While the stage was set for Yemen’s civil war long before it officially began, the curtain opened on March 19, 2015 when special forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh took over roads leading the Aden’s international airport, then controlled by forces loyal to the current President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. A battle between the rival forces ensued, leading to 13 deaths and 21 injuries. On March 25, 2015, one year ago tomorrow, Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen with a coalition of Gulf states, and the White House quietly put out a statement announcing its political, logistical, and intelligence support for the intervention. It was a Wednesday. (Read our last piece on the US Role in the War in Yemen to learn more).
Civil wars – like all wars – are always terrible, but they’re almost always made worse when powerful countries intervene on behalf of one side or the other. This is particularly true in Yemen, where as of March 18, 2016, the UN has documented 3,218 civilian deaths and 5,778 civilian injuries since the conflict began, and has repeatedly claimed that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for roughly two-thirds of those civilian casualties. Judging by those numbers, March 25 is perhaps a more consequential anniversary for the people of Yemen than the official beginning of the war.
Remarkably, the US media has so successfully avoided the topic of Yemen that most Americans aren’t even aware of the war, much less the active US role in it. Thankfully, some lawmakers and organizations have been pushing the topic into the spotlight, and slowly but surely, momentum to end US support for the Saudi-led intervention, and to reevaluate the larger US-Saudi relationship, is growing.
In September 2015, after the UN first pointed out that roughly two-thirds of civilian casualties in Yemen’s war were caused by the US-backed coalition, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asking that the US “cease aiding coalition air strikes in Yemen until the coalition demonstrates that they will institute proper safeguards to prevent civilian deaths.”
In October 2015, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) came out and said that US arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia may violate a law he wrote prohibiting the transfer of arms to countries that are committing gross human rights violations. Shortly thereafter, 13 House Representatives wrote a letter spearheaded by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA), Debbie Dingell (D-MN), and Keith Ellison (D-MN) to President Obama calling for increased efforts to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen, and for a concerted effort to find a diplomatic solution to the war.
In 2016, the push to end US support for the war in Yemen has accelerated. In January, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) became the first Senator to publicly call for an end to US military support for the war in Yemen, citing the “growing evidence our support for Saudi-led military campaigns in places like Yemen are prolonging humanitarian misery and aiding extremism.” He specified that we should end US military support “at the very least, until we get assurances that this campaign does not distract from the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda, and until we make some progress on the Saudi export of Wahhabism.”
On March 2, Rep. Ted Lieu raised the issue again in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Lieu wrote that he has “serious questions about the coalition’s operational conduct, the U.S.’s involvement with the coalition, and the U.S. national security interests driving our actions in Yemen.” He noted that the “apparent indiscriminate airstrikes on civilian targets in Yemen seem to suggest that either the coalition is grossly negligent in its targeting or is intentionally targeting innocent civilians.” He also called on the recipients of the letter to “provide an assessment as to whether the indiscriminate nature of the coalition’s operations and the targeting of civilians have significantly changed since October 2015.”
On March 5th and 6th, roughly 250 political scholars, organizers, and activists from CODEPINK, Peace Action, and a whole host of peace groups, human rights groups, and foreign policy organizations came together in Washington D.C. for the 2016 Summit on Saudi Arabia to discuss the deeply troubling US-Saudi relationship. The summit demonstrated that there is a vast network of organizations and individuals prepared to campaign on this issue, and added further momentum to the push to end US support for the war in Yemen.
Earlier this month, Sen. Chris Murphy elaborated extensively in an interview with Public Radio International on his opposition to US military support for the war in Yemen, and to unconditional arms sales to Saudi Arabia:
It’s hard for me to figure out what the US national security interests are inside the civil war in Yemen… It appears that our support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign is killing a lot of civilians. It is leading to a humanitarian disaster, and strengthening the very groups that we say are our priority to defeat in the region… If I’m listening to Yemenis on the ground, I think one of their first requests is for this relatively indiscriminate bombing campaign by the coalition to stop. And right now the US is facilitating that bombing campaign, leading to the destruction of cities, the deaths of civilians, and a growing humanitarian catastrophe inside Yemen… The way in which we have sold arms to the Saudis without requiring them to be a true lasting daily partner in the fight against extremism really puts our country’s national security in jeopardy.
Some of the specific conditions that Murphy said he’d like to place on any future arms sales are “that they stop using cluster bombs [which they purchased from the US], that they commit to not purposely targeting civilians, that they allow for humanitarian relief to reach displaced populations, that they make a commitment not to in any way directly coordinate with Sunni extremist groups. These are the kind of conditions that we have so far been unwilling to put to the Saudis. I think it’s time we do it.”
Earlier this week, the push to rethink our country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia picked up its most influential backer yet; Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who Peace Action endorsed. In a speech outlining his Middle East foreign policy platform, Sen. Sanders said:
Saudi Arabia, which has the 4th largest defense budget in the world, has to dedicate itself more fully to the destruction of ISIS, instead of other military adventures like the one it is pursuing right now in Yemen… We have to be honest enough, and sometimes we are not, to admit that Saudi Arabia – a repressive regime in its own right – is hardly an example of Jeffersonian democracy.
Clearly, this relatively new push to reevaluate the US-Saudi relationship and end the war in Yemen is starting to get traction. European countries have also been grappling with their relationship to the Kingdom as evidenced by the Dutch Parliament’s recent vote to ban arms exports to Saudi Arabia in response to its human rights violations, which cited civilian casualties in the war in Yemen and recent mass executions of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia. The US Congress would be wise to follow their example, and Peace Action is applying grassroots pressure on lawmakers to do just that. Be part of our effort by calling your Senators and Representative and asking them to oppose US support for the war in Yemen and support an arms embargo on the Saudi-led coalition. Call the Capitol Switchboard at 844-735-1362.