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US-backed Saudi bombing kills 38 Yemeni civilians a day, creating humanitarian disaster, feeding extremism

US-backed Saudi bombing is killing 38 Yemeni civilians a day, unleashing a humanitarian disaster, while fueling extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yemen airstrike rubble Saada
Aftermath of a US-backed Saudi airstrike in Saada, Yemen in 2015

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the New York Times that the “disorder” in Yemen, greatly inflamed by the US-backed Saudi bombing campaign, has strengthened Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), allowing it to take more territory.

The US-backed Saudi-led bombing in Yemen has killed at least 648 civilians since its air strikes began on 25 March, according to the UN. Saudi air strikes have rained down on bombed hospitals, schools, neighborhoods, and a refugee camp.

Between 25 March and 12 April, an average of 38 Yemeni civilians were killed every single day from the Saudi-led bombing campaign.

When ISIS beheads civilians, the world goes berserk. Yet when the US helps Saudi Arabia blow 648 Yemeni civilians to bits with bombs, the world is remarkably silent.

This military intervention has created a humanitarian disaster in Yemen—the poorest nation in the Middle East, and one of the most impoverished in the world. Residents of Sana’a, the country’s largest city, told the BBC that they desperately need medical supplies, fuel, and food.

“You have to remember that 40% of the population was food insecure way before the conflict. Now the situation is much more exacerbated by the attacks,” a Yemeni man told BBC. “Now there are long queues for food and for fuel as well. It’s a very dire situation.”

In 2013, long before the violence broke out, over half (54%) of Yemenis lived in poverty—roughly 13.5 million people. Moreover, 40% of the population, and over 60% of the youth, was unemployed.

As of 6 April, the World Health Organization estimated that almost 16 million people had already been affected in just the first few weeks of the military conflict, with over 334,000 Yemenis displaced and more than 254,000 refugees.

Yemeni-Americans say they have also been abandoned by their own government, which is now facilitating the bombing of their country of origin. Businessman Mokhtar Alkhanshali described being trapped in the besieged nation. The civilian airport had been bombed, a no-fly zone had been imposed, and boats had ceased operation. He called US embassies in Yemen’s neighboring countries and was told “We are not evacuating any U.S. citizens at the moment. What we can do, though, is relay your messages to your loved ones.”

“It looked like Armageddon. All hell had broken loose,” Alkhanshali told NPR. “I really didn’t know if I was going to live to see the morning. It was very frightening.”

Alkhanshali was forced to make a risky and dangerous escape. He and a friend crossed the Red Sea in a small boat, without any navigation equipment. They landed in Djibouti, where they were detained for a few days, before flying back to the US.

Saudi aggression

11 days into the Saudi-led bombing campaign, on 5 April, a senior member of the Houthi rebel fighters told Reuters that they were willing to sit down for peace talks if the air strikes stopped. The bombs continued to fall.

Safa Al-Ahmad, a Saudi journalist, filmmaker, and specialist on Yemen who has been one of the tiny handful of reporters to spend time with the Houthi rebels, indicates that the group’s ideology changes in response to political developments, but says “if I must describe the Houthis in one line, it would be the revivalist Zaydis with strong anti-imperialist agenda.”

Al-Ahmad does not doubt that Iran is aiding the Houthis, but feels that the support is “vastly overblown” in the media. “There is very little good journalism that has been done to prove the extent of the relationship between the Houthis in Iran,” she explained.

The party that is meddling the most in Yemen, Al-Ahmad points out, is in fact not Iran, but rather Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis have a local agenda, they have local grievances, and local power. The rise of the Houthis themselves had nothing to do with the Iranians. … Saudi Arabia has deeper connections with Yemen. They have a large border with Yemen, and the Saudis have funded, sent money directly and arms to different groups inside Yemen. So I would argue between the two, Saudi Arabia has the much bigger influence and the upper hand in Yemen.

US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Iran for allegedly arming Houthi rebels in Yemen. He asserted that the US would not tolerate countries that “engage in overt warfare across lines, international boundaries and other countries.”

Just one day before Kerry made these comments, the US announced it was expediting weapons shipments to help Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a longtime resistance force in the region, expressed solidarity with the people of Yemen. “The US strategy today is for Arab regimes to conduct the fighting themselves – but using the same F-16s, missiles, drones and technology, produced and supplied by the US, to exert their destructive force against the people of the region,” remarked spokesperson Khaled Barakat.

“The Saudi regime is the most brutal, reactionary, theocratic Arab regime that aims to strip Saudis of their humanity, crush the residents of the eastern part of the country, relentlessly repress migrant laborers, not to mention the systematic oppression of Saudi women. Saudi Arabia is the type of state that the U.S. values in the region and sees as a key ally,” Barakat added. “Yemen is economically the poorest Arab country, but its people have a long and proud history of resistance to colonialism, imperialism – and Saudi domination.”

Strengthening Al-Qaeda

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the New York Times that the “disorder” in Yemen, greatly inflamed by the US-backed Saudi bombing campaign, has strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), allowing it to take more territory.

The areas under effective control of Al-Qaeda, according to the conservative US think tank the American Enterprise Institute

Yemeni journalist Walid Al-Saqaf explained that the US drone program in Yemen “led to the growth of Al-Qaeda.” “The problem with the US is that they have a very short-term vision,” he said. They do not take “into consideration the long-reaching impact of having the drones or having purely anti-terrorist agenda in Yemen.”

Al-Saqaf also warns against sectarian interpretations of the conflict. “I would very – be suspicious and cautious in claiming that this is a sectarian conflict. … [T]here are many elements within the region that are Sunni, and there are also elements that are supportive of the Houthis in various parts of the country that are also Sunni. So it’s really not purely a conflict driven by ethnic divide, or sectarian divide.”

Regardless of the intentions of Saudi Arabia in bombing the indigent Yemeni population, what is clear is that its military intervention is indirectly helping AQAP. “Extremism flourishes when people don’t really have a choice,” Al-Saqaf explains. “Oftentimes you have cases where people are attracted to join radical groups because of the daily pay, or the, some sort of food supplies, or other protection that they get.”

Baraa Shiban, Yemen project coordinator for the international human rights NGO Reprieve, lambasted the US for its continued military operations in the impoverished country. “You can’t bomb a country into existence, however much America seems determined to try,” he wrote in the Guardian.

This is not the beginning of US intervention in Yemen, Shiban indicates. He recalls:

Investigating US drone strikes on my country, I have seen the aftermath of aerial bombardment time and time again. The weeping father; the young girl unable to walk from shrapnel wounds; the mother, mute from shock. I try to record what has taken place; most of them just ask in return what my questions will do to bring back their loved ones. The few that find words express powerlessness and confusion as to why the might of a distant US military has been visited on their simple lives.

For years, analysts, scholars, journalists, and civilians living under drones have cautioned that the US drone campaign in Yemen and elsewhere have made extremist groups even stronger. “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair” wrote Ibrahim Mothanajune, in a 2012 op-ed in the New York Times titled “How Drones Help Al Qaeda.”

US drones have regularly killed civilians, including young children, in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and more. In an October 2013 meeting in the Oval Office, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in history, told Obama that US drone strikes are “fueling terrorism.”

In December 2012, a US drone strike killed 12 Yemeni civilians at a wedding. Amnesty International has said that the killing of civilians by drone strikes may amount to war crimes, and has called for the US be held accountable.

For many years, life for the average Yemeni has been full of great hardship—extreme poverty, the rise of militant Salafi groups, and the threat of drone attacks. US support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign is plunging the country into further chaos. The living conditions for myriad Yemeni civilians has become nothing short of catastrophic. And not only is this policy fundamentally inhumane, it only serves to further feed extremism in the region.

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