How the Conflict in Yemen Began

How the Conflict in Yemen Began

It was no accident that the Saudi war on Yemen was officially announced on March 25, 2015, not from Riyadh, but rather from Washington, DC, at a press conference held by the Saudi ambassador at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. The media release, announcing that the Saudi military operation had started, used as its pretext a request from Yemeni President-in-exile Hadi to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the richest country in the Arab world, to begin a military intervention against his own country, Yemen, the poorest in the Arab world.

The military intervention Hadi requested was to dislodge the Ansar Allah, a movement centred around the Houthi national minority in the north of Yemen (traditionally the poorest of the poor among Yemen’s national minorities) from Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, which it had seized in a popular uprising against Hadi’s pro-Saudi government in 2014. The Saudi ambassador further announced that the Saudis had cobbled together a coalition of nine regional states with which to prosecute the military intervention into Yemen. These included the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Senegal, and Sudan. Operation Decisive Storm, according to the Saudis, would swiftly dislodge the Houtis.

But the real power behind the Saudi coalition was the USA and its allies, including Canada. Operation Decisive Storm relied almost exclusively on US and Western military power to pound Yemeni civilian targets into rubble and deliberately to bomb school buses as well as wedding and funeral processions. The US, France, and the UK provided the weapons, ammunition, logistics, intelligence, training, reconnaissance, refuelling, rescues for downed pilots, and even occasionally the boots on the ground, without which the Saudi coalition could not have functioned. Additionally, US and UK officers staffed the Saudi command room in Riyadh. On top of all this, the USA enabled the Coalition to maintain an illegal naval blockade on Yemen which prevented food, medical aid, and spare parts from reaching Yemen. Saudi Arabia, its coalition partners, and allied western countries all framed the conflict in sectarian terms, insisting that Iran was supporting the Houthis.

The result of Operation Decisive Storm was what UN Population Fund termed “among the world’s worst humanitarian crises” in 2023. Furthermore, lack of spare parts for Yemen’s fragile water purification and sewerage systems resulted in what was further termed, “the worst cholera crisis in history.” Finally, the blockade prevented Yemeni fishermen from pursuing their trade, which up to 2015, provided Yemen with its second greatest national product (after petroleum): seafood.

Source: UNICEF

The result of the Saudi attack on Yemen to date has been horrendous: 21.6 million (out of a prewar population of 28.5 million) people require some form of humanitarian assistance in 2023, while 80 per cent of the country’s population struggles to access food, safe drinking water and adequate health services. Since 2015, approximately 377,000 Yemenis have died as a result of the Saudi military intervention, 150,000 killed in fighting, with about another 200,000 casualties due to malnutrition and disease. According to UNICEF, a child dies every ten minutes in Yemen due to a preventable illness. 4.3 million Yemenis have been internally displaced by the war. Another 1.7 million have fled the country.

In spite of its cruelty and overwhelming military superiority, the military offensive did not go well for the Saudi Coalition. During the course of the war, the Houthi forces actually gained ground on the Saudis, not only inside of Yemen, but were also able to carry the war into Saudi Arabia proper, both on the ground and by launching missile attacks on Riyadh and some of its oil facilities. Thousands of Coalition fighters were taken prisoner and many of the light armoured vehicles sold to Saudi Arabia by its western sponsors were destroyed by the Houthi forces. Other western arms were regularly captured and used against the Saudi Coalition, notably, Canadian sniper rifles.

But why would the USA and its allies support such a brutal but distant military intervention continuing, after eight bloody years, with the Houthis still firmly in power in Sana’a? The answer is that it regards the Middle East as its “backyard” and intends to try to maintain its hegemony over the region at all costs. The war on Yemen was initiated under the Obama Administration which instigated new wars in the energy-rich region on Libya and Syria and carried on older Bush-era military operations against Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The US does not need West Asian petroleum for its own needs. Rather, it sought control over the flow of Mideast oil so that it could turn off or on the taps to the rest of the world.

Yemen sits at a strategic point in the flow of international trade, especially petroleum, at the Straits of Bab el Mendeb, where about one-tenth of the global seaborne petroleum trade passes every day. Whomever controls Yemen has a seat on the global chessboard over international trade, including the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, and the Indian Ocean. In addition, Yemen sits at a key point in the developing Chinese east-west trade project, known as the Belt and Road Intitiave (BRI), or the New Silk Road. Successive US administrations have regarded the BRI as a challenge to US domination of the global economy and have tried to stymie it, while the Ansar Allah movement has openly welcomed this “New Silk Road.” According to Mohammed Ali al-Houthi in 2021, member of the Supreme Political Council of the Ansar Allah Movement,

One of the reasons for the war on Yemen is the rivalry between two projects, the Silk Line Project, which was supposed to incorporate Yemeni ports, and the NEOM project, which will connect and link the continent of Africa with Asia through a bridge extending from Neom to Egypt… There is competition to bring in funds and investments. And the Saudi-led Coalition has also launched preemptive war against the China project. The Saudis hasten to bomb Yemen and occupy islands to forbid Yemenis from projects provided by the Silk Road and the protection that China will provide for these areas.

The NEOM project to which al-Houthi refers is an alternate model of north-south trade development, which would integrate Israel and Egypt with Eastern Africa, using the KSA as its hub.

In addition, the UAE and Israel have established a military presence on Socotra Island in the Indian Ocean, which was occupied by UAE in 2015, and that it is “considering expanding… by putting missile defense sensors on the island, which would support a nascent, U.S.-led alliance made up of Israel and several Arab states.”

The Trump Administration continued US support for the Saudi Arabia, inking huge arms deals with the KSA and its coalition partners, and fending off criticism of its abysmal human rights record even after Jamal Khashoggi, a US citizen and Washington Post journalist, who was critical of his Saudi country of origin, was lured into the Saudi consulate in Turkey and dismembered, at the direct order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In turn, Joe Biden announced, on coming into office, that he would end the Saudi war on Yemen. However, shortly after Biden’s statement, his administration authorized further large US arms sales to SA, allegedly for defensive purposes, and the war dragged on for two more years.

Regrettably, the UN role in the conflict has been uneven. On the positive side, the Security Council (UNSC) has neither approved of the US/Saudi military intervention, nor has it given permission for the Saudi Coalition to place a comprehensive economic blockade on Yemen. For this reason, the war and blockade of Yemen are illegal under international law. On the other hand, based on UNSC resolution 2616, composed by the UK delegation, the Security Council recognized the Hadi government as Yemen’s legitimate government, called for Ansar Allah to vacate Sana’a, and imposed an arms embargo on it. Further resolutions imposed sanctions against Houthis and termed Ansar Allah a terrorist organization.

In the face of the US/Saudi blockade of Yemen (under the pretense on the UN-sanctioned arms embargo on Ansar Allah), several UN agencies have tried to expedite the flow of food and medical aid to Yemen. The UN has also brokered several ceasefires, the latest one of which expired on October 2, 2022. However, based on its wrong-headed support for the Saudi coalition, the Security Council recently extended its economic sanctions on Yemen, which effectively cause starvation and death mainly for women and children in Yemen.

On January 6, 2023, huge rallies took place across Yemen under the slogan “Siege Is War”. Yemenis carried signs and banners against the Saudi-led military intervention in their country, the UN’s coercive economic measures, and demanded the full lifting of the blockade. Ansar Allah issued a statement, part of which is quoted here:

The Coalition is preventing the entry of goods through the port of Hodeidah, and whatever oil we receive is only small quantities deliberately doubled in price with long and unnecessary inspection procedures. The Saudi-American Coalition seeks to impose dire living conditions upon the Yemeni people to make our lives harder. To prevent us from travelling abroad and to strangle us.

Yemenis protest in Sana’a on the third anniversary of the war

Recently, evidence of a shift in the balance of power in West Asia took place when, apparently unforeseen by the USA, the People’s Republic of China brokered talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia that resulted in the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries which were previously at odds over the war in Yemen. This shift holds the promise of an eventual winding down of the conflict in Yemen, with China contributing to the reconstruction of Yemen as well as partnering with Saudi Arabia’s NEOM project.

As a result of this surprising development, a Saudi delegation flew into Sana’a to meet with Ansar Allah officials on April 8, 2023, as part of preparations for talks to reach a final ceasefire agreement to end the eight-year-long Saudi war. This meeting was facilitated by a delegation from the government of neighbouring Oman, which is working in parallel with the United Nations to resolve a number of outstanding issues including the exchange of prisoners of war (which began several days later), the removal of the Saudi Coalition blockade of Yemen and the reopening of Yemeni ports, the back-payment of Yemeni civil servant salaries, and reparations for Yemeni loss of oil revenues.

However, there have been promising developments before during the conflict in Yemen which took years to pan out or didn’t pan out at all. Even after any potential political settlement between Ansar Allah and the KSA to end the war, issues such as the UAE’s occupation of Socotra and its support of separatist elements in the south of Yemen will have to be resolved. Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists in Yemen will need to be disarmed. And various Yemeni factions will have to sit down to resolve a new constitutional framework to govern the country. All of this will take some time.

In light of the terrible suffering in Yemen today, it behooves all of us Canadians to demand that the Trudeau government to do its part to bring about a speedy end to the war and to Canada’s complicity in it, specifically by cancelling the existing LAV contract with the KSA and desisting from authorizing further Canadian arms sales to authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. Moreover, Canada could do much more to provide humanitarian aid to Yemen and to accept more refugees from that devastated country.

Hopeful signs of peace are now evident in Yemen, but the war is not over yet.

Published by the Hamilton Coalition To Stop The War

May 13, 2023

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