The U.S.-backed war that is tormenting Yemen

August 1, 2018

David Moulton explains the roots of the war that has torn Yemen apart — and the complicity of the U.S. in the violence that has left Yemenis on the brink of starvation.

A WAR has raged in Yemen for three years now. Thousands have been killed directly in military operations, and millions more ravaged by hunger and disease as a U.S.-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has bombed infrastructure and imposed a suffocating air and naval blockade.

The coalition is attempting to crush the Houthi rebels who control the northern part of the country. The result has been a bloody stalemate with no end in sight.

The UN has repeatedly referred to Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In the past year, the country has suffered the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded, with more than 1 million cases. Currently, an estimated 8.5 million people are at risk of death by starvation, and an additional 10 million may be pushed to the brink of famine by the end of the year if fighting continues, according to the UN.

Destruction in the aftermath of a Saudi air strike in Yemen
Destruction in the aftermath of a Saudi air strike in Yemen

With a total population of 28 million, Yemen is facing a catastrophe practically unheard of anywhere in the world in the 21st century.

Last month, a new phase of the war began when Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched an attack on the port city of Al Hudaydah on the west coast of Yemen.

Since the start of the conflict, Al Hudaydah has been the main lifeline through which a trickle of food, fuel and medicine enters the country. This latest aggression threatens the last means by which the people of Yemen have managed to stave off mass death. For this reason, Oxfam and other international aid agencies begged the U.S. not to allow their allies to attack the port.

On June 11, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disregarded these pleas, issuing a deliberately vague statement that gave the coalition all the permission it needed. Later that same week, the U.S. and Britain blocked a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

For the last month, the battle for Al Hudaydah has continued to rage. As with the rest of the war, the results have been inconclusive. UN efforts to negotiate a truce have failed, and the Saudi-led coalition has demanded nothing less than total surrender. In response, the Houthis have dug in deeper.

As usual, civilians have borne most of the suffering. Tens of thousands of families have had to flee Al Hudaydah as conditions continue to worsen.


The Origins of the Catastrophe

Yemen is a small, densely populated country on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

In many ways, it’s an anomaly in the region. While its Gulf state neighbors—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE– are all oil-rich monarchies, Yemen has not been ruled by a king since the 1960s. It’s also by far the poorest of the Gulf states. Before the start of this war, its per capita annual gross domestic product was just $1,572.

For decades, Yemen’s main export has been migrant workers, with Yemenis providing cheap labor to Saudi Arabia and other wealthy countries in the region. Yemen’s domestic economy depended on remittances from abroad.

In 2013, however, Saudi Arabia began a policy of “Saudizing” its workforce. This meant kicking out more than half a million Yemeni workers and constructing a 1,100-mile security fence along the southern border with Yemen to prevent unauthorized crossings.

Yemen’s political history is volatile and complex. Until 1990, it was divided into two countries, North and South Yemen. Partition was the legacy of Western colonialism and interventions by other Arab regimes.

Unity was achieved through a civil war, and many southerners never accepted the legitimacy of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was unpopular among many in the north as well, but still managed to hold on to power for decades.

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, emerged in the 1990s as an indigenous Yemeni movement led by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. From their origins as a social and religious movement, the Houthis gradually grew more political, objecting to the corruption of Saleh’s government and the obscene gap between rich and poor that consigned millions of Yemenis to poverty.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the Houthis were radicalized by the war in Iraq. Saleh was an ally in George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” and the Houthis saw him as too subservient to American and Israeli interests.

In 2004, Hussein al-Houthi was assassinated by Saleh’s forces. Leadership passed to his younger brothers, and their followers continued to wage an intermittent guerilla war against the central government.

Then in 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen.

As with other countries, Yemen’s uprising was really a kaleidoscope of different movements, some of them in conflict with each other. There were feminists, pro-democracy activists, socialists, southern separatists, Shia insurgents and Sunni militants. Their demands varied, but they were united in rejecting the corruption of Saleh’s regime and the inequality of Yemeni society. The protests were largely nonviolent, and succeeded in forcing Saleh to step down.

Saleh transferred power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi quickly proved unpopular, however, due to his inability to materially improve the lives of ordinary Yemenis. In the eyes of many, he represented the will of the wealthy Gulf states more than his own country. His willingness to let Barack Obama carry out drone strikes against alleged terrorists in Yemen was widely seen as an outrageous violation of national sovereignty.

In 2014, another mass uprising exploded following the doubling of fuel prices, and the Houthis took control of the capital of Sana’a. Hadi was forced to resign and fled to the south of the country where he announced he was reversing his resignation. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and a coalition of mercenary forces then began their military intervention to reinstall Hadi as president.

Millions have suffered horribly, but very little has changed politically after three years of war. The Houthis continue to hold Sana’a and the northwest corner of Yemen, an area which includes about three-quarters of the population. Even in the south, Hadi has little support. He has spent most of the conflict in Saudi Arabia.


The Role of the U.S.

From the start, the Saudi-led coalition has enjoyed the backing of the U.S. and other Western powers, including France, Canada and the UK.

In 2015, President Obama gave the initial green light for the Saudi-UAE intervention. In addition to diplomatic cover, the U.S. sold the coalition billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, shared intelligence and provided midair refueling for fighter jets. An undisclosed number of U.S. Special Forces have also fought alongside the coalition.

To justify their role in the carnage, U.S. officials have repeatedly distorted the nature of the conflict. In December 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gave a speech claiming the Houthis were using weapons from Iran to strike Saudi Arabia. An independent panel of experts disagreed, finding no reason to conclude the missile fragments Haley presented were Iranian-made.

At the time, the Trump administration was looking for excuses to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. As part of this general policy of hawkishness, the U.S. has sought to portray the Houthis as proxies of Iran. But there is more to this question than meets the eye.

As a militant Shia movement, the Houthis do have some ideological affinities with the Iranian regime, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Some of their propaganda is inspired by Iran.

Unlike both Hezbollah and Iran, however, the Houthis follow the Zaidi sect, a branch of Shi’ism that exists almost exclusively in northern Yemen.

Moreover, being an ally is not the same as being a puppet. The Houthis have demonstrated independence from Iran in the past. In late 2014, for example, Iran counseled the rebels against taking Sana’a. They chose to disregard the advice.

Given the tight Saudi blockade, it is hard to believe that Iran would be able to smuggle in weapons on a large scale. Nor would the Houthis necessarily need them—Yemen has long been awash in weapons, thanks in no small part to the U.S. arms trade.


The War Must End

What is unfolding in Yemen today may well be remembered as the worst famine of the 21st century.

This catastrophe is entirely human-made and preventable. The war belongs as much to the U.S. as it does to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There may still be time to avert the worst outcome. Some members of Congress, led by Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, have tried introducing legislation to limit U.S. involvement.

So far, however, the war on Yemen has not gotten much attention among the broader U.S. population.

By and large, the corporate media has been shamefully complicit in allowing this tragedy to continue. In the past year, MSNBC, supposedly the network of anti-Trump resistance, managed to run 455 segments on Stormy Daniels, but not a single one on the U.S. war on Yemen.

The lack of attention makes building an antiwar movement difficult, so the left’s first job must be to educate itself and others about the tragedy unfolding in Yemen.

We owe our solidarity to the people suffering through this hell, whose roots lie in decisions made in Washington. The situation may be complex in some respects, but our demands should be simple: Let the refugees in and end the war on Yemen.

Recent articles

Thursday, December 13th

Wednesday, December 12th

Tuesday, December 11th

Monday, December 10th

Friday, December 7th

Thursday, December 6th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives