It should not have required the massacre of more than 140 people at a funeral for Washington to review support for the Saudi-led coalition’s brutish war in Yemen. There have been numerous other massacres that should already have prompted action. In their bid to pummel Houthi rebels into submission and restore an ousted ally to the capital, Sana’a, the Saudi air force has — intentionally or not — struck hospitals, weddings, schools, mosques and marketplaces, according to a report to the UN Security Council. These attacks undoubtedly contravene international law. They also contribute to creating the conditions for a famine.
In the shadow of far deadlier wars in Syria and Iraq, the war in Yemen has failed to garner much international attention. Last weekend’s carnage in Sana’a and subsequent attempts by Houthi rebels to strike US warships with missiles, may change that. At the very least, the potential for blow back — in the Middle East and beyond — must now be dawning among Saudi Arabia’s western allies.
Nor can the Saudis point to much progress in achieving their aims — to restore a client regime next door and thwart Iran’s expansionary ambitions. They have tried to control Yemen over the decades by co-opting a shifting constellation of actors and tribes. Along the way they made little effort to assist the Yemenis in nation-building, or address chronic underdevelopment in a country running out of water, the poorest of the poor.
They are succeeding no better with their war effort; rather, this has exposed them as incompetent and weak. Meanwhile, allied Yemeni forces have proved unable to press home the advantage they receive from Saudi air support, to retake Sana’a.
Riyadh ordered the jets in last year after Houthi rebels stormed into the capital ousting the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is now based in the southern port of Aden. Allegedly with Iran’s help, the rebels then deployed missiles that directly threatened the kingdom. Efforts to establish a ceasefire have repeatedly failed. Sunday’s bombing of Sana’a, in which senior Houthi officials were among the dead, has complicated matters further by galvanising rebel forces into taking retaliatory action.
For the US, maintaining an alliance with the world’s top oil producer is fraught with complications at the best of times. It has become more so since Washington brokered the nuclear deal with Iran, to Saudi Arabia’s alarm, and amid growing support in Congress for a tougher line on the kingdom’s role in promoting intolerant forms of Islam.
That said, this can be no justification for abetting possible war crimes. State department officials have squirmed when trying to bat off recent suggestions from Moscow and Tehran that the methods deployed by their ally in Yemen are little different from those used by the Syrian regime in Aleppo. That may exaggerate the scale of what is happening in Yemen, and underestimate the devastation wrought by Russian air strikes in Syria. But continued US backing for the Saudi campaign does risk eroding American claims to the moral high ground.
The US is refuelling jets and providing munitions and training for the Saudi-led coalition. This should now be made conditional. Britain, and France, both major suppliers of weapons to Riyadh, should stand alongside the US in pressing for a ceasefire and the deployment of UN-mandated peacekeepers. A coalition government could make common cause against jihadi extremists. At present the extremists are among the main beneficiaries of the chaos created by this senseless war.