Analysts say that Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen are killing civilians and further destabilising an already-impoverished nation
NEW YORK – US President Barack Obama hosted Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan for White House talks on Monday as US support for Saudi-led airstrikes against rebels in Yemen’s conflict was increasingly being called into question.
Obama’s talks with the United Arab Emirates royal came against a backdrop of ongoing violence in Yemen and an airstrike on a missile base in the capital, Sanaa, on Monday that sent plumes of smoke hundreds of metres into the sky as rescuers combed the rubble for victims and survivors.
Saudi Arabia leads the UAE, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and others in a coalition that has been launching airstrikes on Yemen’s Shiite Houthi militias since late March in a bid to halt gains against forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who has fled Yemen for Riyadh.
According to the White House, Obama and Sheikh Mohammed discussed an Iranian nuclear deal and “conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria” ahead of next month’s summit of the US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members – Saudi, the UAE and four other Gulf petro-monarchies.
GCC states are concerned that a recently agreed framework deal between the US, Iran and others will not stop Tehran from building doomsday weapons. They also fear Iranian support for Shiite Muslim fighters and activists in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and the Houthis of Yemen.
Analysts say that Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen are killing civilians, further destabilising an already impoverished nation and allowing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to grow while ultimately failing to stop the battle-hardened Houthis.
“The operation does not have clear goals,” Charles Schmitz, a Towson University scholar, told Middle East Eye.
“It is meant to show Iran that Saudi Arabia will act on its own against Iranian interests. Theoretically, the operation wants Hadi’s government reinstated, but that is not a viable political option and there will not be a military victory in Yemen for the Saudis.”
The US supports the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence and video feeds from US drones for targeting enemies and refuelling coalition jets for bombing raids, saying it can halt Houthi aggression and yield a negotiated peace deal.
On Monday, the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt headed to join about nine US warships in the waters off Yemen, including cruisers and destroyers, amid reports that a convoy of Iranian ships is bound for Yemen – possibly carrying weapons for the Houthis.
Iran denies arming the Houthis. On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote a newspaper editorial warning that current policies in the region were not tackling Islamist militants and were “effectively enabling their growth in Yemen”.
“Our plan calls for an immediate ceasefire, humanitarian assistance and facilitation of intra-Yemeni dialogue, leading to the formation of an inclusive, broad-based national unity government,” Zarif wrote in The New York Times.
According to US officials, airstrikes defend the Saudi border, protect Hadi’s legitimate government, counter Houthi aggression and “bring all of the sides … around the negotiating table,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest last month.
Statements from the US military have been unclear. During a Senate committee meeting on 26 March, General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command, which covers the Gulf, said: “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign.”
Days later, an unidentified US defence official spoke to The New York Times, saying, “beyond the fact that the Saudis are allies and have been allies for a long time, the answer you’re going to get from most people - if they were being honest - is that we weren’t going to be able to stop it”.
Analysts question why the US backs a Saudi-led military campaign that lacks clear goals and provides an opportunity for AQAP to expand. AQAP militants have gained Yemeni territory since fighting began and earlier this month freed hundreds of prisoners from a jail in al-Mukalla.
Pittsburgh University scholar Michael Brenner said US support for the kingdom’s campaign was self-defeating.
“Unqualified military and diplomatic backing to Saudi’s bombing campaign directly contradicts our stated objectives in the region. Fighting Middle East-based Islamist terrorism has been the top priority for successive administrations since 9/11,” he told MEE.
“In Yemen, we are providing aid and comfort in unmistakable ways to an al-Qaeda offshoot. Yemen was recently cited as the prime base for al-Qaeda and threatening US interests. That is a logical contradiction from the White House for which we have received no answer.”
Barak Barfi, a researcher at the New America Foundation, a think tank, told MEE that US support for the Saudis acts as compensation following a series of disagreements with its oil-rich ally over Iran and other policies in the turbulent region.
“The US was caught off-guard by the Saudi campaign and is playing catch-up. They have angered the Saudis on a range of issues from Lebanon to Syria and could not sit on the sidelines for this. They have to repair relations; this is one way to do it,” he said.
The Houthis would prove a stubborn enemy for Saudi military efforts, Barfi said, but the US is ultimately supporting a campaign that “has the potential to stabilise the country” and yield a government in Sanaa capable of restoring order to Arabia’s poorest nation.
“The US cannot sit by while Iran takes another piece on the Middle East chessboard. And it has to back its regional allies – otherwise its alliances mean nothing,” he added.
Philippe Bolopion, from the pressure group Human Rights Watch, said the US risks “reputational stigma” by supporting coalition airstrikes that disproportionately affect Yemeni civilians. The US should persuade Riyadh and others to avoid civilian deaths, only strike military targets and not use cluster bombs and other indiscriminate weapons.
“The US should recognise that limiting harm to Yemeni civilians is not only a legal obligation of coalition countries, but a crucial element of its stated goal to tackle Islamist extremist groups like AQAP, whose popular appeal is raised by perceived abuses by the West and its allies,” he told MEE.
“It is clear that Saudi-led strikes have started out badly, as far as civilians are concerned. It is not too late to change that, and the US is well-position to have a positive influence on those commanding military operations.”
According to the UN, 150,000 people have been displaced by the latest fighting and some 12 million lack food. An estimated 731 people have been killed and 2,754 injured in three weeks between March and April – numbers that are likely to be underestimates, the UN said.