It has been known for some time that the US is supporting the Saudi War against Yemen. The human toll of the conflict has been significant, and is poised to grow worse as 21.2 million Yemenis are reported to be in need of humanitarian assistance. Unfortunately, the probability of them receiving that aid is unlikely due to a thorough blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia.
As some quick background here, you’ll recall that the Yemen government was overthrown by the Houthi rebel movement in late 2014. Yemen has had a series of clashes between the government and the Houthis over the years, but the most recent one proved decisive. The former leader of Yemen was President Hadi who was backed by both the US and the Saudis. President Hadi was technically elected in 2012, but he was the only candidate. So while the Saudis launched their war with the stated goal of restoring the legitimate government of Yemen, the reality is they were trying to put a friendly dictator back in charge of a neighboring country. Since Saudi Arabia is a US ally and was upset by the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the US went along with the Saudi campaign in Yemen. One might think of it as an appalling international analogue to giving flowers after a lovers’ quarrel. Just replace flowers with needless casualties and lovers with two countries that have very few things in common besides contempt for Iran. But I digress.
Anyways, it was reported early on in major media outlets that the US was supporting Saudi’s campaign against Yemen, but the issue largely remained outside of the public eye. The reason for this silence is relatively straightforward. In Yemen, we have yet another case where the US would appear to be overtly on the side of oppressive governments. This was the case in Egypt at the beginning of the Arab spring, remains the case in Bahrain where the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed, and is also true for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself. Indeed, in some ways, Yemen is an even more extreme case since it involves not only preservation of the status quo but an outright counterrevolution.
This silence was breached recently by Secretary of State John Kerry who formally indicated the US support for the Saudi War. While this does not tell us anything new about the conflict itself, it is important that the US government has decided to formally indicate its support for a very unpopular conflict. Further, one of the stated reasons that the US offered to justify its support was utter nonsense and is worth unpacking.
John Kerry specifically cited a need to fight Al Qaeda as well as the Houthi movement (also known as Ansarallah). This is odd because the Houthis–which follow a form a Shia Islam–are actually among the most effective opposition to Al Qaeda in Yemen–which is a radical offshoot of Sunni Islam. And since virtually all of the Saudi’s focus in Yemen has been on the Houthis, the unfortunate by-product is that Al Qaeda forces in the region are growing stronger claiming more territory.
Coincidentally, this is a pattern that we have consistently seen throughout the Middle East in recent years. The US has frequently been engaged in fighting key opponents of radical Islamic groups, thereby strengthening the radical groups themselves. This description fits the 2011 intervention in Libya and our arming of rebels in Syria to weaken President Assad.
When you hear discussion of the Middle East today, occasionally, you will hear a rash remark about the US directly supporting ISIS or Al Qaeda. Given the information available currently, and assuming the smallest level of rationality within the CIA and Pentagon, this seems unlikely. However, it is true that these radical groups benefit indirectly as the US unwittingly destroys their opponents. Unfortunately, Kerry’s recent acknowledgement of the US involvement in Yemen suggests that this will continue to be our official policy in Yemen for the foreseeable future.
So the Yemen War is poised to drag on. And the US is officially on board with reinstalling a former dictator at the cost of strengthening Al Qaeda.
For more on this story, check out Jason Ditz’s write-up at Antiwar.com.