September 9, 2019
IntelBrief: Stalemate and Suffering in Yemen
On September 1, Saudi jets bombed what they argue was a Houthi weapons depot in Dhamar, Yemen, while the Red Cross claims that this same building was a prison and scores of detainees were killed. The airstrike is the latest catastrophe in what has been a years-long campaign of Saudi airstrikes resulting in civilian deaths and devastated critical infrastructure. The Saudi coalition released a statement about the strike in Dhamar, noting that it was 'a legitimate military target' and was not on any so-called 'no-strike list.’ Those lists have proven ineffective at preventing schools, hospitals, and medical clinics from being bombed. The U.N. in Yemen reported that 52 detainees were confirmed killed in the strike with another 68 missing. The U.N.’s special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, issued a statement that stressed the importance of accountability. To date, despite years of reported war crimes by nearly all sides involved in the conflict, there has been a complete lack of accountability and no consequences for collateral damage or rampant human rights violations.
The Saudi-led coalition is unraveling, and for the past several weeks has been experiencing serious infighting. Forces loyal to and heavily supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have repeatedly clashed with the Saudi-supported forces loyal to deposed Yemeni president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The tensions between the UAE-supported Southern Transitional Coalition (STC) and the Hadi forces have been building for some time. The STC wants its own state in southern Yemen and objects to working with Hadi forces that include the Islah Party, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. The Saudi-supported Hadi forces have accused the STC of a 'coup,' and the two sides of the same coalition have engaged in serious fighting. On August 29, STC forces conducted airstrikes against Hadi forces attempting to retake positions they had lost on the outskirts of Aden from a previous STC offensive. While the two fight each other, the conflict against their common foe, the Houthis, remains at a stalemate. The Iranian-backed group is now firmly in control of parts of northern Yemen and remains capable of launching missiles into southern Saudi Arabia.
The continued killing of Yemeni civilians by Saudi airstrikes remains a serious issue and one that the U.S. Congress has repeatedly pressured the Trump administration to address. There is justifiable concern in Congress and elsewhere that the United States is legally and morally culpable for the facilitation of war crimes in Yemen through its direct support of the Saudi air campaign. The Trump administration has gone to remarkable lengths to dismiss Congressional efforts to end military and intelligence support to Riyadh. The most recent Congressional efforts are tied to a 'must pass' overall defense funding bill and has garnered some bipartisan support. It will likely face serious opposition by the administration, and the prospects for any meaningful change in Yemen remain remote.
Meanwhile, as the country slides further toward collapse, a range of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni branch of the so-called Islamic State, are battling for control of territory and access to recruits and resources. The administration fully backs Saudi Arabia, even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the repeated killing of Yemeni civilians, because it views Riyadh as crucial to countering Iranian influence in the region. President Trump repeatedly extends his support and expressions of admiration for the Saudi government, refusing to offer even mild criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. However, Washington may be on the precipice of finally understanding the sense of urgency in bringing the conflict to an end. Just this week it was reported that the United States is in talks with the Houthis to find a way to wind down that aspect of the conflict, although progress will be impossible without Saudi-endorsement of and participation in any negotiations.
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