As an assassination ruins an exit strategy, Washington must end support for the Saudi war and stop the war itself
The assassination of former Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh has turned a spotlight on the catastrophe created there by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which is being widely equated to a crime against humanity.
Saleh ruled Yemen for more than three decades, racking up a personal fortune worth billions of dollars, before being forced out five years ago amid the turbulence of the Arab Spring. Houthi rebel fighters, his former allies, killed him on Monday.
Saleh’s death is a major blow to the political faction he led and with which he continued to wield influence, though it is a faction known for switching sides in accordance with political needs. Like so many other leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, Saleh left behind a legacy of war and corruption. But events changed dramatically in 2015 when a Gulf alliance led by Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Yemen to reinstate as president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, overthrown by the Houthis the year before.
Seeing the Saudi coalition’s move as limiting Iran’s growing influence in the region, the United States under Barack Obama gave its blessing. It was a false reckoning. Saudi Arabia routinely overstates Iranian support for the Houthi rebels, who are mainly Shiite Muslims but of a sect other than that of the mullahs and people of Iran.
After two years of bombardment, the Houthis have shown they can withstand whatever the richer Arab nations throw at them. The Saudis were hoping Saleh could subdue them and then provide the coalition with an exit strategy from this conflict – leaked emails indicate they want out. Saleh’s murder has ruined the entire plan.
A negotiated exit is still an option and one that needs to be explored. But, if Riyadh decides to step up its air campaign, it will only result in the death of many more civilians. The humanitarian calamity that’s taking place cannot be denied. The coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen last October, resulting in nearly 80 per cent of the population becoming reliant on humanitarian aid to survive.
And, if vocal members of the US Congress get their way, American support for the Saudi-led alliance will be withdrawn. The lawmakers are all too aware that the bombs being dropped by Saudi jets are made in the US. Last month they passed a resolution, albeit non-binding, noting that US military assistance to Saudi Arabia in its war with Yemen is unauthorised. It also acknowledged that this was a humanitarian disaster, and yet US forces were helping the coalition select targets and refuel their warplanes. The American congressmen reminded the White House that the US military is authorised to fight only al Qaeda and allied terrorist groups in Yemen, not the Shiite Muslim rebels who antagonise Saudi Arabia.
If Washington had Iran in mind when the Obama administration decided two years ago to back the Saudi coalition, there are no clear grounds now for maintaining that view. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump – convinced that Iran is a foe in need of humiliating – has chosen to put all of his eggs in the Saudi basket. Because of the humanitarian crisis, however, Washington must urgently reconsider its role and in fact help end the conflict.
In its sheer scale, the continuing Saudi assault – and the coalition’s refusal to allow adequate medicine and food into Yemen – could well constitute a war crime.