The war the world ignores

Staff Columnist

“A pointless conflict has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”  (The Economist, December 2nd 2017)

“Yemen lost the title of Arabia Felix, or ‘Fortunate Arabia’ long ago.  It has suffered civil wars, tribalism jihadist violence and appalling poverty.

But none of this compares with the misery being inflicted on the country today by the war between a Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis, a Shia militia backed by Iran.

The UN reckons three-quarters of Yemen’s 28m people need some kind of humanitarian aid.  Mounting rubbish, failing sewerage and wrecked water supplies have led to worst cholera outbreak in recent history.  The country is on the brink of famine.  The economy  has crumbled, leaving people with impossible choices.  Each day the al-Thawra hospital in Hodeida must decide which of the life-saving equipment to run with what little fuel it has.

Perhaps the worst of it is that much of the world seems unperturbed, calloused by the years of bloodshed in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, and despairing of its ability to effect change.  To be cynical, Yemen is further away from Europe than Syria; its wretched people do not, on the whole, wash up in theWest seeking asylum.

Yet the world ignores Yemen at its peril.  Set aside for a moment the obligation to relieve suffering and protect civilians.  Hard security interests are also at stake.  The world can ill afford another failed state – a new Afghanistan or Somalia – that becomes a breeding ground for global terrorism.  Yemen, moreover dominates the Bab al-Mandab strait, a choke point for ships using the Suez canal.  Like it or not, the West is involved.  The Saudi-led coalition is fighting with Western airplanes and munitions.  Western satellites guide its bombs.”

Our British cousins at The Economist continue:

“Like so much in the Arab world, Yemen’s agony can be traced to the Arab-spring uprisings of 2011.  Mass protests, a near-assassination of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and a shove from neighboring petro-states forced him to step down in 2012 in favour of his vice-president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.  A draft constitution in 2015 proposed a federal system and a parliament split between northerners and southerners.  But the  Houthi rebels, who had fought  Mr Saleh, rejected it.  The Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiism (as do perhaps 40% of Yemnenis), complained that, among other things, the constitution stuck them in a region with few resources and without access to the sea.

Now allied with Mr Saleh, who spotted an opportunity for a comeback, the Houthis ousted Mr Hadi from Sana’a, the capital, and chased him all the way to Aden.  Saudi Arabia gathered a coalition of Arab states and local militias – among them Islamists, Salafists and southern separatists – and forced the Houthis to retreat partway.  For the past year, the battle-lines have barely moved.  The Houthis are too weak to rule over Yemen but too powerful for Saudi Arabia to defeat.

As a result, Yemenis have become the pawns in the regional power-struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Alarmed by Iran’s spreading influence, the Saudis have begun to speak of the Houthis rather as Israelis refer to the Lebanese militia, Hizbullah: a dangerous Iranian proxy army on their border.  Indeed, the Saudis have much to learn from Israel’s experience.  Even with the most sophisticated weapons, it is all but impossible to defeat a militia that is well entrenched in a civilian population.  The stronger side is blamed for the pain of those civilians.  For the weaker side, survival is victory.

So, even though the Houthis are primarily responsible for starting the war and capable of great cruelty, it is the Saudis who are accused of war crimes.  Often the accusation is justified.

The longer the war goes on, the more Saudi Arabia’s Western allies are complicit in its actions.”

Of course the Economist concludes that much of this responsibility belongs to our President, a stretch I ‘d say.   

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