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U.S.-Backed Saudi War in Yemen Continues as Aid Groups Describe "Catastrophic" Humanitarian Crisis

April 23, 2015
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Toby Jones

associate professor of history and director of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University. He is the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. Jones was previously the International Crisis Group’s political analyst of the Persian Gulf.

Warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition struck the Yemeni cities of Aden and Ibb early today despite a claim by Riyadh that it had ended the military operation known as Operation Decisive Storm. Saudi Arabia and nine Arab allies began bombing Yemen on March 25. The United States provided intelligence and logistical support for the attacks and accelerated the sale of new weapons to its Gulf allies. Earlier this week, the United States deployed two additional warships off the coast of Yemen. The bombing began after Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sana’a last year and deposed President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the humanitarian situation in Yemen is "catastrophic." We speak to Toby Jones, associate professor of history and director of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition struck the Yemeni cities of Aden and Ibb early today, despite a claim by Riyadh that it had ended the military operation known as Decisive Storm. Saudi Arabia and nine Arab allies began bombing Yemen on March 25th. The United States provided intelligence and logistical support for the attacks and accelerated the sale of new weapons to its Gulf allies. Earlier this week, the United States deployed two additional warships off the coast of Yemen. The bombing began after Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sana’a last year and deposed President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the humanitarian situation in Yemen is "catastrophic." Following a brief visit to Yemen, the regional director of the ICRC, Robert Mardini, told reporters the collateral damage wrought on civilian life was absolutely shocking.

ROBERT MARDINI: The conflict in Yemen is in dire need for a political solution. We encourage that to happen. But in the meantime, the humanitarian situation is worsening by the day and, in certain location, is really catastrophic. We urge all the parties to take every precautions to protect women, men and children. We call on them once again to facilitate desperately needed, impartial humanitarian action.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch has said it appears Saudi Arabia may have deliberately bombed a humanitarian aid warehouse run by Oxfam that contained supplies to facilitate access to clean water for thousands of families in Saada. Oxfam said it had given the coalition forces the building’s exact coordinates to keep it from being targeted. Human Rights Watch said, quote, "Serious violations of the laws of war committed with criminal intent—that is, are deliberate or reckless—are war crimes." On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. said his country had achieved its mission in Yemen. This is Adel al-Jubeir.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: We destroyed their air force. We destroyed their ballistic missiles, as far as we know. We destroyed their command and control. We destroyed much, if not most, of their heavy equipment. And we made it very difficult for them to move, from a strategic perspective. So we’ve degraded their capabilities substantially, and thereby eliminated the threat that they pose to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and, in a process, ensured the safety of our borders, our territory and our citizens. That was the objective of Operation Decisive Storm, in addition, of course, to the protection of the legitimate government of Yemen. Those objectives have been achieved.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Toby Jones, associate professor of history and director of Middle East studies at Rutgers University, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. Jones was previously the International Crisis Group’s political analyst of the Persian Gulf.

So, let’s start with Operation Decisive Storm—obviously sounds just like Operation Desert Storm. Toby Jones, can you talk about what Saudi Arabia is doing right now in Yemen, with U.S. support?

TOBY JONES: Well, Adel al-Jubeir said it very well, right? The Saudis are interested in destroying and degrading Yemen’s military capacity, particularly those of the Houthis. But they have a series of mixed objectives that we shouldn’t be persuaded by. One is the stated claim that they want to protect their borders in any threat to Saudi Arabia. The reality is, the Houthis have never represented a threat to Saudi Arabia, and they still don’t, even though they enjoy control over much of Yemen. And the other is to restore the legitimate government of President Hadi. In reality, Hadi was—his position in power was orchestrated by the Saudi and the GCC after the Arab uprisings.

I mean, the bottom line is this: Yemen has long been the backyard of Saudi Arabia. It’s a deeply impoverished place that the Saudis believe they should assert political authority in, that they should influence outcomes. The fact that they’ve been challenged on the southern border is troubling, but it’s also because Yemen is fairly easy for them to intervene in. We’ve seen no resistance in the region. This is something that the Saudis can carry out with very little punishment or accountability, and carry on and declare an end to it when they like.

Reality on the ground is they’ve accomplished very little. The Houthis have retained political authority. They’re even operating in Aden, which the Saudis said they hoped to preempt. It’s not clear what they’ve accomplished. They’ve declared victory, but they’ve done little more than actually kill almost a thousand Yemenis and degrade what was already, you know, a troubled infrastructure and environment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, the Saudis say that they’ve now changed—the new phase of operations is called Renewal of Hope. Toby Jones, could you respond to the repeated claims by the Saudis and others that the Iranians are supporting the Houthis and that’s what’s forced Saudi Arabia to intervene in this way?

TOBY JONES: Well, there’s no clear coordination between Iran and the Houthis. Let’s be clear: There’s absolutely no evidence that Iran is operating on the ground in Yemen or that it’s directing orders to the Houthi rebels. The Saudis have done a masterful job in the last month, and even before that, dating back to last fall when the Houthis began their march out of northern Yemen toward the south, in repackaging what the Houthis are up to as part of a regional sectarian problem. But the reality is that Yemen has been a deeply fractured place for quite a long time, and the Houthis have asserted and demanded their right to be equal participants in a federal political order. They’ve been historically marginalized. The Saudis have ignored all of this and have sort of pushed through a narrative that suggests that something more nefarious, conspiratorial and regional is at work. And I think we can measure Saudi Arabia’s political and military intervention in terms of success and failure. They’ve accomplished very little on the ground other than to break things. But the fact that they’ve helped frame and convince the Western media, Western policymakers and many folks who might be casual observers that the Houthis are Iranian agents is a form of success, even though it’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from Tuesday’s State Department briefing. A reporter asked deputy spokesperson Marie Harf for evidence that Iran is supporting the Houthis.

REPORTER: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the administration has evidence that Iranians are supplying weapons and other support—

MARIE HARF: Correct.

REPORTER: —formal support to Houthis. What kind of evidence does the administration have? Can you update us?

MARIE HARF: Well, we’ve—this isn’t something new, unfortunately. We’ve long talked about the support when it comes from funding or whether it’s weapons supplies that the Iranians are sending to the Houthi. This has been really an ongoing relationship for a very long time. I’m happy to see if there’s more evidence to share publicly of that, but this has been something we’ve expressed concern about for some time.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, can you respond to the State Department on this point? And also talk about the role of the U.S. right now.

TOBY JONES: Well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are Iranian weapons circulating amongst the Houthis. Right? I mean, the Iranians are opportunists. I mean, we don’t want to whitewash Tehran’s interests or objective in asserting its own hegemony in the region. I mean, it’s involved in all kinds of places. But this is rather thin grounds on which to claim that there’s some—that there’s some widespread cooperation or coordination between Tehran and what’s going on in North Yemen. Right? I mean, if we want to make the claim that rebels or militants operating with one country’s weapons across the Middle East is a sign of coordination, then what do we make of al-Qaeda and ISIS using American weapons captured in the battlefield or having been supplied by Saudi Arabia and others in Syria and Iraq and Yemen? I mean, this is a dubious claim that obscures more than it clarifies.

As far as the American role goes, the Americans view Yemen as a Saudi backyard, and they’re going to defer to the Saudis here. I mean, there’s lots of geopolitical sort of moving parts here, as well. While the Americans are chipping away on a nuclear arrangement with Iran, they understand and they’re very clear that the Saudis are uncomfortable with all of that. So they’re making concessions on Yemen, because it’s easy for the Americans to do so, providing small-scale cover and other kinds of material support, including putting warships close by the Port of Aden and elsewhere. I mean, this is simply a matter of the Americans making choices about where they can support the Saudis and where they can oppose them elsewhere, or at least where they can work at odds with them.

Yemen is and has for a long time been the most deeply impoverished place in the Middle East. But it has also been a political football in the region that the Saudis and the Americans have kicked around. This is a place where we talk about catastrophe and the environmental and humanitarian consequences of the recent campaign. This is not new in Yemen. Very little has been done to address it. And in spite of all of that, the U.S. has almost always pursued Yemen as a place to drop bombs and to target what they call militants. And with that in mind, it’s easy for them to support the Saudis, who are claiming to do the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of the Houthis now calling for negotiation? What do you think needs to happen, Toby Jones?

TOBY JONES: Well, I think the Houthis have long called for a political settlement and negotiation. I mean, think back to late last summer when they began moving out of the north and into the south, when they converged on Sana’a and pushed Hadi out of office. The Houthis were calling for, you know, a bigger negotiating table, a greater presence, real accommodation for various political demands from around the country. The Houthis aren’t the only ones who have put pressure on Sana’a’s old central government. Pressure has come from the south, it’s come from tribal confederations, all of whom have suggested that the political dialogue, the national discussion, about the post-Arab-uprising political rapprochement that was necessary, had been a deeply flawed process. The Houthis didn’t call for war, and they coordinated closely with actors on the ground. They’re the ones who were being attacked, even though they’re the ones who have been calling for a political settlement to a deeply broken system all along. The fact that the Saudis have recast this in a language that the Houthis are the villains and the ones acting dangerously is remarkable, as is the fact that the Saudis can drop bombs while calling it a humanitarian mission. In reality—I mean, in many ways, it’s a play straight from the American playbook.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Red Cross is calling it a humanitarian catastrophe. Ten seconds, Toby.

TOBY JONES: Well, it is a humanitarian catastrophe. But Yemen was already in a state of humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands being internally displaced. This is a place that has rapidly run out of water. It has very little in the way of natural resources. The Saudis are just making a bad situation worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, we want to thank you for being with us, associate professor of history and director of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, previously worked [as] the International Crisis Group’s political analyst of the Persian Gulf.

That does it for our broadcast. I’ll be speaking tonight in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at 7:00 p.m., at Celeste Hall inside the Cornerstone Arts Center. So check our website at democracynow.org. And all Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we’ll be broadcasting from The Hague. It’s the hundredth anniversary of one of the oldest women’s peace organizations in the world, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.


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