A human-rights catastrophe is now unfolding in Yemen—a catastrophe aided and abetted by the US government. Much angst and outrage has justifiably been expressed over the slaughter in Syria and Iraq, but very little about the daily bombing in Yemen, where thousands have perished since Saudi Arabia and its allies began an air campaign a year and a half ago. Nor has there been much public criticism of American aid to the campaign, without which the Saudis would be forced to curb or abandon their deadly attacks. This inexcusable neglect of Yemen must stop now.
Yemen, a deeply divided, desperately poor country on the southwestern fringe of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been fractured along tribal, sectarian, and regional lines. It plunged into civil war in 2014 when Houthi rebels—Zaidi Shia Muslims from the country’s rugged north—invaded Sanaa, the capital, and ousted the Saudi-backed president, Abdu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi then fled to the southern part of the country, which has long fought dominance from Sanaa and the north; when the Houthis advanced toward Aden, the largest city in the south, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia and appealed for its assistance in battling the rebels.
Saudi leaders, who view the Houthis as proxies for Iran—their main rival in the Middle East—then commenced a military drive to defeat the rebels and reinstall Hadi as president. (Just how closely the Houthis are tied to Iran is a matter of dispute, with many analysts arguing that the link is real but tenuous.) The Saudis also sought to demonstrate some military muscle of their own, especially in the wake of what they see as diminished US power in the region, as reflected in Washington’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran.
The Saudis’ original game plan was to drive the Houthis out of southern Yemen, install a rump government headed by Hadi there, rally assorted tribal and local militias to its cause, and then drive the Houthis out of Sanaa. To a degree, this plan worked: Saudi air attacks and naval bombardments decimated rebel forces—killing many civilians in the process—while local militias, always antagonistic to northern dominance, succeeded in pushing the Houthis and their allies out of much of the south. But once the rebels retreated back to Sanaa, the Saudi-backed offensive collapsed and a stalemate ensued.
At this point, the Saudis became desperate. Rather than concede the failure of their strategy or agree to a negotiated settlement with the rebels and other key actors in Yemen, such as former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (who has sided with the Houthis, his former enemies), they chose to escalate the air campaign—much as the Syrian government (with strong Russian assistance) has done in Aleppo and other rebel-held areas of that country. Much as in Syria, moreover, the Saudi campaign seems to be aimed at undercutting popular support for the rebels by attacking civilian targets: schools, factories, public markets, hospitals. At least four hospitals run by Doctors Without Borders have been struck in this manner, forcing the organization to withdraw its staff from the northern part of the country and leaving the people there with precious little medical care—just as is the case in rebel-held areas of Aleppo.