Saturday, December 17, 2016

6.1 - War in Yemen; US begins to back away

War in Yemen; US begins to back away

We're going to start with something that eventually, believe it or not, turns into a sort of good news kinda.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. It has been in a bloody civil war since late 2014. Even as the world was distracted by Syria, the death and destruction in Yemen mounted.

It is estimated that upwards of 10,000 have died in what the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs calls "the forgotten war." The health service there has "completely collapsed." There are 1.5 million malnourished children the country, 370,000 of them severely malnourished. UNICEF reports that of the total population of 27 million people, an estimated 21.2 million, nearly 80% of the total, need humanitarian assistance of some kind. Half of that number is children.

Of that 27 million, 3.3 million, over 10 percent, have been forced from their homes. Over half are "food insecure," meaning they don't know from one day to the next if there will be enough food to eat. Over two-thirds lack access to safe drinking water, which is connected to a recent outbreak of cholera, with the World Health Organization recording almost 5,500 suspected cases a month ago.

I'm not going to even try to disentangle the history of the war, especially since this is hardly the first internal conflict Yemen has experienced. I will just notice that the actual fighting broke out when Houthi rebels seized control of Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, in September 2014. A few months, later, they seized the presidential compound, forcing President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee the country in late February 2015.

Since then, the fighting between supporters of the Hadi government - with outside aid coming from the US via drone strikes and from Saudi Arabia - and the Houthi - with outside aid from Iran - has continued and gotten more vicious over time. As a quick aside, to show how messy civil wars quickly become, among those supporting the Houthi are supporters of Hadi's predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh - who was forced from office by an uprising supported by the Houthi.

Despite the on-going brutality and suffering, neither side has gained a decisive advantage.

Okay, so what's the sorta kinda good news? Because I'd say we could use some about now.

The Good News is that there is actually - or at least it appears there is actually - a limit to the atrocities our government will tolerate for the sake of "stability" and in the name of "fighting terrorism."

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading what we call so euphemistically call an "air campaign" in Yemen. It has consisted of attacks on hospitals, schools, markets, factories, and other clearly civilian targets. It has consisted of, that is, war crimes.

And now, belatedly and after multiple protests, but finally, the United States has decided to limit its military support to Saudi Arabia's campaign by cutting off supplies of certain weapons.

Just what weapons are involved is not certain, but it involves precision-guided munitions which the US had been supplying under the notion that such weapons can minimize civilian casualties - only to have them used by the Saudis, it appears, to more accurately target civilian and non-combatant targets. It finally got to be too much even for the cold hearts of the US military establishment.

However, the reason this is kinda sorta good news is that while we can be glad of the decision, it not nearly enough. It is not the cut-off in support that folks had hoped for. For example, the US will keep refueling the aircraft involved and will continue some other arms sales to the kingdom, including a $3.5 billion deal for Chinook cargo helicopters, which the US insists would not be part of offensive actions in Yemen.

As a result, William Hartung of the Center for International Policy called the decision to stop supplying precision-guided munitions a "weak signal," while Samah Hadid of Amnesty International said the move "falls far short of what is needed" and Rep. Ted Lieu from California called the decision to continue the re-fueling "completely bizarre."

There is one other point to consider: This is not the US's first hesitant step away from its embrace of Saudi Arabia's war crimes.

In May, Washington suspended sales of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia and in August, the US military began to back away from supporting to Saudi Arabia's campaign, pulling out a planning team that was coordinating with the bombing campaign.

Some have suggested that those moves, and this latest one, are less about any moral judgement on Saudi Arabia, an important regional ally we historically have tried very hard to avoid offending, but are more about concerns among some US officials that by not acting, the United States could be implicated in Saudi Arabia's war crimes.

Whatever the reason and yes, however weak the signal, we still should be glad it happened. Now it's time to pull the plug on all military aid and sales to the repressive regime of Saudi Arabia. Now, that would be Good News.

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