Hugh Fitzgerald: In Yemen, Stick with Saudi Arabia


The report of the “Conference of Eminent Experts on Yemen” just presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council criticizes both sides to the conflict — the Shi’a Houthis, backed by Iran, and the government forces, backed by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates:

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The detailed report said both sides had conscripted child soldiers and carried out acts of torture as well as other human rights violations.

The report found that at least 6,475 civilians have been killed since the Saudi intervention began in March 2015 but said the “real figure is likely to be significantly higher”.

Most of the civilian casualties were caused by airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led military coalition, the panel of experts said.

Their report was also scathing about Iran and the Houthis it supports:

The UN call for the international community to stop providing arms for use in Yemen was likely also aimed at Iran, which has allegedly supplied the Houthis with ballistic missiles which they have fired into Saudi Arabia.

The report accused the Houthi rebels of possible war crimes of their own including “cruel treatment and torture, outrages upon personal dignity and conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 or using them to participate actively in hostilities.”

While both sides are thus criticized, the Saudi-led coalition gets more blame. This only reflects the fact that the missiles fired by the Houthis indiscriminately at Saudi forces — and the Yemeni civilians mixed among them — have so far been successfully intercepted. Saudi ballistic missiles have, on the other hand, mostly landed on Houthi targets, civilian and military.

Should the Americans be chastened by this report, and threaten to end military support for the Saudis in Yemen? That is unlikely to change their behavior, but may make it harder for the Saudis to accomplish their goal of defeating Iran’s Yemeni proxy, the Houthis. That delay, in turn, will cause the conflict to go on much longer, and the civilian casualties on both sides in the end to be much greater, than they would otherwise be with a swifter conclusion. For unlike Iran, the Saudis cannot possibly pull out of supporting their side in the war on Yemen.

Furthermore, any distancing by the American government from the Saudis over their behavior in Yemen will disappoint those in the Saudi government who have so far been willing to refrain from criticizing the Trump Administration’s tough policy vis-a-vis the “Palestinians” — that is, the large cuts in American contributions to UNRWA and to the Palestine Authority. As of the August 31st, the American government has announced it will end its entire contribution to UNRWA. So far no howls of protest among the “Palestinians’” Arab allies. There are even signs that the Saudi pressure on a recalcitrant Mahmoud Abbas to accept a deal will remain in place.

We might as well recognize that Muslim rules of warfare are nothing like those of the Western world, that both the Saudis and the Iranians have waged their proxy war in a deplorable fashion, that both are at fault, the only difference being in the number and not the kind of casualties, and if the Iranian rockets had not so frequently been intercepted, they would have caused the same amount of damage to civilians as Saudi bombs have done. Iran has not shown itself any more solicitous of civilians in its intended targets.

Neither side in Yemen is morally superior to the other. One side has simply managed to land more blows than the other. The Houthi rockets have been shot down or landed harmlessly, though the intent of those firing them was the same as that of the Saudis, whose bombs have repeatedly hit — most carelessly — Yemeni civilians. Saudi Arabia is no threat to us, while Iran is a serious military worry, given its threats to interrupt oil traffic through the Straits of Hormuz, to destroy our ally Israel, and to hit America itself.

Given that larger context, our policy should be clear. We should choose to remain supporters of the Saudis who, despite their conduct of the war in Yemen, are for now no threat to American national interests. And right now, Iran is. Sentimentality in such matters is out of place. Who helps us the most? Who can cause us the most damage? That’s all you need to ask. End of story.

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