The sheer scale of the humanitarian catastrophe currently unfolding in Yemen may be far too great to accurately convey. Over the course of the two and a half years since a Saudi Arabia-led coalition began dropping bombs and denying aid from reaching millions of helpless men, women and children, the country has reached a level of destruction and its inhabitants a state of such misery that statistics alone can’t possibly describe how dire the situation truly is.
This is a country dealing with the prospect of 7 million people facing starvation as a consequence of a brutal, inhumane blockade. It is a country in which the threat of cholera is so severe that it is now considered to be the worst outbreak in human history, the World Health Organization expecting that the number of cases will top one million by the end of the year. Last month, Geert Cappelaere of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) proclaimed Yemen to be one of the worst places in the world to be a child, saying that 11 million children are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Yemen’s War Flies Under the Radar
Yet, this is a war that for many in the west has largely flown under the radar since the Saudi-led bombing campaign began in March 2015. At the time, it was greatly overshadowed by the ongoing conflagration in Syria, which had already raged for about four years and caused a death toll so high that getting accurate numbers had become simply a guessing game.
While Syria had seen the intervention of practically all of the world’s major powers in some capacity, Yemen’s war was considerably different. In Syria, the United States intervened in the fall of 2014, hypocritically claiming to be fighting the same “Islamic State” that it had helped nurture through its obsession with overthrowing the country’s Ba’ath Party-led government.
In Yemen, however, the United States said it wouldn’t intervene directly as the monarchy in Riyadh said it needed to step in to quell the Houthi movement that had taken the capital of Sana’a. Instead of the Pentagon stepping up to the plate in a major way, the Saudis formed a coalition with other Gulf and regional allies including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Egypt.
A Saudi Arabia-Iran Proxy War?
In some ways, Yemen is an extension of the conflict that had divided Syrian society so greatly and has taken on dimensions of a miniature world war. If Syria has been the frontline of a global conflict, Yemen has been a sideshow, one deemed to be important, but not of the same level of urgency for the western powers.
Saudi officials have been clear that their primary intention of fighting in Yemen has been to push back against growing Iranian influence in the country – the same influence they have deemed such a threat to their interests in Syria and Iraq, where forces such as Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Units have grown in stature and influence, pushing back against forces that have very often been funded and nurtured by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, such as the more Salafist elements of the Syrian opposition. Iran, for its part, denies that the Houthi movement is merely a proxy for its interests in Yemen, though this has done nothing to deter the Saudis from ratcheting up its fight in the country.
The Hidden Role of the U.S. & Britain
With the war in Syria winding down and the western powers that had been salivating over the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government for six years slowly coming to the sober conclusion that he will be remaining in power, there has been a growing focus on Yemen in the western mainstream media.
On November 19, the U.S. network CBS News ran a nationally televised special report on its renowned show 60 Minutes. The correspondence from Yemen was entitled “When Food Is Used as a Weapon.” The report itself was moving, and undoubtedly due to the show’s large viewership, it was certain to have generated profound feelings of sympathy among viewers for the plight of the Yemeni people. However, despite the often fantastic reporting employed by correspondent Scott Pelley, the program ultimately failed to convey what should have blatantly been its fundamental message. This is that despite Washington asserting that it isn’t at war in Yemen against the Houthis, this is a conflict that wouldn’t be possible without the blessing of the Pentagon and the White House.
Fairness for Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR) took aim at the CBS report just a day after it aired, pointing out that “media frequently ignore the Pentagon’s role in the conflict altogether. Pelly did not once note that the US assists Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign with logistical support, refuelling and the selling of arms to the tune of $400 billion. The US also routinely protects Saudi Arabia at the UN from condemnation—a shield that may have vastly prolonged the war, given that it signals the support of the most powerful country on Earth.”
The FAIR report from Adam Johnson also takes aim at the dominant narrative which is put forward by the mainstream media that this is a ‘Saudi Arabia vs. Iran’ proxy war; or the even more conveniently packaged notion that it can be boiled down to a ‘Sunni vs. Shia’ sectarian conflict. Employing this kind of language allows the war to be framed as something of an internal battle inside of the Islamic world, one that has raged for centuries and thus making any western role appear secondary. Such phraseology has been used for decades to explain the Palestine-Israel ‘conflict’ as being nothing more than a continuation of a centuries-old battle between Judaism and Islam, thus masking the colonial nature of the Zionist occupation of Palestinian land and obscuring the role of the United States, Britain and other western countries in facilitating occupation and apartheid.
As Johnson writes, “The conflict is framed in hackneyed “Sunni vs Shia” terms, with Saudi Arabia unironically called the “leader of the Sunni world” and Iran the “leader of the Shia world.” A reductionist narrative that omits that Sunnis have fought alongside the Houthis, and the fact that Saudi bombs kill members of the marginalized, mostly Sunni Muhamasheen caste, who are neither “led” by Saudi Arabia nor part of the “Shia world.”
The Real Proxy War: the United States vs. Iran
The popular corporate-media narrative brushes aside the role of the United States in the carnage that is Yemen today. This is no mere regional conflict, but one that Washington plays an active role in.
This was acknowledged openly by the U.S. House of Representatives on November 13, when it voted 366-30 on a resolution which stipulates that U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is not authorized under ‘war on terrorism’ legislation which has been used to justify American intervention in Iraq. The resolution states, "To date, Congress has not enacted specific legislation authorizing the use of military force against parties participating in the Yemeni civil war that are not otherwise subject to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force or the 2003 AUMF in Iraq.”
Although the House didn’t explicitly call for an end to U.S. support for the coalition, it is still an indication of a trend in Washington that is concerned about overstepping in the so-called ‘war on terrorism’. The resolution’s thrust is that the U.S. should only be able to fight forces such as al-Qaeda in Yemen unless Congress separately authorizes action to fight the Houthi movement. However, the Trump administration has been looking to expand the definition of the ‘war on terror’ to include practically any movement around the world, even ones that are opposed to the brand of Salafist movements that became the basis for the endless war against terrorism that was declared post-9/11.
Some U.S. representatives even questioned the notion of allying with a Saudi government that, as Democrat Ro Khanna said has “aligned with Al Qaeda to fight the Houthis undermining our very counterterrorism operations.” To many in Congress, the hypocrisy seemed eerily similar to President Barack Obama’s desire to enter the Syrian battlefield in 2013. Questions abounded about whether targeting the Damascus government at that time would result in on-the-ground victories for a number of forces either directly or ideologically linked to al-Qaeda. Would this essentially turn the United States into the air force for the same kind of forces it was claiming to be fighting?
The question, therefore, must become: is the war in Yemen really a ‘Saudi vs. Iran’ proxy war, or is the real puppet master behind the Saudi monarchy really the United States? Washington has been far too bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan – not to mention in its desired ‘pivot to Asia’ – to commit forces to yet another war on a mass-scale. However, all indications are that the U.S. shares the Saudi view of Iran as the major threat to the region, and on that basis it views the conflict in Yemen through more or less the same lenses.
The Largest Weapons Deal in U.S. History
When Barack Obama left office in January of this year, he had seemed apprehensive about publicly being viewed as too deeply aligned with the Saudi government’s actions in Yemen. It was better policy for the administration to appear very much behind the scenes in that war.
The coming to power of Donald Trump on January 20th didn’t fundamentally alter the U.S-Saudi relationship, which had always been solid even with the occasional ‘human rights’ rebuke from the Obama administration. However, it did lead to greater enthusiasm on behalf of the new administration to proclaim its support for all Saudi-led initiatives.
When Trump visited Riyadh earlier this year, he announced not only an increase of U.S. weapons sales to the monarchy, but the single largest weapons deal in Washington’s history, estimated at being $350 billion. This raised the eyebrows of many on Capitol Hill who have been trying to avoid the U.S. being implicated in war crimes for its role in Yemen.
This was made all the more complicated on November 22 when news broke of a deal in which the U.S. would sell $7 billion of precision-guided munitions to the Saudis on behalf of Boeing and Raytheon. The sale of these weapons can directly be linked to the bloodbath in Yemen for as long as it continues.
There is no doubt that the Trump administration intends to forge ahead with a ruthless anti-Iran policy, one that may not result in a direct war with Tehran, but one which will continue to play out on battlefields in Yemen, power struggles in Lebanon, and negotiations over the future of Syria.