What is the US doing in war-torn Yemen?

  • 29 Nov 2018

Expressing dissatisfaction over the Trump administration's handling of the Khashoggi case, the Senate opted to move forward with legislation calling for an end to US involvement in the Saudi-led Yemen war. So what role does the US play in Yemen?

Yemenis attend the funeral of victims of a Saudi-led air strike in Saada, Yemen. Air strikes by Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen are on a pace to kill more civilians in 2018 than last year despite US claims that the coalition is working to prevent such bloodshed, a database tracking violence shows. August 13, 2018. ( AP )

The United States has long been involved in Yemen’s many wars and conflicts. 

Its most recent reprisal has been military support for the Saudi coalition that has been backing a disparate camp of government loyalists against Yemen’s Houthi rebels since 2015. This means the US sells arms, shares intelligence and provides training to avoid strikes that risk civilian casualties.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James ‘Jim’ Mattis both urged the Senate to not move ahead with the legislation which calls for an end to military assistance in a conflict that human rights advocates say is wreaking havoc on Yemen and subjecting civilians to indiscriminate bombing.

"The suffering in Yemen grieves me, but if the United States of America was not involved in Yemen, it would be a hell of a lot worse," Pompeo told lawmakers in the closed-door hearing before the vote.

Many Yemenis would disagree with Pompeo. “Yemenis as civilians are not happy about the role of the US either before or during the war as they feel [America] always kills civilians,” journalist Nasser al Sakkaf told TRT World.

The oft-repeated number of 10,000 fatalities underscores the difficulty of keeping track of casualties in an under-reported and deadly war. 

A database assembled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, has the potential to set the record a little straighter. 

At least 57,538 people — civilians and combatants — have been killed since the beginning of 2016, according to ACLED. That doesn't include the first nine months of the war, in 2015, which the group is still analysing. Those data are likely to raise the figure to 70,000 or 80,000 —  likely an underestimate.

The numbers also don't include those who have died in the humanitarian disaster caused by the war, particularly starvation. 

Though there are no firm figures, the aid group Save the Children estimated hunger may have killed 50,000 children in 2017. That was based on a calculation that around 30 percent of severely malnourished children who didn't receive proper treatment likely died.

The US has stayed in the war in spite of criticism from many quarters that it is aiding a coalition complicit in war crimes. So what role has the US played in Yemen?

Yemeni mother Nadia Nahari holds her five-year-old son Abdelrahman Manhash, who is suffering from severe malnutrition and weighs 5 kg, at a treatment clinic in Khokha district in the western province of Hudaida. November 22, 2018.(AFP)

Made in the USA, delivered by Saudi 

Two Saudi air strikes hit a funeral in Sanaa one October afternoon in 2016. The back-to-back missiles killed nearly 160 people and injured over 500. The “dumb bombs with graduate degrees” were American-made, by Raytheon. 

A bomb dropped by the coalition on a school bus in August 2018 killed 40 children and 11 adults —  and was made by Lockheed Martin.

A CNN investigation showed US-made bombs had been killing or injuring civilians since 2015. 

And as the Senate voted to debate more on cutting military involvement in Yemen’s war —  in an angry response at being denied a CIA briefing on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing —  the US agreed to sell more arms to Saudi Arabia.

Saudis and US officials formalised terms for Saudi's purchase of 44 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launchers, missiles and related equipment, the state department said on Wednesday

Lockheed Martin's $15 billion missile defence system is part of the deals made in the much-touted $110 billion arms package, which the US and Saudi Arabia announced in 2017. The contracts for the sale of US arms to Riyadh were made to counter Tehran —  which the two accuse of arming and brainwashing Houthi rebels — and terrorists.

The THAAD deal, which supports the "long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of the growing ballistic missile threat from the Iranian regime and Iran-backed extremist groups," in other words is implicit US support for the war in Yemen.

Congressional approval for the THAAD missile defence system sale was given in 2017.

The Trump administration is not the only one that has sold Saudi Arabia arms. Barack Obama’s presidency sold arms worth over $150 billion to the kingdom.

“Amnesty International has documented similar military equipment being used in dozens of unlawful air strikes in Yemen which appear to be disproportionate or indiscriminate, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians,” Amnesty International’s Yemen researcher Rasha Mohamed told TRT World.  

“That is why Amnesty International and other organisations are urging states to take a stand and suspend arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition for use in Yemen. Otherwise, states that are still supplying arms to the Saudi Arabia and Emirati-led coalition risk going down in history as being complicit in war crimes in Yemen,” she said.

A fragment of a US-made missile fired from a drone that struck a vehicle, killing all seven men inside on January 26, 2018, shredding their bodies into pieces, in Shabwa, Yemen. July 11, 2018.(AP)


Up until November, the Pentagon was also providing refuelling capabilities for about 20 percent of coalition planes flying sorties over Yemen. 

This controversial refuelling arrangement between the US and the Saudi-led coalition ended in November.

One of the earliest agreements made between any American president and the House of Saud dates back to World War II and promised US military protection for the kingdom in exchange for access to its massive oil reserves.

A Yemeni boy poses with a Kalashnikov assault rifle during a gathering of newly-recruited Houthi fighters in the capital Sanaa, to mobilise more fighters to battlefronts in the war against pro-government forces in several Yemeni cities, on July 16, 2017.()

Lobbying for both war and peace talks

After the UN warned that the coalition’s assault on the essential port city of Hudaida could cause yet another humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the US called for peace talks between the two sides. The US urged the UN Security Council to put a pin in Yemen-related resolutions until both sides meet in Sweden in early December.

By all accounts, the US does not see peace in Yemen possible without military threat and intervention. In fact, one argument made by the US is that it plays an essential role in minimising even worse civilian casualties.

"Our conduct there is to try and keep the human cost of innocents being killed accidentally to the absolute minimum," Pentagon chief James Mattis told Pentagon reporters in August.

He added that training given to coalition pilots is paying off.

"We have had pilots in the air who recognise the danger of a specific mission and decline to drop, even when they get the authority," he said. 

"We have seen staff procedures that put no-fire areas around areas where there's hospitals or schools."

Yet, what the Saudi coalition continues to bomb is a funeral, a school bus, a market —  all with US intelligence and training at hand —  and has labelled it collateral damage.

Pompeo told the Senate, "What would happen if the US withdrew from the Yemen effort? The war wouldn't end.” 

But trapped by the very same war, poverty and a lack of access to the outside world, the Yemenis “are not even aware of such issues” of US politics, Taiz-based journalist Sakkaf told TRT World

He thinks a US withdrawal won’t immediately end the war but the loss of an ally of this scale might make “the Saudis feel they may lose more alliances so they will resort to a peaceful solution in Yemen.”

Fishermen at the main fishing port in Hudaida, Yemen. September 29, 2018.(AP)

US was in Yemen before the war

From giving Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh millions in funds to oppose terrorism after 9/11 to introducing drone warfare in the poverty-struck country, the US has been in Yemen for nearly 20 years.

The US waged a drone war in Yemen for 16 years, trying to suppress Al Qaeda’s branch there. But the campaign has had a hidden cost: civilians cut down by the drones’ missiles.

Around a third of all those killed in drone strikes so far in 2018 were not linked to Al Qaeda, according to an independent database cited by AP. The Pentagon does not release its assessment of the death toll.

“Most people in the south believe the US is targeting civilians because most victims of the drones are in the south,” Sakkaf told TRT World.

The Trump administration carried out 176 strikes during its nearly two years in office, compared to the 154 strikes during the entire eight years of the Obama administration, according to a count by the AP and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism counted up to 1,020 killed by strikes from 2009 to 2016, under Obama, compared to up to 205 killed in 2017 and 2018. The ACLED database counted 331 killed in the past two years.