A Saudi Arabian blockade has left millions of civilians starving, and without fuel or clean water. What is this conflict about?
The catastrophe in Yemen
Yemen is in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis. It was already the poorest country in the Middle East before a Sunni-Shiite civil war tore the nation into two dysfunctional halves, and two years of massive bombing by a Saudi-led Arab coalition have destroyed hospitals, schools, factories, and mosques and reduced parts of many cities to rubble. The destruction of water treatment plants and sewage systems has caused the worst cholera outbreak in modern history, with nearly a million people infected and thousands dead. With Yemen importing 90 percent of its food, most people there were malnourished even before the Saudis imposed a blockade last month in response to a rebel missile fired at the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Now both food and fuel are unaffordable, clean water is scarce, and the hospitals that remain open are full of skeletal children and sick adults. If the blockade isn’t fully lifted soon, says U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, Yemen will face “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims.”
How did the war start?
It’s a result of the Arab Spring. Yemenis seeking more say in their government ousted their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2012, and started drawing up a new constitution. But the Houthis, a Shiite minority group based in the north, rejected it as unfair. In 2015, allied with troops loyal to their former enemy Saleh, they attacked, and chased new President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi out of the capital, Sanaa. He turned to Saudi Arabia for aid. The Saudis already distrusted Yemen because of its democratic leanings and large, heavily armed population of 28 million, and the threat of a hostile Shiite power on their southern border was too much to bear. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not commit many ground troops, instead choosing to bombard cities with cluster bombs and choke off Houthi supplies by blocking airports and seaports. More than 10,000 civilians have been killed and some 50,000 wounded, as Saudi airstrikes have hit hospitals, schools, and even weddings and funerals. Amnesty International has accused the coalition of “deliberately targeting” civilians.
Who else is involved?
The Saudis’ coalition of Sunni Muslim states includes the UAE, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. They are assisted by southern Yemeni militias, some of the Yemeni army based in Aden, and Islamist extremist groups. The Houthis, on the other hand, have been supplied with missiles and other weapons by Iran. The rebels are not a true Iranian proxy like Hezbollah in Syria or Shiite militias in Iraq—the Houthis’ version of Shiite Islam is very different from Iran’s—but Iran’s leaders are egging on the conflict to cause problems for their Saudi rivals. Meanwhile, the war is in stalemate, with the Saudibacked Hadi faction controlling the south, and the Houthis dug into their strongholds in the north. This week, Houthi rebels deepened the conflict by killing former President Saleh after he made reconciliation overtures to the Saudis.
What is the U.S.’s role?
The U.S. is the biggest supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia, with sales of planes, tanks, and bombs surging under President Obama and continuing under President Trump. At the beginning of the Yemeni conflict, in 2015 and 2016, U.S. forces directly assisted the Saudi-led coalition in targeting the Houthi rebels. The Pentagon says it no longer provides that aid, but since Trump took office it has doubled its refueling assistance, operating “gas stations in the sky” that allow Saudi planes to refuel in flight for their bombing sorties. In November, in a rare rebuke, Congress passed a nonbinding resolution saying that U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen has not been authorized by Congress and is not included under use-of-force laws passed in 2001 and 2002. It said the Pentagon must restrict its activities to combating Yemen’s branch of al Qaida. Al Qaida and other terrorist groups in Yemen are growing, as they recruit angry, desperate Yemenis.
Is there hope of a truce?
Not much. President Trump enthusiastically praised the Saudis’ “strong action” against the Houthis; on his visit to Riyadh in May, he offered them another $110 billion in weapons. The U.S. and U.K.—which also sold the Saudis more than $1 billion worth of arms this year—have blocked significant international intervention to halt the war, and while the U.N. has held three rounds of peace talks, they went nowhere. Humanitarian groups are now begging Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade. “We are far beyond the need to raise an alarm,” said Paolo Cernuschi, of the International Rescue Committee. “What is happening now is a complete disgrace.” ■