In an April interview with PBS Newshour, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about Iran’s involvement in the escalating war in Yemen. His response was astounding and revealing.
“Iran needs to recognize that the United States is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized or while people engage in overt warfare across lines — international boundaries — in other countries,” Kerry said.
The quip was astounding because Iran is not bombing Yemen or engaged in “overt warfare” there, though it has given some support to one side. The culprit on the overt warfare front is Saudi Arabia.
It was revealing that Kerry ignored the Saudi and Gulf Arab role in the catastrophe unfolding in Yemen. The silence on their bombing campaign, which has led to civilian deaths, a flow of refugees and the destabilization of the poorest country in the Arab world, is effectively a show of support for the Saudi war. And that support extends far beyond mere words, or the lack of them.
In late March, Saudi warplanes, alongside Gulf allies like the United Arab Emirates, commenced an intense bombing campaign in Yemen. The muscular move was launched in response to rapid gains by Yemeni Houthi rebels, who were sweeping across the country and capturing territory as the Saudi-backed president’s regime crumbled. Yemen quickly became the hottest front in the proxy war between the Saudis and Iran, which the Gulf says is backing the Houthi rebels, a claim that is overblown. While Iran has hosted Houthi leaders and reportedly supplied them with weapons and training, the support does not mean Houthis are controlled by Iran, which is what the Gulf states say. In March, Reuters reported that U.S. officials had concluded that “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel were training and equipping Houthi units.” But some U.S. officials said they thought the Iranian backing is “largely opportunistic and not a top priority for Tehran.”
The U.S. government has been engaged in its own war in Yemen by using drones to attack Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, attacks that frequently kill civilians. The Obama administration is now fully backing the Saudis with intelligence and equipment as the Gulf Arab powerhouse rains bombs down on Yemen. At a time when the Gulf states are concerned with the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration is showing the Saudis that it will still back them in a chaotic Middle East, no matter how flawed and brutal their military adventure is. And Yemeni civilians are paying the price.
UN officials estimate that 650 civilians have died. At least 100,000 civilians have been internally displaced. Residents in the the city of Aden, which has seen intense fighting, say the area is in ruins and that there are shortages of electricity and water.
The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is the latest example of the state’s involvement in Yemen, its southern neighbor. The powerful Saudi regime has long meddled in the poor country. The roots of this crisis lie in the 2011 Arab revolts, which deeply impacted Yemen.
Yemen’s democratic uprising was massive, touching on every social sector in the country. It sparked a schism in the Yemeni military which led to gun fights between pro-regime and anti-regime factions of the armed forces. To stave off a prolonged crisis and civil war, the United States and its oil-rich Gulf Arab allies brokered a compromise to ease Yemen’s long-standing president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, out of office. They installed Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi in his place. A national dialogue with many of Yemen’s groups ensued. The end goal was to recommend a path forward for the country after the revolt.
But a powerful group, the Zaydi revivalist Houthis, felt they were left out. Some Southern Yemenis, who have been discriminated against by Northern Yemen (North and South Yemen unified in 1990), were also angry at the national dialogue process. But the Houthis, who espouse anti-imperialist, pro-Islamist politics, took the most decisive action, sparking the current war in Yemen.
Founded in 2004, the Houthis have capitalized on grievances that stem from Saudi-backed Wahhabist proselytizing in traditional Zaydi strongholds. Wahhabism is an extremist form of Sunni Islam which derides other sects of Islam. The Zaydis are an offhoot of Shia Islam, though they share much in common with Sunni schools of Islam, making claims that the current conflict is only a sectarian war specious.
In recent months, the Houthis, based in the north of the country, have captured territory throughout Yemen. This deeply worried Saudi Arabia. Since the 2011 Arab revolts, the Saudis have used their money—and sometimes, as in Bahrain, weapons—to suppress political Islamist movements that want to use the ballot box to gain power. Saudi Arabia wants to be the paragon of political Islam in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood threatens that place, and also threatens to upend the regional order of which Saudi Arabia is an integral part. The Houthis are a political Islamist force that rails against the prevailing American-backed system in the Middle East.
The Saudis and the Yemeni president they back have cast the Houthis as direct Iranian proxies. That’s the main justification for the brutal bombing campaign. In doing so, they have internationalized what is a local conflict and imposed a sectarian overtone on Yemen, a dangerous move that could spark tensions that go out of control. The Obama administration, despite its apparent moves toward detente with Iran, remains a strong backer of the Saudis.
U.S. support for the Saudi campaign is no surprise. The advent of the oil age meant the U.S. needed to secure a steady supply to pump up its own economy, and the Saudis were their guys. While Saudi Arabia did eventually take control of its own oil reserves, it remained a key ally of the U.S., big players in the oil market and in the region—a counterweight against the Arab nationalist tide. Even though that tide eased, the U.S. remains a key ally of Saudi Arabia, a pole of oil-wealth, Gulf capitalism and a counter-weight against Iran.
The Saudis have spent some of their oil wealth on American weapons. And the Obama administration has been all too willing to supply them. President Obama has authorized arms sales for the Saudis to the tune of $46 billion, a record. The Saudis have bought warplanes and attack helicopters, and they’re now using those weapons to wage war in Yemen. In addition, the U.S. has “increased intelligence-sharing with the Saudis, providing them with direct targeting support for sites the kingdom wants to bomb,” according to anApril 12 Wall Street Journal report.
Iran has demanded that the Saudi Arabian campaign stop and that peace talks between the warring factions commence. But Saudi Arabia has so far rejected those pleas.
The bombing campaign has no end in sight. That means that the Saudi military, with the full backing of the U.S., will continue to cause deep suffering among Yemeni civilians.