Two years, nine months, one week and four days after the first Saudi bomb was dropped on Yemen, it is time to stop calling it a “war.” What is happening in the poorest of the Gulf countries is an aggression against the civilian population, one that half the world has a hand in. There are no boots on the ground, except those of the government forces of President Hadi, an ally of the Saudis. But there are air raids and embargos.
If one wants to talk about a war, it should be about the civil war between the Houthi minority, politically represented by the Ansar Allah movement, and the central government, which has spread out to involve other so-called “minor” actors, such as the southern secessionists and Al-Qaeda.
But that is only the “smallest” part of what is going on. Most of the deaths (13,600, according to the latest data, including 5,000 children), the three million displaced, the 40,000 wounded and the destruction of vital infrastructure are all largely attributable to the Sunni coalition led by the Saudis. And despite humanitarian appeals, they’re being supported, both militarily and politically, by the rest of the Gulf countries and the West.
For the military aspect of this support, the proof is in the weapons sales figures that we have published. As for the political, the endorsement for what is in effect a proxy war against Iran has come from both the United States (first under Obama and then under Trump, who is working hard to create a sort of Sunni NATO, into which he would try to include Israel) and the European Union, albeit indirectly and in vacuous statements, as is usual for the E.U.’s foreign policy.
This endorsement is based on various interests: arms sales, pushing for the continuous and structural destabilization of the Middle East, and “revenge” for the military and diplomatic victories of Tehran in Syria.
The only ones who pay the price for all this are the Yemeni civilians, sacrificial victims on the altar of permanent war. One could give a long list the latest tragedies, a list that grows daily, yet is arousing no interest from the press, the governments and much of the international public opinion. On Saturday, 20 people were killed in a U.S. air strike directed against Al-Qaeda, which instead struck a restaurant in the district of al-Jarrahi in Hodeidah. Ten women were killed in the bombing of a farm in Khokhak, again in Hodeidah. On Friday, four civilians (including a child) were killed in Saada.
The Houthi are fighting back, showing significant military strength, attributable, according to some, to Iranian support, and according to others to their knowledge of the mountainous and difficult Yemeni terrain and to their popular support. Saturday, the rebels shot down a Saudi drone in the northern province of Hajjah, a feat they also managed in October and June, bringing down two Saudi planes.
And it is in ground operations that Ansar Allah is proving to be the most resilient, making Yemen a “Saudi Vietnam,” according to the categories of our Western imagination. After the Dec. 4 execution by the Houthis of Saleh, the former dictator (and their former ally), the fighting has intensified with the counter-offensive launched by the current government, which is moving from the south toward the north of the country, the true stronghold of the Houthi.
On Friday, the head of the government’s army announced the desire of some ”countries of the E.U., Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia” (not further identified) to “provide logistical support” for the government troops. But the most striking words, in the context of the butchery that is going on in Yemen, were those uttered Saturday by the U.S. Defense Secretary, Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis: that Washington is doing all it can to avoid civilian casualties.
He said this in response to the complaint Friday from the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, who called it an “absurd and futile war” after nearly 70 civilians were killed in a single day of air strikes.
In this situation, the U.S. cannot pretend, as it usually does, to be playing the role of possible peace mediator. The only way out of this situation is the end of military aggression and the opening of a true dialogue that would guarantee participation in political life for the Houthi. The aggressors, whether Washington or Riyadh, should have no place at the negotiating table.