Nobody wants to talk about Yemen. Is the truth just too embarrassing?

Over the last year, story after story has come out of Yemen that is horrible. And yet nobody – well, almost nobody – is talking about it.

The Yakla raid

Let’s start with the Yakla raid. On January 29, 2017, a United States-led Special Operations Forces operation was carried out in Yakla village in central Yemen. Authorized by President Donald Trump, its goal was to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and also, as claimed by unnamed sources, to target the group’s leader Qasim al-Raymi.

Not only was al-Raymi untouched, but it now appears, according to ABC News that the main Yemeni figure killed – tribal chief Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab – was a tribal leader who was allied to the country’s U.S. and Saudi-backed president.  (A more detailed account of the raid is given here, and makes for uncomfortable reading.)

Furthermore, survivors and witnesses say at least 25 Yemenis were killed, including 10 children and nine women, raising outrage in Yemen and prompting the government to ask Washington for a review of the raid.

U.S. Central Command claimed that 14 al-Qaida militants were killed. It counted among them al-Dhahab. If, as now seems possible, he was not part of al-Qaida, that figure of 14 seems questionable. Indications seem to be that all were low-level operatives.

Despite the death of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens and the destruction of a $70 million Osprey aircraft – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the mission was a “successful operation by all standards.” Apparently, the raid gathered some useful intelligence. Whether that is true is anybody’s guess.  The number of people killed on American soil by al-Qaida attacks in the last 15 year is zero.   Was getting some intelligence on them really worth killing around 25 civilians, including 10 children and 9 women?

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the raid will turn out to have helped rather than hurt al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  Hence, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,

“Far from delivering a blow to AQAP, the raid may have strengthened it. “Groups like AQAP will contend [this attack] shows Trump is making good on his campaign pledge,” said Letta Tayler, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Even if Trump wasn’t serious, armed extremists are likely to jump on every photo of a Yemeni child killed in a US strike as a recruitment tool.”

“The use of US soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics… plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-US sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits,” said International Crisis Group in a report released three days after the attack.”

And some things need to be noted: The operatives who killed these children

  • were not acting in self defense – in any meaningful sense of the term. (They were the attackers.)
  • will not be punished for shooting unarmed civilians.
  • were not working for a Middle Eastern autocratic government, but for a western democratic government.
  • were not working for the government of the country where the killings occurred, but for a country thousands of miles away – a country that has never been attacked by Yemen, and is not at war with the Yemen.

I find that shocking.  How is this not a crime?  How is this not breaking the 6th commandment?

Furthermore, most voters in America seem completely relaxed about the fact that their armed forces are launching attacks that are killing children and other civilians in far away countries. What would people in America think if the armed forces of an Arab nation raided a small town in America, and in the process, killed 10 children? And does the teaching of Jesus in Luke 6:31 (“Do to others as you would have them do to you”) have any relevance to this situation?  Does it apply to the actions of nations and governments?

But it gets stranger.

In Yemen, there is a civil war going on. It’s a complicated affair, and broadly speaking, there are three sides – the government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which is backed by Saudi Arabia; the Houthi forces, who hold the capital (Sana’a); and al-Qaida. However, a lot of the time al-Qaida have been fighting informally alongside the Hadi government against their common enemy, the Houthis. And since the USA is backing the Saudi Arabians and the Hadi government, they are sometimes sort of on the same side as al-Qaida.

(By the way, the ABC News story refers to the Houthi rebels as Shiites. This is not true. According to the Carnegie Endowment, until 2011, “the term “Shia” was not used in the Yemeni public to refer to any Yemeni groups or individuals. The Houthis do not follow the Twelver Shia tradition predominant in Iran, but adhere to the Zaidiya, which in practice is closer to Sunni Islam, and had expressed no solidarity with other Shia communities.”)

Saudi Bombing

Which brings us to the other side of the horror of Yemen – Saudi Arabia’s repeated bombing of civilian targets following its invasion of Yemen.  In the latest, eight women and a child have reportedly been killed in an air raid on a funeral reception (not the first time the Saudis have bombed a funeral) on the 15th February, near Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sana’a.  (Edit: The death toll has now risen to 21)

And the Saudi-led coalition has the support of the American and British governments.

Daniel Larison’s comment is worth repeating:

“The U.S. continues to aid and abet the coalition as it carries out war crimes such as these, and based on what we’ve been hearing from the new administration that support is only going to increase. Our government is providing the weapons and fuel that allow coalition planes to blow up women and children at funerals, and it is doing this just so we can “reassure” a few despotic governments. U.S. support for the indefensible war on Yemen is an ongoing disgrace and an enduring blot on our country’s reputation.”

And it is not just America’s reputation. The British government rejected the recommendation of two select committees to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and is now facing a court case brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which claims that “the indiscriminate nature of the airstrikes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen means there is a significant risk that British arms are being used in strikes that break international humanitarian law.”

What is even more tragic in all this is that Saudi Arabia is not only killing civilians by bombing them, but is also enforcing a blockade that effectively aims to starve the Houthi areas into submission, and has caused massive hardship. According to the United Nations, “About 3.3 million children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are acutely malnourished in Yemen, including 462,000 children under five suffering from severe acute malnutrition,” and the country has been described as being on the brink of famine.  What Saudi Arabia is doing is serious.  Indeed, Kevin Watkins of Save the Children has described it as a “de facto a humanitarian blockade from the Saudis, which incidentally is a war crime.”

And the silence is deafening.  A Yemeni woman, quoted in the Guardian, said “I also blame the whole world for watching us dying and for their silence against [the] Saudi-led coalition.”

But the blame lies more with some parts of the world than others.  Daniel Larison calls it an enduring blot on America’s reputation. But I think one could go further than that. This is not just a blot on the reputations of America and Britain. The actions of our governments – and the silence of the people in both nations as a whole – looks like a blot on us as nations.

And, as the Bible says (Proverbs 14:34), “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

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