Yemen’s collapse and US evasion – civilian targeting in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis



The war in Yemen has been an unmitigated disaster. Since the Saudi-led coalition of forces engaged in airstrikes against the Huthi group in 2015, armed conflict has raged. This has included frequent suspected human rights abuses and war crimes allegedly committed by both sides.

The coalition forces, who support Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, consists of a number of Gulf states and receives US support. The Huthi’s are part of a Zaidi branch of Shi’a Islam. Although this branch is distinct from Iran’s Shi’ism, the conflict has pushed the two groups closer together, with Iran offering military support after pleas for assistance.

The conflict has included the direct targeting of civilians, resulting in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. This within the Arab peninsula’s poorest nation. As it stands, there have been an estimated 16,200 civilian casualties, 2 million persons displaced, and over 22 million people in need of assistance.

The Saudi coalition, which includes the UAE, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain, began to receive US support under the Obama administration in 2015. The strategy from the outset, however, was unclear. The objectives remain uncertain to this day, which was summarised by US Central Command General Lloyd Austin during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing: “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.”

This statement is unnerving. Either through a lack of communication or through an inability to obtain identifiable goals from the Saudi officials, US military leadership cannot deliver clear aims for the conflict. As such, the likelihood of success, or even an understanding of what would constitute a success, are absent. The resulting approach has seen a litany of suspected war crimes, most recently the bombing of a school bus which killed dozens of Yemeni children. The US government has been silent on these issues, and they admit that they do not consistently follow the outcomes of Yemeni missions.

The US support primarily comes in the form of logistical and intelligence aid, although the US recently signed off on a US$110 billion arms deal with the Saudis (much of that number consists of pre-existing deals).

Despite claims from the Saudi-UAE alliance that their military campaign has followed strict adherence to international law, civilians and civilian infrastructure has continually been attacked

Recent strikes, conducted by Saudi and UAE forces, targeted the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. The attack is believed to have killed at least 55 people (including women and children) and wounded at least 124. Most of the casualties were civilians. What is particularly damaging is that the strikes were not carried out on strategic posts, but rather a fish market and a neighbouring hospital.

These attacks, in particular, came as a surprise because both the Houthi fighters and the Saudi-coalition had announced a cessation in hostilities around the Hodeidah port area to allow UN peace efforts and desperately needed humanitarian aid to find it’s destination. Previously strikes have targeted funerals and suburban areas. Hodeidah serves as a primary access point for desperately needed humanitarian aid, and so attacks such as these severely limit access and availability. Hodeidah is also of significance because it serves as an energy shipping choke-point.

In the shadows of this conflict is a US-Iran fuelled struggle for resource management and control of the Gulf area. The narrow strait that lies just off the coast of Yemen is a vital oil shipping route for Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The Saudis had been intimidated into halting shipping through the Red Sea due to Houthi attacks on two tankers in late July, and Kuwait indicated it would consider suspending shipping through the area too.

The Yemen Data Project has been tracking the belligerents and strikes since 2015. Its data provides detailed information on the military coalition. In June alone Saudi and UAE forces, with US support, conducted around 258 air-raids across Yemen, almost a third of which were directed at non-military positions.

The Project listed 24 air-strikes on civilian residential areas in June, with three targeting water and electricity infrastructure, three hitting healthcare facilities, and one that hit an internally displaced person(s) camp. None of these advanced specific strategic goals, but rather pushed an already dire humanitarian crisis to the edge.

Huthi forces have committed such acts as well, previously having fired missiles targeting civilian areas in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh in an attempt to pressure the Saudi forces into ceasing the bombing campaign.

Both sides were invited to attend peace talks in Geneva by Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen. This was announced on Thursday 3 of August, the day before the Hodeidah took place. They have now been postponed for a further two months, which serves as little respite for an embattled civilian population in desperate need of support.

Emmett Howard is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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