Earlier this week, a Saudi-led airstrike in northern Yemen killed 20 people at a wedding party, including the bride. According to local medical officials, most of them were women and children. Another 45 people, including the groom, were injured, many of them ravaged with shrapnel, some missing limbs. It’s the latest in a long list of Saudi attacks on civilians in the Yemen civil war, some of the worst being airstrikes on schools, markets, and even a funeral. These all appear to be war crimes, and the United States is complicit.
The war in Yemen is almost beyond understanding, from a humanitarian perspective as well as a geopolitical one. Here’s a simple breakdown of what the U.S. says it’s doing, versus what it’s actually doing:
What we say: We’re going after al Qaeda!
What we do: We’re backing Saudi Arabia in a proxy war against Iran!
In this war, Saudi Arabia has intentionally targeted and killed hundreds if not thousands of Yemeni civilians. Knowing this, we’ve sold the Saudis well over $100 billion in arms and weapons systems that they use to kill those civilians. Trump announced last year we were doubling that amount.
Yemen is by all measures a catastrophe, and it could soon dwarf the humanitarian disaster in Syria. First off, the U.N. estimates at least 10,000 people have been killed in the Yemen civil war, though given the chaos that number is almost certainly low. To get a better idea of the situation there, though, look past the casualties: So far three million Yemenis have been displaced by the war; 17 million people, or about 60% of the population, are “food insecure”; and seven million people (nearly one in five) are in immediate danger of dying of starvation or thirst. There’s no medical aid available in most of the country because the infrastructure has been bombed or blockaded. There’s no functioning government. None. And today—that is, right this very moment—Yemen faces the risk of a famine exponentially larger than any we’ve seen in recent memory. According to Mark Lowcock, head of the UN’s humanitarian mission:
It will not be like the famine that we saw in South Sudan earlier in the year, where tens of thousands of people were affected. It will not be like the famine which cost 250,000 people their lives in Somalia in 2011. It will be the largest famine the world has seen in many decades, with millions of victims.
And even though we here in the U.S. hear next to nothing about Yemen in the news, we’ve been bombing the place for over a decade. Last year the U.S. military under Trump’s orders carried out two ground raids in Yemen, killing dozens of civilians, including women, children, and babies.
These are war crimes.
This all raises three urgent questions I hope to address here:
1. Why are we in Yemen?
2. Why are we helping the Saudis commit war crimes?
3. Why aren’t we doing anything about it?
Why Are We in Yemen?
The war in Yemen is pretty much impossible to fully understand. Dozens of different rebel groups and terrorist groups and state groups and proxy groups and shadow groups and proxy shadow groups, all with ever-shifting alliances, are engaged in a years-long civil war. This conflict has broadened into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which backs the Yemeni government, and Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels. Somewhere in the mix, however, is a group called al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP), which is why the U.S. has been bombing the country for over a decade now. We do this under the marginally legal aegis of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), which allows the President of the United States to target al Qaeda affiliates anywhere. It’s how we justify our presence in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, etc.
Obama over the years carried out dozens of airstrikes in Yemen, most of them secret. The first of these, in 2009, was supposed to target al Qaeda but instead hit a tribe. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBI), the strike killed 55 people. Twelve of them were women, twenty-one were children, and ten were under five years old. Five of the women were pregnant.
Overall, according to TBI, Obama’s strikes in Yemen killed a total of somewhere between 750 and 1075 people. Of those, between 120 and 160 were civilians. In 2016, however, the Obama administration reconsidered its operations in Yemen. Perhaps as a result, strikes that year killed a reported zero civilians.
Then about a year ago Trump ordered the first U.S. ground raid in Yemen in years. (Obama was presented with the opportunity but deferred to the incoming Trump administration.) The raid reportedly resulted in the deaths of somewhere around 40 people: 23 civilians (NBC estimated nine of them were under the age of 13, including a four-month-old); 14-16 al Qaeda militants; and a U.S. Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens. The White House repeatedly called this raid a “success by any measure.
But where does Saudi Arabia come in? And at what cost?
Why Are We Helping the Suadis Commit War Crimes?
So yeah, we’re supposedly going after al Qaeda in Yemen, but we’re also getting help from Saudi Arabia in exchange for weapons sales and tacit support of its messy proxy war against Iran. The Saudis are really dropping the ball there, though, because distracted by their ongoing campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis, they’ve allowed al Qaeda to quadruple in size.
In exchange, we’ve sold the Saudis well over $100 billion in weapons systems.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute lists us as the world’s number one arms exporter, with Saudi Arabia our number one customer. The Department of Defense’s Security Cooperation Agency, the agency that handles arms sales, says that in 2015 we sold $1.29 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia. This included nearly 2,800 precision guided bombs. The U.S. military also refuels Saudi aircraft during strikes and provides targeting assistance on bombing runs.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia in its gratitude has been using our largesse to intentionally bomb Yemeni civilians. They’ve struck hospitals, schools, small villages, and other obvious civilian targets. Those attacks have used bombs with U.S. markings, including from Raytheon. One time the Saudi air force dropped some of its U.S.-made bombs on thousands of people at a funeral, killing 140 people and wounding over 500 more. Human Rights Watch has accused, backed by hard evidence and common sense, the Saudis of intentionally targeting civilians. The U.N. has leveled the same accusations.
These are obviously war crimes, and the U.S. is complicit. An international war crimes tribunal ruled in 2013, with the endorsement of the U.S., that in order to aid and abet a war crime, someone must offer support that has a “substantial effect” on the crime, and the person must be aware that this support has a “substantial likelihood” of aiding that crime.
And so eventually, following a particularly heinous Saudi attack in September 2016 that killed about 31 civilians near a well, the Obama administration condemned Saudi military operations in Yemen. Saudi Arabia bombed the funeral the next month. Shortly thereafter Obama stopped all weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia. This isn’t a partisan issue, either: Senator Ted Lieu, a Democrat and former military lawyer, warned the Obama administration following those two 2016 attacks that members of our military could be prosecuted for war crimes.
Anyway, by the time Obama called off the sales, he’d sold the Saudis about $115 billion in weapons systems. So why were we supplying them in the first place? Simple: Saudi Arabia didn’t like the Iran deal. It made them uneasy, so we showed them our support by arming them in their proxy war against Iran.
It’s all very much insane, and innocent people, including kids, are being sacrificed on the United States’s watch to geopolitical power moves.
Delayed and cynical as Obama was, he at least acted on this. But that didn’t stop the attacks.
In late March of 2017, two months before Trump announced his deal, the Saudi coalition (they work with the UAE, among others) used what was almost certainly American-supplied aircraft (an Apache helicopter) to attack a boat carrying 140 Somali refugees. More than 40 people were killed. Not only do we provide the coalition with helicopters (the Houthi rebels don’t have helicopters), we also refuel their aircraft and provide them with parts and maintenance. In other words, without direct support from the United States, the Saudis couldn’t carry out these war crimes.
At the time, the non-profit Human Rights Watch had documented what were 81 apparently unlawful Saudi-backed attacks, two dozen of which used U.S. weapons.
Unbearably shameful. Even by U.S. government standards. And indeed, following this attack the top human rights officer in the Obama administration said there’s a “possibility of legal jeopardy for US officials if sales continue despite continuing evidence of violations of the laws of war.”
And so it was that after the March 2017 attack, on the heels of the botched ground raid in Yemen, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced a bill to limit weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
The bill also required the Trump administration to ensure Saudi Arabia was behaving and not blowing children’s bodies apart. Most importantly, it required the White House to tell Congress whether the Saudis were using U.S. weapons in these attacks.
One month later, Trump says we’re selling $110 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia.
This one deal matches Obama’s spending over eight years. The Trump-Saudi deal as announced was worth $110 billion, and it included Raytheon bombs and our THAAD missile defense system. Trump also approved the weapons deal Obama suspended in December 2016. “We will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies, the greatest anywhere in the world,” Trump said to Arab and Muslim leaders on his trip to Riyadh last May.
This is all so obvious and sick that even Congress hasn’t been able to ignore it. First you’ve got the U.S. condemning Saudi Arabia to the U.N. in September 2016. Then Senator Lieu’s letter to Obama a month later. Then Obama freezing an arms deal. Then the April congressional resolution to limit arms sales. Then, following Trump’s deal, which when you read the details was mostly more Trumpian bullshittery, a bipartisan group of 47 U.S. Senators voted to block part of the weapons deal.
Trump’s deal, of course, in the face of all of this odious stuff, still ended up passing.
And you’ll never guess what happened next!
In August a Saudi-led coalition airstrike killed 16 civilians, including seven children. The U.S. had made and supplied at least some of the bombs. The only survivor was a five-year-old girl, Buthaina Muhammad Mansour, who inspired a short-lived social media movement.
So then in November, Congress tries again. They introduced a resolution that said unambiguously the United States was aiding Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen. The resolution passed with an overwhelming 336-30 vote in support. The resolution, of course, was non-binding, so nothing happened.
You’ll never guess what happens next!
Yesterday a Saudi-led airstrike in northern Yemen killed 20 people at a wedding party, including the bride! Most of the dead were women and children! Another 45 people, including the groom, were injured, many of them ravaged with shrapnel, some missing limbs!
Why Aren’t We Doing Anything?
First of all, things are thorny with the Saudis and the Iran deal. Trump loves the Saudis, or wants to be seen as loving them, and mostly because of business deals and the like. He registered eight companies in Saudi Arabia during his campaign. Coincidentally, the Saudis like our weapons, and coincidentally, both groups hate Iran and the nuclear deal.
In the end, it’s all about Iran. Our perceived need to check Iran is worth supporting war crimes that blow up weddings and funerals and the bodies of women and children.
But are we legally liable here? We might get off on a technicality that we’ve created.
It sounds insane, but because the United States has refused to join the International Criminal Court, citing constitutional reasons among other things, the ICC can’t prosecute us. Ha ha! What’s more, it seems no country or group really has standing to prosecute us, aside from possibly the United Nations. That’s because the official government of Yemen, the one Saudi Arabia supports that got overthrown in 2015, is in favor of Saudi Arabia’s intervention.
Also worth noting, the seven countries that voted against the ICC treaty are China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, the United States, and yes, Yemen.
That said, we might be able to act domestically. The Congressional bill from last November implies what should seem obvious by now: Our backing of the Saudis in Yemen is unconstitutional. The bill explicitly “acknowledges that our government is assisting the Saudi refueling [and airstrike targeting] and acknowledges that such activity is unauthorized.” And why would it be unauthorized?
The war the Saudis are fighting in Yemen isn’t against al Qaeda. In fact, the Saudis military action has ironically allowed al Qaeda to flourish. If we’re to be honest about this war, it’s Saudi Arabia and the deposed Yemeni government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The AUMF doesn’t cover any of that. It covers U.S. actions such as the disastrous coalition raid last January, but it does not cover things such as providing active military support (refueling; targeting; knowingly selling weapons used in war crimes) to a separate sovereign country fighting another sovereign country.
The war in Yemen has helped create what the United Nations has labeled the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II. We’ve helped create that war. We’re already guilty of war crimes, American weapons will kill more kids, and eventually Yemen will starve. Then that place will indeed be invisible, and we won’t have to learn about any of this awful stuff.