There is only so much time in a day, and only so many resources that news services can devote to the coverage of the pressing matters of the world. Still, the relative sparsity of mainstream attention to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is a phenomenon that a lack of manpower, time, or money can’t explain. Indeed, there’s a conscious effort to sanitize the news and downplay the U.S.’s role in perpetuating the violence that has made for such a catastrophically deadly situation for civilians, and one that has otherwise led to widespread malnutrition and massive displacement of people.
Yemen has been in the throes of a civil war for more than three years, in which Shia-led Houthi rebels backed by Iran have been fighting against the Yemeni government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and yes, the United States of America. With the insinuation of the likes of the Saudis and the UAE into this conflict as part of a coalition designed to ostensibly reinstate Hadi to power, the nature of the violence being inflicted on the people of Yemen has only gotten worse.
Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Harvard University graduate and Yemeni by birth, writing for In These Times, explains the magnitude of the turmoil there, as well as the extent of the U.S.’s involvement:
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have provided the Saudi-led coalition with extensive military support, selling hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, deploying U.S. Special Forces to the Saudi-Yemen border and providing midair refueling of Saudi and Emirati jets during bombing campaigns. American support has continued as more than a million people have been infected with cholera, tens of thousands have been killed by violence, and at least 113,000 children have perished from malnutrition and preventable illnesses.
The publication of Al-Adeimi’s piece comes on the heels of two significant developments relating to the situation in Yemen. One is the August 2 airstrikes carried out by coalition forces on the city of Al-Hudaydah which killed upwards of 55 civilians, strikes that targeted a market and a hospital and of which coalition leadership denies any involvement.
This sort of crime against humanity is difficult, if not impossible, to hide, and of course, is a bad look for the coalition forces supporting Hadi, hence their disavowal. Yet even much of the reporting of this catastrophe tends to overlook America’s role in arming the Saudis who lead the coalition. UPI speaks of the U.S. providing “logistical support” to those responsible for the strikes, but this omission covers for the fact that the U.S. is dealing weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The other relevant development here is the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized a $717 billion defense budget for 2019. This legislation and its language are what especially draws Ms. Al-Adeimi’s focus, language that by itself is insufficient to either limit the scope of America’s complicity in war crimes or to prevent deadly airstrikes against civilians like the ones that ravaged Al-Hudaydah. Al-Adeimi writes:
Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), as well as Representatives Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.)—all of whom oppose the United States’ unauthorized military involvement in Yemen—successfully included provisions in that aim to limit the NDAA’s use toward the war on Yemen. These include measures requiring the Secretary of State to verify that the U.S.-backed coalition is taking steps to alleviate the humanitarian disaster, minimize harm to civilians and end the civil war. According to the bill, such certification is required for the United States to engage in midair refueling to support bombing campaigns. However, the Secretary of State could issue a waiver to allow midair refueling for “security reasons,” so long as a detailed justification is submitted to Congress.
These stipulations are better than nothing, given that, in the words of Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), there is “an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen.” The cooperation between House and Senate lawmakers on including the “Yemen provision” stems from growing concern about U.S. complicity in apparent war crimes.
These caveats, however, pose a significant problem for a coalition that has consistently denied bombing civilians and infrastructure outright despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or dismissed such bombings as “mistakes.” The August 2 attack conducted by the Saudi-led Coalition on al-Thawra Hospital and a popular fish market in the embattled city of Hodeidah has been described by locals as a “massacre.” The airstrikes killed at least 55 civilians and left over 124 people injured, many of whom are fighting for their lives in health facilities that are barely functional due to repeated airstrikes and medicinal shortages resulting from the Saudi/UAE-imposed blockade. Whatever “protections” U.S. lawmakers are extending to Yemeni civilians, those protections did nothing to prevent this assault.
It stands to reason that massacres like the attack on Al-Hudaydah are liable to happen if we sell aircraft and weaponry to Saudi coalition forces backing the Yemeni government. Sure, the U.S. government might ask real nicely for the Saudis not to bomb civilians, but as long as the Saudis possess such superior military capability, and as long as Iran is invested in the Yemeni civil war, shows of force like this are eminently possible, if not probable. After all, if the Saudi-led coalition can carry out attacks on fish markets and hospitals without acknowledging its culpability and without proportionate censure from the international community, there’s no real risk for it to operate with anything other than impunity.
To stress, however, even if America isn’t the one pulling the trigger, they’re still implicated in the devastation in Yemen. What’s more, the United States’ involvement preceded President Donald Trump’s tenure and has continued despite the absence of a formal authorization by Congress to engage in hostilities there.
How does this happen? How does the United States of America provide “logistical support” for years to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—and thus serve as party to human rights violations—in relative obscurity? As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone tells, the cone of silence surrounding the atrocities in Yemen is owed to a perfect storm of factors that lend themselves to sparing media coverage and limited interest from Jane and John Q. Public. He writes:
Ultimately, the ancillary humanitarian disaster that has grown out of the war has become a distinct tale in itself. The U.N. puts the number of displaced persons at over 2 million, with more than 22 million people “in need.” Yet still the Yemen crisis has received little attention, likely because it represents a whole continuum of American media taboos.
For one thing, the victims are poor nonwhite people from a distant third-world country. Also, our involvement is bipartisan in nature, which takes the usual-suspect cable channels out of the round-the-clock-bleating game (our policies in the region date back to the Obama presidency, and have continued under Trump).
Thirdly, covering the story in detail would require digging into our unsavory relationship with the Saudi government, which has an atrocious human rights record.
In just a few sentences, Taibbi outlines a number of elements lying behind the failure of much of the news media to adequately address the situation in Yemen. There’s a racial component (likely aided by a distrust, for many, of Muslims and a sense of hopelessness about peace in the Middle East), the specter of classism, a shared sense of blame for representatives of both parties (which doesn’t help generate clicks in an era of partisanship), and a long-standing material financial relationship with the Saudi government buttressed by a mutual distrust of communism and a mutual love of oil.
This is all before we even get to discussing the possibility that the U.S. starts selling drones to the Saudis, a concern Taibbi addresses. As part of our aversion to being associated with Saudi violations of international law, we’ve, until now, refused to supply Saudi Arabia with killer drones (although we’re happy to sell them F-15s and help them re-fuel in mid-air). With China already supplying the Saudis and the UAE with drones, meanwhile, there is a push within the United States government to ease restrictions on the sale of these machines. If you were thinking President Trump is leading this push, you were right. It’s unfortunate, and yet wholly predictable.
At the end of the day, America’s penchant for meddling in other countries with military might alongside Yemen’s status as an unsexy topic in this Trump-oriented age of clickbait news has pushed the crisis there to the back pages at a point when Yemeni civilians are the most vulnerable, and their plight merits a more robust response from the international community. As Taibbi writes in closing, “Until [Yemen] becomes a political football for some influential person or party, this disaster will probably stay at the back of the line.”
As part of a line including American farmers hurt by Trump’s trade war, immigrant families deported and separated as a function of the administration’s “zero tolerance exercise in cruelty, victims in Puerto Rico of Hurricane Maria and the government’s woefully insufficient response to the storm, and a water crisis in Flint of which the impact stands to be felt for decades to come, that’s a wait that Yemenis in need can ill afford.
What makes matters worse—yes, it does get worse—is that Yemen is home to one of the most dangerous wings of al-Qaeda in the form of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and the bombings/drone attacks and substandard living conditions there only give rise to an increased ability for this terror network to recruit new members.
In this respect, the United States is apparently caught between competing interests. On one hand, in its ongoing (and amorphous) war on terror, it wants to combat the influence of extremist elements in the Arab world and in other countries where Islam has a significant number of followers. On the other hand, it is loyal to a Saudi government engaging in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, a government that is notorious as a sponsor for jihadism. If the cautionary tale of Syria is any indication, then inaction presents its own consequences. As is always the case, there is no perfect solution to a problem marked by hostilities between groups along international and sectarian divides.
Complicating this power struggle and U.S. involvement is the notion that Saudi-Emirati coalition forces are actively negotiating with al-Qaeda to leave key areas in exchange for cash, equipment, and weapons. An Associated Press report by Maggie Michael, Trish Wilson, and Lee Keath details the nature of these arrangements, as well as the anger in certain circles that America is prioritizing coalition concerns with Iranian expansionism over fighting terrorism and stabilizing Yemen.
To be clear, the AP report states there is no evidence that American money has gone to AQAP militants, and the U.S. government has denied complicity with al-Qaeda. This notwithstanding, the gist one gets is that we’re at least aware of these deals. In all, it’s a big mess of factions and interests, and what’s more, the indication in the report that AQAP’s numbers are on the rise suggests there is some degree of comfort for the group in Yemen. At any rate, it runs counter to a narrative that coalition forces are stamping out al-Qaeda’s influence in the region, and for a war we’re involved in that hasn’t even been met with a congressional declaration, that’s not encouraging.
At the heart of the trouble with the Yemen situation is the overwhelming humanitarian need, it should be emphasized. Sadly, and while not to dissuade aid efforts, until real progress can be made to curb open hostilities, treating the victims will only temporarily assuage their wounds and will only help a portion of those impacted. Accordingly, due notice must be paid to the suffering of the Yemeni people, and with that, the United States’ hand in this state of affairs.
Based on principle alone, Yemen deserves more attention and noting the U.S.’s assistance to the Saudi-Emirati coalition, it’s yet more incumbent upon our nation to accept responsibility. Whether or not the prospects of such recognition are particularly good, however, is another matter entirely.