Waging Indirect War: How the United States Contributes to Yemen’s Agony

Led by Saudi Arabia, a coalition of Arab states has been conducting aerial bombing in Yemen for roughly 18 months. The Coalition’s air war, which is an intervention into Yemen’s civil war, has killed large numbers of civilians and severely damaged Yemen’s economy and infrastructure. Yet over the past year and a half this deadly air war has received support from the United States, which has given various forms of assistance to the Saudis and their Coalition partners.

The Coalition bombing, begun on March 25, 2015, was intended to support the government of Yemeni president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the face of a violent insurgency against his rule. The anti-government insurgency includes the Houthis, a religious minority who, in largely Sunni Muslim Yemen, adhere to a variant of Shia Islam and have some ties with Iran. Also part of the insurgency are forces loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Prior to the Saudi-led intervention, the Houthis had captured large areas of Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a; President Hadi is currently based in the port city of Aden.[1]

The intervention by the Saudis and their partners—Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates—might have been prompted by a desire to check Iranian influence in Yemen or simply to prevent the civil war from spilling over into other nations (Saudi Arabia shares a border with Yemen). To date, however, the Coalition’s bombing campaign has not brought about a decisive victory for Hadi’s government and has taken a terrible toll on the Yemeni people.

The Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights reported that an estimated 3,799 Yemeni civilians have been killed since March 2015.[2] An earlier estimate by the United Nations, provided at a time when civilian deaths stood at roughly 3,000, identified the airstrikes as responsible for the majority of civilians killed.[3] Significant incidents of Coalition bombing killing civilians include the following:

  • July 24, 2015: Housing for power plant workers and their families in the city of Mokha was bombed, killing over 60 people.[4]
  • August 29, 2015: A water-bottling plant in northwest Yemen was bombed, killing 13 people. The Saudis justified the bombing by saying the plant was a center for making weapons and training mercenaries.[5]
  • August 13, 2016: A religious school in northern Yemen was bombed, killing 10 students.  The Saudis justified the bombing by saying the school was a Houthi training camp.[6]
  • August 22, 2016: A Doctors Without Borders hospital in northern Yemen was bombed, killing 19 people.[7]

These bombings of civilian targets might have been the results of faulty intelligence or a tendency among Saudi pilots to fly high so as to avoid fire from the ground, a practice that diminishes bombing accuracy.[8] In some cases, the choice of bombs used has endangered civilians, as Coalition forces have dropped cluster bombs. Cluster bombs scatter small explosives over a wide area, making them a relatively indiscriminate weapon that is thus more likely to kill civilians.[9]

In addition to directly killing civilians, the bombing campaign has contributed to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen created by the war. Roughly 3 million people have been driven from their homes by the conflict and at least 7.6 million people, including millions of women and children, are suffering from malnutrition.[10] In a February 2016 report to the United Nations Security Council, Stephen O’Brien, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated

Some two million acutely malnourished children and pregnant or lactating women need urgent treatment. Chronic drug shortages, unpaid salaries, and conflict related destruction means that around 14 million Yemenis do not have sufficient access to healthcare services. Since March last year, nearly 600 health facilities closed due to damage, shortages of critical supplies or lack of health workers. Nearly 220 of these facilities used to provide treatment for acute malnutrition…Water infrastructure serving at least 900,000 people has been either damaged or destroyed by airstrikes, artillery and rockets.[11]

To be sure, many parties to the conflict apart from the Saudi-led Coalition bear responsibility for civilian deaths and Yemen’s larger dire humanitarian situation. Both O’Brien’s report and other UN accounts identify the Houthis and their allies as blocking the flow of humanitarian aid and as committing atrocities against civilians.[12] Nevertheless, the damage inflicted on Yemen by the Coalition’s air war should be of particular concern to American citizens given that the Coalition receives support from the United States.

The same day the Coalition airstrikes on Yemen began, the US National Security Council made a significant announcement. Referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of countries that includes Saudi Arabia and other Coalition members, the National Security Council spokesperson stated​

In support of GCC actions to defend against Houthi violence, President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led military operations. While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.[13] 

​In the year and a half since the Obama administration adopted this policy, US military tankers have provided refueling to over 5,600 Coalition aircraft, US military advisors have aided the Coalition in targeting their airstrikes, and the United States has continued to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and other Coalition nations.[14] A few weeks after the Coalition air war began, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that “we have expedited weapons deliveries” to the Coalition.[15]

​This spring, the Obama administration introduced at least some restrictions on arms sales to the Coalition, halting further shipments of cluster bombs to the Saudis.[16] Nevertheless, arms sales will continue: a $1.15 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia proposed by the administration is currently pending. This planned sale has prompted protests from members of Congress, including a group of 60 led by Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA), who have called for delaying the sale.[17]     

​Such congressional protests are promising, but more needs to be done. All military sales and support to Saudi Arabia and other Coalition members should be halted, for at least as long as the current air war in Yemen continues. The United States may not be able to bring peace to the current violent, chaotic situation in Yemen, but it can avoid active participation in the deaths of Yemeni civilians.

​Post-Script: Since I originally wrote this essay, the situation in Yemen has worsened. The Coalition airstrikes have continued, most recently killing an estimated 140 people at a funeral in Sana’a. Despite congressional opposition, the $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia went forward. Moreover, the United States has now been drawn into direct military involvement in Yemen, bombarding the country in retaliation for an alleged attack on a US warship by Yemeni rebels.[18] The need to stop further American involvement in Yemen’s war is imperative.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.


[1] In writing this essay I owe a special debt to Daniel Larison, a senior editor at The American Conservative magazine, who has been tireless in drawing attention to the Yemen war and the United States’ role in it. His writings, which were very helpful in my research on this topic, can be found at https://bit.ly/2F8DMdo.  For a useful overview of the Yemen situation, see Zachary Laub, “Yemen in Crisis,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 19, 2016, http://on.cfr.org/1re7u4C

[2] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Thirteen Civilian Casualties a Day in Yemen Conflict,” August 25, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cuNKrn.  

[3] Frank Gardner, “No End in Sight to War in Yemen,” BBC, March 25, 2016, http://bbc.in/2chOkEo.

[4] Human Rights Watch, “Yemen: Coalition Strikes on Residence Apparent War Crime,” July 27, 2015, http://bit.ly/1D7yI1e

[5] Gabriel Gatehouse, “Inside Yemen’s Forgotten War,” BBC, September 11, 2015, http://bbc.in/2cdHAY2.

[6] Mark Mazzetti and Shuaib Almosawa, “Support for Saudi Arabia Gives U.S. Direct Role in Yemen Conflict,” New York Times, August 24, 2016, http://nyti.ms/2bGEsqM.

[7] Ibid.

[8] W. J. Hennigan, Laura King and Zaid Al-Alayaa, “U.S. Boosts Support Role in Saudi-Led Airstrikes on Yemen,” Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2015, http://lat.ms/1DXYZzM; Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “Quiet Support for Saudis Entangles U.S. in Yemen,” New York Times, March 13, 2016, http://nyti.ms/1U8ZfCW.

[9] “What Is a Cluster Bomb?,” Cluster Munition Coalition, accessed September 1, 2016, http://bit.ly/1u1ijUb; Kareem Fahimmay, “Saudi-Led Group Said to Use Cluster Bombs in Yemen,” New York Times, May 3, 2015, http://nyti.ms/2bGJGUX

[10] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Thirteen Civilian Casualties a Day in Yemen Conflict.”

[11] Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, “Statement to the Security Council on Yemen,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, February 16, 2016, http://bit.ly/1PUl4Sb.

[12] Ibid.; Office of the United Nations High Commissioner Human Rights, “Thirteen Civilian Casualties a Day in Yemen Conflict.”

[13] The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on the Situation in Yemen,” March 25, 2015, http://bit.ly/1GqhVG2

[14] Hennigan, King and Al-Alayaa, “U.S. Boosts Support Role in Saudi-Led Airstrikes on Yemen”; Mazzetti and Almosawa, “Support for Saudi Arabia Gives U.S. Direct Role in Yemen Conflict.”

[15] Africa-Reuters, “UPDATE 2-US Speeds Up Arms to Saudi-Led Coalition against Yemen’s Houthis,” April 7, 2015, http://bit.ly/2bGJ2Xd.

[16] John Hudson, “Exclusive: White House Blocks Transfer of Cluster Bombs to Saudi Arabia,” Foreign Policy, May 27, 2016, http://atfp.co/2bIqXoS.

[17] John Hudson, “60 U.S. Lawmakers Seek Delay of Billion-Dollar Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia,” Foreign Policy, August 29, 2016, http://atfp.co/2bXr7tz.  

[18] Matthew Rosenberg and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Ship Off Yemen Fires Missiles at Houthi Rebel Sites,” New York Times, October 12, 2016, http://nyti.ms/2dYcHIM.

© 2016 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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