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Yemen brings shame to all

commentpaper Updated: Oct 12, 2016 10:38 IST

In March last year, several wealthy Arab nations ganged up to start a bombing campaign against the poorest Arab nation: Yemen. The coalition was led by Saudi Arabia, and backed by the United States. The war stranded over 4,000 Indians in Yemen, and prompted the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to launch Operation Raahat, a highly successful airlift that won New Delhi international attention and kudos.

Yemen quickly faded from the headlines, not only in India, but across much of the world. The even greater horrors being perpetrated in another Arab country, Syria, drowned out the tragedy being played out in the heel of the Arabian peninsula.

This week, Yemen returned briefly to the spotlight, to remind us all of the shame it has brought to all the parties involved in the conflict.

If you haven’t been keeping up with events in Yemen, here’s a brief recap. The ostensible target of the Saudi-led campaign was a rag-tag militia, known as the Houthi, which had taken control of large swathes of Yemen, including its capital, Sana’a. The coalition claimed its goal was to return power to the country’s president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

But, as with so much else in West Asia, there were sectarian and geopolitical subtexts to the war. The coalition was made up of Sunni-majority nations, and the Houthis are adherents of a kind of Shia Islam. For Saudi Arabia, which regards Shia Islam as a heresy, the prospect of a Shia uprising along its southern border was intolerable. Even more alarming, the Houthis were being backed by Saudi Arabia’s old nemesis, Iran.

The coalition had hoped to conduct the fighting mainly from the safety of the air, where the Arab states’ expensively assembled air forces had total domination; the Houthis have no planes, and their patrons in Tehran were never going to send squadrons of Iranian jets to support them. The US provided logistical and intelligence support.

Saudi Arabia and its allies were confident of ending the war in weeks, or at most, months. The fact that the war continues to rage to this day is a matter of profound humiliation for the Arab states, whose military forces, built to combat domestic dissent from unarmed political activists, have proven incapable of subjugating an enemy that fires back, even with inferior weapons. To be saddled with such allies is also an embarrassment for the US.

The other protagonist, Iran, is not so easily embarrassed, but it has not exactly covered itself with glory, either. For Tehran, the cost of engagement in Yemen is small, the benefit substantial: It keeps the Saudis constantly looking warily over their shoulders, distracting them from the larger geopolitical challenge posed by Iran. From time to time, Iran has also sought to use the conflict in Yemen to deflect attention from its own enthusiastic participation in the carnage in Syria — an order of hypocrisy that is ambitious even for the Islamic Republic.

For Yemen, the war has been calamitous. Already one of the world’s poorest nations, it has been reduced to abject destitution. More than 3,600 people have been killed. Millions have been made homeless. The World Food Programme has warned the country is on the brink of famine, and Amnesty International reckons that 83% of the population depends on humanitarian assistance for survival. The Houthis, for whom this conflict had begun as a quest for greater autonomy in the northern part of the country, now find themselves responsible for a large, desperate population.

The Saudis and their allies have routinely bombed urban targets, with little regard for civilian casualties. Human rights agencies have repeatedly complained that the coalition pays little heed to the rules of war. This has attracted no more than the occasional murmur from the US, which has more roundly condemned similar attacks in Syria, by the air forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad and Russia. Late last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for war-crimes investigations into the Syrian bombings. He made no such recommendation for the Saudi attacks in Yemen.

But this week, Yemen finally seems to have stirred the conscience of the Obama administration, after the Saudi coalition bombed a funeral in Sana’a, killing 140 people, most of them non-combatants. The US said it was reviewing its participation in the war, and warned Saudi Arabia not to expect a “blank cheque” to conduct its campaign.

This was hardly in the same league as Kerry’s statement on Syria, and it gave the impression that the White House was merely seeking to absolve itself of responsibility for the misery being wrought on Yemen.

But war has a way of making a mockery of political calculations. On Sunday, the US Navy said one of its destroyers off the coast of Yemen was attacked by two missiles, fired from Houthi-controlled territory. The missiles fell harmlessly into the sea. Saudi media said another missile was fired at one of its airbases. There are no reports of casualties.

This marks a dangerous new turn in the war: The Houthis were not known to possess such firepower. Inevitably, fingers will be pointed at their patron, Iran. The US will worry about the potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni operation, which has used the chaos of the war to expand the territory it controls, and to raid government armouries. There’s every likelihood that the war in Yemen will intensify, visiting yet more tragedy upon the people — and still more shame upon all the protagonists.