“They hit everything, hospitals, orphanages, schools,” Hisham al-Omeisy told The Guardian newspaper six months ago. “You live in constant fear that your kids’ school could be the next target.”
No, he’s not talking about the wicked Russians bombing the eastern side of Aleppo in Syria, which is stirring up so much synthetic indignation in Washington and London these days. He was talking about the air force of Saudi Arabia, that great friend of the West, bombing his friends and neighbors in San’a, the capital of Yemen.
The Saudi Arabian bombing campaign in Yemen is now 18 months old and is responsible for the great majority of the estimated 5,000 civilian fatal casualties in that time. The Saudi authorities swear it wasn’t them every time there is an especially high death toll — “(our) forces have clear instructions not to target populated areas and to avoid civilians” is the familiar refrain — but they are the only side in the conflict that has aircraft.
A case in point is the Oct. 8 strike on the Great Hall in San’a, a very large and distinctive building of no military importance whatever. It was crowded with hundreds of people attending the funeral of Ali al-Rawishan, father of Interior Minister Galal al-Rawishan.
The younger al-Rawishan is the interior minister in the government that sits in the capital, which is supported by “rebel” Houthi tribesmen from the north of Yemen and by the part of the army that still backs the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His father’s funeral was therefore attended by many senior Houthi officials and supporters of the former president, as well as large numbers of other people.
By the sheerest coincidence, we are asked to believe, an airstrike accidentally hit the Great Hall at just the right time on just the right day to kill 150 people and wound 525, among whom there would probably have been a dozen or so “rebel” government officials.
This war is really about Saudi Arabia’s ability to control Yemen’s government. The two neighbors have about the same population but Saudi Arabia is 30 times richer, so that should be easy.
Yemen’s long-ruling dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hostile to Saudi Arabia, so the latter took advantage of popular protests against him in 2011-12 (part of the “Arab Spring”) to engineer his replacement by a Saudi puppet, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Saleh then made an alliance with his former enemies, the Houthi tribes of northern Yemen, and struck back. When the rebel forces seized San’a in late 2014 and eventually drove Hadi out of the country, Saudi Arabia put together a “coalition” of conservative Arab states and launched the current military intervention to put Hadi back in power.
The other motive behind this foolish war is the Saudi belief — or at least claim — that Iran, its great rival in the Gulf, is the secret power behind the rebel forces in Yemen. No doubt Iran does sympathize with the Yemeni rebels, because they are mostly fellow Shias, but for all the talk of “Iran-allied Houthis,” faithfully repeated in Western media, there is no evidence that Iran has given them either military or financial aid.
So, then, three conclusions. First, the Saudi-led coalition will not get its way in Yemen if it remains unwilling to put large numbers of troops on the ground — and it might not win even if it did. Second, the relentless bombing of civilians is largely because of the coalition’s frustration at the failure of its political strategy, although the sheer lack of useful military targets also plays a part.
And third, this is the stupidest of all the wars being fought across the Middle East. Who runs Yemen is not a matter of vital strategic importance to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi obsession with the Iranian “threat” is absurd.
Does the Washington foreign policy establishment finally understand all this? Only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Old habits die hard, and it’s all too easy to condemn Russian airstrikes in Syria while condoning similar Saudi airstrikes in Yemen.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.