Following the Arab Spring in 2011 and the subsequent removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a dictator who had been brutalizing the region for over three decades, Yemen became a brimming cauldron of chaos. Al Qaeda further infiltrated the country and conducted a series of attacks, and the Houthis (AKA: Ansar Allah), a group of Islamist militants who played a role in ousting President Saleh, eventually took over Sana’a, the capital, and forced Saleh’s successor, Abbed Rabbo Hadi to flee south.
The Yemeni Civil War began shortly thereafter, in March 2015. Saudi Arabia (Sunni majority), which shares 1,100 miles of its southern border with Yemen, has formed the major opposition to the Houthis (Shia). With help from the U.S. England, France, and others, Saudi Arabia has carried out aerial strikes that have killed over 10,000 people including 3,799 civilians, while displacing over 3 million. The war has been entirely catastrophic as Yemen was already struggling with a failing economy and a crumbling infrastructure. It’s the poorest country in the Arab world.
For the almost two years since the war began, the U.S. has been a vital ally to Saudi forces. Like many of our conflicts over the decades, it’s mostly a proxy war we’re fighting here. Although we did launch airstrikes in October in retaliation to missiles being fired at an American warship off the Yemeni coast. Most of our influence in this conflict isn’t direct exactly, but we are certainly a party to this destruction. We have been providing intelligence to Saudi Arabia, we’ve been refueling their planes, and most significantly, we’ve been selling them weapons. Lots and lots of weapons.
According to Human Rights Watch, we’ve sold over $20 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia over the last year. More egregiously, the stock of sales included cluster bombs, which are banned by 119 countries due to their wild inaccuracy and their penchant for killing civilians during, and for years after military conflicts have ended. Cluster bombs consist of large canisters which spin open in mid-air and rapidly disperse hundreds of small bomblets throughout an area. The bomblets are typically scattered for hundreds of yards and can leave unexploded ordnance (UXO) behind. These tools of death—as yet unfulfilled, often come in the form of little metal spheres about the size of a baseball. They look like toys, which is why 40% of cluster bomb victims are children.
The United States blanketed Laos with over 270 million bomblets during the Vietnam War, and there have been around 50,000 civilians killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance there since 1964. 20,000 of those casualties occurred after the bombing ended. There are still an estimated 80 million unexploded bomblets in Laos. In September, President Obama pledged $90 million to Laos to help clear bombs, and yet, we still use them. Cluster bombs were deployed extensively in Vietnam and Cambodia during this time and later on in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Georgia. And in addition to Yemen, they continue to be used in Syria and occasionally in Sudan and the Ukraine.
Relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia became strained following the Iran nuclear deal, and we rely on them to help us combat terror cells abroad. So it stands to reason that our support is more of an attempt to repair an important relationship then it is a show of overwhelming support for the Saudi cause. Of course, our reasons are entirely irrelevant. We are supporting this war. We are profiting off the destruction of a country. We are complicit in what many would call outright war crimes. We have made billions off of shoddy military procedures that have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and have left millions of people homeless. Hospitals and schools have been bombed, malnutrition is rampant—children are starving to death. Their medical system is failing; people are turning to the black market for medications.
Following the bombing of a funeral in Sana’a in October which killed 140 mourners and wounded 600 others, President Obama blocked some weapons sales to Saudi Arabia over concerns of excessive civilian casualties. But we did not stop supporting them. The Obama administration thought war crimes and human rights abuses weren’t quite enough for us to back out entirely. And worse, President Trump started his presidency with a disastrous raid in Yemen that witnesses say killed at least 26 Yemeni civilians including 10 children, as well as Navy Seal William “Ryan” Owens. And the President is set to lift the block and finalize the $3.3 billion sale increasing our role in the war.
In March 2016, eight human rights organizations around the world drafted a letter calling for the U.S., UK and France to cease all weapon sales to Saudi Arabia over the series of unlawful airstrikes. It was the first in a series of letters regarding the brutality in Yemen. But nothing changed. The bombs continued to fall. Peace talks initiated by former Secretary of State John Kerry were unsuccessful. To add insult to injury, or more accurately, to add cruelty to destruction/death, if President Trump’s executive order is reinstated, we will immediately stop accepting any refugees from Yemen.
This is one of the largest current humanitarian crises, and the United States is adding literal fuel to the fire on one side while (potentially) offering no refuge on the other.
Many Americans have been up in arms over Russia’s involvement in Syria and the catastrophic destruction of that war. This is entirely warranted and vital, and it needs to continue, but the war in Yemen cannot be forgotten.
Unfortunately, forgetting is common practice in the United States. We’re a nation stitched to flavor-of-the-week outrage. A few heartbreaking photos, some mainstream coverage and we’re in! Needles crack off outrage meters as an inaudible snap reverberates in zeros and ones through the social media landscape. We’ll probably forget about the whole thing a few weeks later, but for a minute there—empathy rules the day. It’s our signature, American brand of narrow and convenient empathy. It’s a force that has little regard for equivalency or research or self-reflection.
The harsh truth is this: If the atrocities in Syria make you seethe with anger (and they absolutely should), so too should the atrocities in Yemen—atrocities the U.S. government has directly supported.
by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.