The U.S.-Backed Coalition Can’t Agree on Why It’s Bombing Yemen

As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates clash over their goals, the people of Yemen are paying the price.

Shireen Al-Adeimi September 12, 2019

Yemenis dig graves for children, who where killed when their bus was hit during a Saudi-led coalition air strike, that targeted the Dahyan market the previous day in Saada on August 10, 2018. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the onset of the joint Saudi­-UAE mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Yemen, the U.S. has played a sig­nif­i­cant role in back­ing the coali­tion. This war has tak­en a bru­tal toll on the peo­ple of Yemen: Accord­ing to one esti­mate, over 91,600 peo­ple have been killed in the vio­lence since 2015 and at least 85,000 chil­dren under the age of five have died of hunger and pre­ventable ill­ness­es. The U.S. — under Oba­ma and Trump — has con­tin­ued to pro­vide weapons and oth­er forms of mil­i­tary sup­port to the coalition.

Ultimately, the only path for Yemenis to achieve their goals—not those of their occupiers—is to reject foreign interference altogether and return to the negotiation table.

In recent weeks, the already-dev­as­tat­ing war in Yemen has tak­en a turn that has unleashed even more con­flict in the war-torn coun­try. Though char­ac­ter­ized by for­eign observers as a proxy” war among region­al pow­ers, recent events in the for­mer South Yemen high­light the ways in which his­toric divi­sions still shape cur­rent pol­i­tics and will no doubt play a role in mold­ing Yemen’s future. This con­flict, in which UAE-backed sep­a­ratist forces seized Aden from the Sau­di-backed Hadi gov­ern­ment, also serves to dele­git­imize U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Sau­di-UAE inter­ven­tion, which is now near­ing 4.5 years.

Through­out the war, the Sau­di-led coali­tion has empha­sized its com­mit­ment to rein­stat­ing Yemen’s pres­i­dent Abd Rab­bu Man­sour Hadi to pow­er. How­ev­er, recent events show mem­bers of the alliance that is backed and aid­ed mil­i­tar­i­ly by the Unit­ed States can­not even agree on the coalition’s goals in Yemen. Con­tin­ued U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion only serves to pro­long an increas­ing­ly aim­less inter­ven­tion that, accord­ing to a recent Unit­ed Nations report, may impli­cate the U.S. in war crimes. Espe­cial­ly in light of these devel­op­ments, the moral trav­es­ty of the war in Yemen should be front and cen­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic debates on Sep­tem­ber 12.

To under­stand the impor­tance of this con­flict and its poten­tial impact on the U.S.- Sau­di inter­ven­tion, an exam­i­na­tion of Yemen’s recent his­to­ry is important.

A brief history

Before Yemen’s uni­ty in 1990, parts of the coun­try were ruled by dif­fer­ent col­o­niz­ers: The Ottomans ruled north­ern Yemen until the end of World War I, while the British Empire occu­pied Aden and south­ern Yemen from 1839 until 1967. Fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Ottoman Empire, north­ern Yemen was ruled by the Mutawakkilite King­dom until a coup backed by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nass­er end­ed its rule in 1962 and formed the Yemen Arab Repub­lic (or North Yemen). The British, mean­while, left the south in 1967, after which the People’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Yemen (PDRY or South Yemen) was born and, short­ly there­after, trans­formed into a Marx­ist social­ist republic.

Though the two coun­tries were now free, col­o­niz­ers left an indeli­ble mark on each country’s cul­ture. This includ­ed the out­look toward reli­gion; while Zai­di-Shia and Shafi’i‑Sunni sects played a promi­nent role in North Yemen, south­ern lead­ers (espe­cial­ly in Aden) worked to de-empha­size reli­gion in dai­ly life. Oth­er dif­fer­ences were also appar­ent. For exam­ple, while lit­er­a­cy rates were low across both coun­tries, they were high­er in South Yemen by 1985. Also, while women enrolled in Sana’a Uni­ver­si­ty in 1989 to 1990 rep­re­sent­ed 14% of the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, 41% of those enrolled in Aden Uni­ver­si­ty were women. Despite these and oth­er polit­i­cal, reli­gious, and social dif­fer­ences, as well as hos­til­i­ty that led to a North-South civ­il war in 1972 and the assas­si­na­tion of North Yemen’s pres­i­dent Al-Ghash­mi by a PDRY peace envoy in 1978, uni­ty was in the horizon.

A frag­ile unity

Wors­en­ing eco­nom­ic con­di­tions in South Yemen — part­ly brought about by a sig­nif­i­cant loss of eco­nom­ic aid from the fal­ter­ing Sovi­et Union in the years pri­or — led PDRY lead­ers toward uni­ty talks in 1988. The Repub­lic of Yemen was formed in May 1990, with North Yemen’s Ali Abdul­lah Saleh as its pres­i­dent and South Yemen’s Ali Sal­im Al-Bei­dh as its vice president.

The uni­ty, how­ev­er, was short-lived. Though South Yemen was geo­graph­i­cal­ly larg­er than the North, its peo­ple only com­prised 20% of the pop­u­la­tion — a demo­graph­ic break­down that is still in place today. With bor­ders now open, many north­ern Yeme­nis began mov­ing to the south, rein­forc­ing south­ern fears of being out­num­bered. And when Al-Beidh’s Yemeni Social­ist Par­ty won 56 of the 301 par­lia­ment seats in a 1993 elec­tion (18%), the frag­ile uni­ty began to crumble.

Civ­il war

On May 21, 1994, just one day shy of the fourth anniver­sary of the uni­fi­ca­tion, south­ern lead­ers declared seces­sion from the north. Saleh, an army vet­er­an who rose through the ranks to become pres­i­dent of North Yemen in 1978, and pres­i­dent of a unit­ed Yemen in 1990, respond­ed with war. After seiz­ing a south­ern mil­i­tary base that allowed him access to the country’s oil fields, north­ern troops led by Yemen’s UN-rec­og­nized inter­im pres­i­dent (Abd Rab­bu Man­sour Hadi) suc­ceed­ed in defeat­ing the South’s insurgency.

By July, Ali Abdul­lah Saleh was ful­ly in con­trol of Yemen while Ali Sal­im Al-Bei­dh — along with many in his social­ist par­ty — was exiled. Lat­er in 1994, as a reward for his ser­vices, Saleh appoint­ed Hadi — a south­ern­er by birth — the now-vacant vice pres­i­den­cy. Hadi would go on to serve as Saleh’s vice pres­i­dent until Saleh trans­ferred pow­er to him in late 2011 months after sur­viv­ing an assas­si­na­tion attempt in June of that year.

Seces­sion, resurrected

By 2007, resent­ment over var­i­ous forms of mar­gin­al­iza­tion, as well as exploita­tion of south­ern resources by north­ern elites, led to the cre­ation of al-Hirak al-Janoubi (“the south­ern move­ment”), which chal­lenged Saleh and renewed calls for seces­sion from the north. The Hirak, along with oth­er polit­i­cal groups such as the Houthis, gained momen­tum when Yeme­nis peace­ful­ly marched against Saleh and his gov­ern­ment in ear­ly 2011. Short­ly before the Sau­di-led inter­ven­tion began in 2015, Hadi first fled to Aden and lat­er to Sau­di Ara­bia. With back­ing from the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, a fac­tion of Hirak orga­nized itself into a sep­a­ratist polit­i­cal group called the South­ern Tran­si­tion­al Coun­cil (STC) in 2017.

By then, the Sau­di-UAE coali­tion had been attempt­ing to wres­tle con­trol of the for­mer North Yemen from Saleh and the Houthis for two years, fol­low­ing their takeover of the for­mer South Yemen months into the inter­ven­tion. Though they occa­sion­al­ly clashed with Hadi forces, how­ev­er, the STC did not make a major mil­i­tary move until the UAE began to hint at a shift­ing role in Yemen.

A coali­tion at war with itself? 

In July, fol­low­ing announce­ments (and denials) of the UAE’s plan to pull back from the war in Yemen, the STC fight­ers launched an attack on Hadi gov­ern­ment forces in Aden, cap­tur­ing the city. Though they were pre­vi­ous­ly tol­er­at­ed by the Sau­di-backed Hadi gov­ern­ment, this takeover led to Hadi’s gov­ern­ment-in-exile declar­ing the takeover a coup” and refus­ing talks until the STC retreats.

The view that this is a proxy war between Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE, how­ev­er, fails to rec­og­nize Yeme­nis’ own inter­ests and sep­a­rate them from the inter­ests of those back­ing them. The lat­est events also fur­ther com­pli­cate the uncon­sti­tu­tion­al U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war.

Osten­si­bly, the U.S. sup­ports the Sau­di-UAE coalition’s 4.5‑year-long attempt to rein­state Hadi to pow­er. With one coali­tion mem­ber now open­ly sup­port­ing sep­a­ratists who, like the Houthis, are in active rebel­lion against the Hadi gov­ern­ment, Trump’s deci­sion to remain in the coali­tion has lit­tle jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and dwin­dling legitimacy.

Respect for sovereignty

Ulti­mate­ly, the only path for Yeme­nis to achieve their goals — not those of their occu­piers — is to reject for­eign inter­fer­ence alto­geth­er and return to the nego­ti­a­tion table. Though wounds run deep and the promise of uni­ty may not be ful­filled, that deci­sion should be made by the peo­ple of Yemen alone. Mem­bers of the coali­tion bomb­ing and starv­ing Yemen are fierce­ly pro­tec­tive over their own sov­er­eign­ty (e.g. Sau­di Arabia’s reac­tion to Cana­di­an med­dling’ and the U.S. inves­ti­ga­tion of Trump’s ties to Rus­sia). Yet they have tram­pled upon the sov­er­eign­ty of Yemen through an inter­ven­tion that trans­formed Yemen into the world’s worst human­i­tar­i­an crisis.

The U.S. has failed to achieve its goals in Yemen and has bro­ken its own laws in pur­suit of its Per­sian Gulf allies’ impe­ri­al­ist inter­ests. In the name of fight­ing Houthi rebels, Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE have been delib­er­ate­ly tar­get­ing civil­ians, using star­va­tion as a weapon of war, and coop­er­at­ing with al-Qae­da. Addi­tion­al­ly, the UAE has been oper­at­ing secret pris­ons and is now sab­o­tag­ing its mis­sion by back­ing sep­a­ratist rebels and there­by unleash­ing more chaos in war-torn Yemen. For these rea­sons and more, is time for the Unit­ed States to final­ly end its ille­gal, uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, ille­git­i­mate war on Yemen.

Shireen Al-Adei­mi is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion at Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty. Hav­ing lived through two civ­il wars in her coun­try of birth, Yemen, she has played an active role in rais­ing aware­ness about the U.S.-supported, Sau­di-led war on Yemen since 2015. Through her work, she aims to encour­age polit­i­cal action among fel­low Amer­i­cans to bring about an end to U.S. inter­ven­tion in Yemen.
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