The Forgotten War: Understanding the Saudi Air Campaign in Yemen

The Forgotten War: Understanding the Saudi Air Campaign in Yemen

As the primary weapons provider of the Saudi Arabian military, the United States is often deemed complicit in controversial Saudi foreign policy. Consequently, the U.S. has drawn criticism for increased Saudi militarism in the face of a resurgent Iran. The Saudi-Iranian conflict has become the dominant framework for the regional balance of power in the Middle East, fueling proxy conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. While conflicts in the two former nations have been well documented by media and academics, attention to the civil war in Yemen has been largely focused on the Saudi air campaign. This air campaign, and the U.S.'s involvement in it, has drawn harsh criticism from a number of international organizations and human rights groups. Despite such criticism, Saudi Arabia has shown little sign of ceasing the bombing of its southern neighbor. While the air campaign is a major facet of the violent Yemeni conflict, from a strategic and political standpoint, it would behoove the U.S. to consider the myriad of other actors present in Yemen before making a decision as to Saudi military support.

Since the Houthi insurgency against President Mansour Hadi began in 2014, Yemen has been one of the primary battlefields for proxy conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While Saudi Arabia deserves criticism for its actions in Yemen, it is reasonable to view the situation in its neighboring country as a threat to national security and stability. In the past, Houthi insurgents have caused great disturbances along the Saudi-Yemeni border in the Saudi city of Riyadh. In 2009, prior to the current Yemeni Civil War, Houthi rebels crossed into Saudi territory and seized control of two border villages. Saudi Arabia responded with a massive military deployment, but this anti-Houthi maneuver proved to be embarrassing and costly. The Royal Saudi Air Forces's (RSAF) aerial strikes were ineffective, dropping rounds in the desert without hitting many Houthi targets at the cost of 133 troops in the ensuing engagement on the ground.

Though the Houthi forces eventually retreated to their homeland in Northern Yemen, the Saudi Arabian military realized a Shia insurgency along its southern border, like that of the Houthi, would be more problematic than originally thought. This concern increased upon the Saudi realization that the Houthi forces were, in fact, heavily backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia's great geopolitical rival. The Saudis worried that if Iran were to gain enough influence in Yemen by controlling the Houthi, it would have the capacity to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shia southern and eastern provinces.

The country of Yemen and controlling factions within it. (Critical Threats/Al Jazeera)

Due to heightened tensions in the Saudi-Iranian Cold War, which is a series of recent and ongoing proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the rival states have intensified their respective military efforts in Yemen, further exacerbating the existing competition to achieve regional hegemony. According to former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Saudi officials claim the goal of their intervention in Yemen is to “eliminate all traces of Iranian influence” in that country, thus halting Iran’s advance in Saudi Arabia's sphere of influence. This hardline approach towards Iran’s progress has impeded peace-seeking efforts between the nations, making it more likely that the future of Yemen will be closely tied to those of the other proxy battlefields in the Saudi-Iranian Cold War.

Saudi Arabia's hardline approach to Iran’s presence in Yemen has led to a number of brutal, if not illegal, military tactics. According to the World Health Organization, the current death toll of Saudi Arabia’s air campaign stands at approximately 6,500 civilian casualties. Saudi Arabia has not only inflicted mass casualties upon Yemen, but it has also enforced a blockade around the nation, cutting its populace off from food, water, and medical supplies. Critics have accused the RSAF of indiscriminately bombing civilian and military targets alike. According to one intelligence official working in the Yemeni conflict, the RSAF “just bombed anything and everything that looked like it might be a target. Trucks on a highway — that became a military convoy. Buildings, bridges, anything.” The RSAF also drew harsh criticism from the international community when it bombed and destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, effectively leaving 200,000 Yemenis in the region without medical care. After visiting Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and later the city of Aden in August of 2015, the head of the International Red Cross observed the destruction wrought by the Saudi’s air campaign, claiming “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.” Beyond harsh criticism on the basis of brutality, Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen have also been said to violate human rights.

In February of 2016, Human Rights Watch released a report confirming the RSAF’s use of cluster munitions, explosives that are banned by 118 countries worldwide, against Yemeni civilians. According to this report, the RSAF was the only group involved in the Yemeni conflict that possessed the aircraft necessary to fire the specific cluster munitions found by Human Rights Watch field agents. This report also revealed that many of the cluster munitions used by the RSAF were sold to them by the U.S. despite American export requirements and reliability standards that ban their use in civilian areas. While neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States have outright banned the sale or use of cluster munitions, most human rights organizations have decried the decision, labeling the RSAF’s actions in Yemen as violations of international human rights. As long as Saudi Arabia continues its air campaign, especially one that employs the use of cluster munitions in Yemen, it will remain a geopolitical liability for the U.S.

Despite this geopolitical liability, the United States has continued to aid the Saudi effort in Yemen and as such, many in the international community have come to associate the U.S. with the bloodshed that results. Since the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemeni Civil War, the United States has provided the RSAF with military and intelligence support, including sending warships to help blockade Yemen. In addition, prior to its intervention in Yemen, Saudi Arabia was on the receiving end of the largest United States arms deal in history; in exchange for $60 million, the United States sold Saudi Arabia 84 modified F-15s, 170 helicopters, and a massive quantity of bombs and missiles, including 1,300 cluster munitions. By arming the Saudis and assisting in the exacerbation of violence in Yemen, the United States’ reputation in the Middle East, which was already tarnished  due to its prior involvement in Iraq, has suffered and its efforts to fund the continued arming of Saudi Arabia has been met with resistance from Congress.

After the United States and Saudi Arabia agreed to a $1.15 billion arms deal in 2016, four senators, Republicans Rand Paul (KY) and Mike Lee (UT) and Democrats Chris Murphy (CT) and Al Franken (MN), introduced a bipartisan resolution to block the sale. Speaking for the bipartisan group, Senator Paul specifically cited Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen as the primary reason for the introduction of the joint resolution and, although the joint resolution to block the arms sale would ultimately fail, it signified a growing shift towards an anti-Saudi sentiment among U.S. lawmakers. 

Saudi Arabia’s use of controversial cluster munitions has overshadowed the fact that the overall casualty count in Yemen is relatively low.

For all the Yemen-related criticism Saudi Arabia receives, Iran has been the primary catalyst behind the current instability in Yemen. As a result, Saudi Arabia has been performing its duty as a member of the international community by protecting its neighbor, Yemen, against the violent minority insurgency supported by Iran. After his administration fled Sana’a for Aden, Yemen’s president, Mansour Hadi, reached out to the international community and implored its members “to provide instant support by all necessary means, including military intervention, to protect Yemen and its people from continuous Houthi aggression and deter the expected attack to occur at any hour on the city of Aden and the rest of the southern regions, and to help Yemen in the face of Al Qaeda and ISIL.” Due to the Houthi insurgency in his nation, Hadi acted within his duty in invoking Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which grants him and his allies the right to act in self-defense against an armed attack on a U.N. member. In this instance, the Houthis had performed an armed attack against Yemen, which is a U.N. member. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia, along with its allies, including the U.S., have performed their duty in accordance with the U.N. Charter by aiding a threatened fellow U.N. member. The Houthi rebels have no legitimate claim to the leadership of Yemen, and Saudi Arabia is in the right for defending the legitimate Hadi regime. Though Saudi Arabia’s means in achieving this end are worth questioning, its goal of securing Yemen is aligned with international law and beneficial to future stability of the region; it is defending the legitimate and internationally-recognized government of Yemen against Iranian-backed rebels.

The aftermath of a Saudi-led air strike in Sana, Yemen. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Saudi Arabia’s use of controversial cluster munitions has overshadowed the fact that the overall casualty count in Yemen is relatively low. The Saudi air campaign in Yemen is amassing casualties at a rate similar to the 1999 NATO intervention in Serbia, yet the international community was far more approving of this latter intervention than that of Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have been far from guiltless in this conflict themselves, admittedly bombing civilians in Taiz, a city in western Yemen. Because of Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record, criticism of the Saudi air campaign has been rooted in preconceived notions based on the nation’s past offenses in the Middle East, paying no heed to the actual motivations and statistics surrounding the current conflict.

While the Saudi air campaign in Yemen has had its mistakes, the damage it has wrought is far less extreme than that of other recent conflicts. Going forward, it would behoove the United States to work with Saudi Arabia to restore order in Yemen, so that both nations could turn their collective attention to the more violent and pressing civil war in Syria.


(Overhead Picture: Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels hold their weapons as they chant slogans in Yemen's largest city of Sanaa. PC: The Associated Press)

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