On March 16, 2017, a warship and helicopter fired on a vessel carrying Somali refugees away from Yemen, killing a reported 42 civilians. The attack, carried out by an as yet unidentified party, is the latest in a series of alleged war crimes by the contending parties in the Yemen conflict, as the inability to reach a settlement continues to displace civilians and exacerbate the humanitarian disaster.
March 2017 marks two years since the Saudi-led military coalition began conducting airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Sana’a, after the Houthis had besieged and finally occupied the city in September 2014. As the Trump administration reportedly considers deepening the U.S.’ involvement in Yemen, a military stalemate prevails on the ground, and Yemen’s President Hadi attempts to keep peace with separatists in order to defeat the Iranian-backed rebels, Yemen’s civilian population continues to bear the brunt of the conflict.
The United Nations humanitarian chief informed the UN Security Council on March 10 that the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, focusing on 20 million people facing starvation across four countries. The first country named was Yemen, with 14.1 million at risk of starvation, followed by South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria. The UNHCR has identified a 116.5 million USD gap between the funding needed to respond to the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, and the amount of funding it has received for 2017. The Somalian crisis is further exacerbated by the conflict in Yemen; the latter’s proximity formerly made it a refugee destination for desperate Somalis, but the current crisis is leading Somali refugees to attempt to return to their home country rather than face the security and health risks in Yemen.
As demonstrated by the March 16 attack on the refugee vessel leaving Yemen, individuals fleeing the conflict face risks of being collateral damage in the ongoing strikes by the international coalition and the Iranian-backed Houthis. The Somali Prime Minister’s office condemned the attack and asked the Saudi-led coalition, which Somalia officially supports, to launch an investigation. While the source of the attack is unconfirmed, evidence suggests that the strike was conducted by an Apache attack helicopter provided to the Saudi-led coalition by the United States. While American involvement in the Yemeni conflict does not involve the deliberate targeting of civilians, there is a possibility that U.S. weapons and American counterterrorism operations in the country have indirectly resulted in civilian casualties. If confirmed, the American equipment will likely have been provided before December 2016, when the Obama administration halted munitions sales to Saudi Arabia due to humanitarian concerns. American officials have faced an international and domestic backlash over the increasing evidence that coalition airstrikes have been killing civilians.
The longer the war drags along, and the more civilians are impacted by the military intervention, the stronger the propaganda value for Iran and the Houthis as the crisis and fractures deepen in Yemen.
Yemen has long been a security priority for the United States due to the presence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which uses the country for training and recruitment and has used Yemen as a base to plan attacks on the United States. The current security vacuum in Yemen has allowed AQAP to strengthen its position in the country and has also facilitated the rise of an Islamic State franchise in the country. American military involvement in Yemen – primarily through drone strikes and SOF operations – has been focused on eliminating militants as part of the broader U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Furthermore, Yemen has appeared in both of President Trump’s attempted travel bans, and unconfirmed reports suggest that a U.S. raid in Yemen provided intelligence that led to the current restrictions on electronics on passenger flights from Muslim-majority countries. While these claims are unconfirmed, these developments underscore the perceived security risks in Yemen as extremists exploit the governance vacuum in the country.
The U.S. administration is currently analyzing its strategy in Yemen, reportedly considering changes to deepen American involvement in the conflict as a counterbalance to Iranian influence in the region. In March, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis recommended lifting existing restrictions on support for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in their military operations in Yemen. If the Trump administration moves to restore weapons shipments to the Gulf states, this will signal a significant policy shift in the face of continuing evidence of civilian casualties, most notably the recent strike on the Somali refugee boat.
Each coalition action that injures or kills civilians provides further rhetorical ammunition to the Houthis and Iran in their attempts to convince the Yemeni population to support the Houthis in forming a rival government. The Iranian media is exploiting international organizations’ statements that implicate the United States, its Western allies, or the Saudi-led coalition in civilian deaths. The longer the war drags along, and the more civilians are impacted by the military intervention, the stronger the propaganda value for Iran and the Houthis as the crisis and fractures deepen in Yemen.
Peace talks have repeatedly stalled as the internationally-recognized government under President Hadi and the rebel government led by the Houthis and former President Saleh refuse to compromise. Furthermore, even if a peace agreement is reached, Hadi’s domestic coalition is likely to fragment. The coalition is a marriage of convenience between Hadi’s forces and southern separatists from al Hirak; a southern separatist movement that previously was vying for the southern governorates to secede from Sana’a. In the unlikely event that Hadi brokers a deal with the northern rebels, this will exacerbate tensions with the south and Yemen is likely to be further torn apart as the southerners abandon Hadi and seek their own state. The current governor of the temporary capital city of Aden, Brigadier Aidarus al Zubaidi, is openly separatist. Al Zubaidi is working with Hadi and the northern government against their common foes; however, if the Houthi threat is suppressed, the internal Yemeni coalition under Hadi will fragment as the southern separatists and some of his own regional governors vie for independence from Sana’a.
Central control has shattered, and there are relatively strong elements within Hadi’s own coalition that are interested in never allowing it to return.
Maria Robson is a former Security Intelligence Analyst for the energy industry and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in International Security and Political Science. Her areas of focus include the Americas, North and West Africa, and the Middle East. In particular, Maria maintains a strong focus on refugee and conflict-driven migration issues.
Photo credit: Ibrahem Qasim