not investigate any alleged violations.

So even as the U.S. leads the charge for international justice against the Assad government in Syria, it turns a blind eye to or actually stymies international inquiries into abuses by Saudi Arabia.

President Obama has repeatedly connected the dots between the proliferation of violent extremism and abuses by the authoritarian, unaccountable governments of the Arab world. He has had less to say about the risks created to American citizens by U.S. alliances with and military support for these governments.

But in this day and age, when it takes little training or equipment to wreak terrorist havoc in Western capitals, Obama should be very worried about the boomerang effect of such alliances. Unlawful strikes and large-scale civilian casualties are certain to foster further instability and extremism, whose effects may be felt not just in the region but closer to home too. The age of secret wars is not entirely over, but the shield of national boundaries has certainly expired.

Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Division.

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After 10 years of war, are Yemenis hopeless?

People look at the site of a suicide bombing in Yemen's southern port city of Aden

People look at the site of a suicide bombing in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden March 26, 2016. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman – RTSCBIP

SANAA, Yemen — Adam Radman Hadaj, a Yemeni man in his mid-30s, decided to flee the violence of war in Saada province, in northern Yemen, in the hope that Hajjah province, on the border with Saudi Arabia, would be a safe haven for him and his 25-member family. Hajjah province is as far from the war as he could afford to migrate. Hadaj, a dark-skinned man with the frail body common among refugees, spoke about his situation as a displaced person.

Having lived at a relatives’ home for the past 11 months, Hadaj told Al-Monitor, “I did not expect life to be so harsh. I’ve encountered numerous difficulties in my life, but never have I had such a hard time. We do not have enough food. We are surrounded by disease and threatened by war. Each time I leave the house, I feel I will not be coming back.”

The situation of other internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Yemen is no different. Being displaced in a poor country ravaged by war, in this case between the Houthis and the government, is the definition of real suffering.

“More than 2 million internal refugees were displaced from their areas, fleeing the violence,” Adnan Hizam, media officer for the Red Cross in Yemen, told Al-Monitor. “There are invisible displacement destinations as numerous people seek refuge with their relatives in quiet areas, while others, who are affluent, rent houses.” In past months, Sanaa, Ibb, Amran, Hajjah, Marib and Hodeida provinces have provided sanctuary for the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons from areas in the central and northern parts of the country.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), many of the refugees are living in unhealthy living conditions. In shelter schools, for example, some of which host hundreds of IDPs, only two bathrooms are available, one for each gender. Ahmed Chadol, a doctor and WHO representative in Yemen, told the UN News Center, “The health situation in the shelters that host internally displaced people is disturbing.”

In Hajjah province, Abdullah Idris directs the Baddah medical dispensary, which is supposed to provide medical services to the displaced. He told Al-Monitor, “There are nearly 12,000 displaced people seeking medical services, but I cannot give them anything. We have nothing at the dispensary.”

The dispensary is situated between the towns of Abes and Mastaba in an obsolete, single-story government building. It has two rooms packed with patients, a room allocated for medical exams and a dusty storeroom with a couple of boxes of medical solutions. Crowds of people flock to the facility in search of services.

A female volunteer who is also displaced from the province of Saada, the Houthis’ stronghold, is in charge of exams for women. She works with two male physicians, including Idris, who spoke for nearly half an hour about the dire situation at the dispensary and the distress the workers feel from being unable to help patients. Ali Mohammed, deputy director of the dispensary, told Al-Monitor, “We received over the past three months hundreds of cases of dengue fever and malaria, as well as cases of acute diarrhea, usually caused by the lack of access to potable water.”

Yemen’s deteriorating health system is exposing internally displaced persons to health risks that are a threat to their survival. In Aden, Abyan, Hodeidah, Amran and Sanaa provinces, the living conditions in shelters are exacerbating an already bad situation, especially for people suffering from such chronic diseases as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and ailing kidneys.

Benyan Jamal, a human rights activist, told Al-Monitor, “Yemen does not have a story like the drowning of the Syrian boy Aylan, whose photo from the Turkish beach shook the humanitarian conscience, to focus the world’s attention on the human suffering and agony in another Middle Eastern country ravaged by war. The Yemenis’ displacement options are limited, so drawing the world’s attention to their misery is difficult.”

Jamal noted that most of the IDPs are poor and do not have passports, or enough money, to leave the country. Their options for escaping violence are very limited.

On the road between al-Marzak camp and the town of Mastaba, in Hajjah province, dozens of IDPs walk under the blazing sun. They do not seem concerned about the hazards of being in a border region witnessing clashes between government-allied Saudi forces and the Houthis, who are backed by military forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Zakaria al-Mouayad, 50, a refugee in the town of Mastaba wearing a torn garment that covered only half his body, told Al-Monitor, “Life no longer has value for us. Nothing here encourages us to take heed.”

Al-Marzak hosts thousands of Yemenis displaced by the conflict between the Houthis and the state that has plagued the country for a decade. The camp also includes hundreds of newly displaced persons fleeing the Saudi airstrikes supporting the Saudi-led military intervention, Operation Decisive Storm, launched March 26, 2015, to back President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s internationally recognized leader.

In October 2015, with the school year about to begin, dozens of families — some having registered in IDP camps while others fled to relatives without being registered — were moved to special camps. They had originally fled the neighboring provinces of Taiz and Dalea for shelter schools in Ibb province.

Hajjah officials built al-Salam Camp, a small camp not built to last. “The camp contains 72 brick rooms and accommodates 423 displaced people comprising 80 families, but we lack numerous capacities,” Said Malhi, deputy director of al-Salam, told Al-Monitor. “We need medicines, blankets and food. NGOs have given us nothing, except for UNICEF, which provided some aid.”

For the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who have fled their homes to escape the violence of war, their situation seems bleaker with each passing day. They all wonder if they will ever return home.

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