Monday 16 September 2019

Mary Fitzgerald: 'US toughens its stance on Yemen - but extent has yet to be revealed'

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Mary Fitzgerald

Three years after war came to Yemen in the form of a Saudi-led intervention, resulting in thousands of civilians dead and millions facing starvation, Washington has finally urged a halt. The timing is interesting.

In addition to the high death toll - some estimates go up to 50,000 - war has made Yemen, already long the poorest country in the Arab world, a ravaged place with more than 22 million people, three-quarters of the population, needing food assistance. Thousands of children have perished due to hunger and related causes. Adding to Yemen's misery is the world's largest cholera epidemic for more than 50 years: around a million people have contracted the disease.

Yemen spiralled into civil war in late 2014 after Houthi rebels seized control of its capital, Sanaa, and overthrew the recognised government. The conflict escalated within months when a military coalition led by neighbouring Saudi Arabia and backed by the US and other Western powers intervened against the Houthis, who are aligned with Iran.

Caught in the middle are Yemen's civilians, who have borne the brunt of airstrikes and a blockade which has caused supplies of food, medicine and fuel to dwindle.

Most casualties have been the result of coalition airstrikes, according to a recent investigation commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council. The investigators reported coalition airstrikes that hit residential areas in 60 cases and said such strikes may amount to war crimes.

Human rights groups had been highlighting the role of weaponry and intelligence supplied to the Saudi-led coalition by their allies in the US, UK and other countries in continuing the conflict.

So what changed this week that both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis finally called for an end to the war? Not only that, but both stressed the need for this to happen sooner rather than later.

The Trump administration's new rhetoric on Yemen is rooted in two dynamics: the fall-out from the killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and growing criticism in Congress regarding the humanitarian cost of the war, particularly the extent to which children were suffering. Earlier this year, the Senate only narrowly rejected a bid to end US support for the Saudi-led alliance.

Recent media reporting from inside Yemen is also making the American public more aware of Yemen's plight, particularly its starving children.

Last weekend, 'The New York Times' published on its front page a shocking photograph of Amal Hussain, a severely malnourished seven-year-old girl at a clinic in northern Yemen.

It was a rare example of Yemen's crisis making headline news. Despite the war there producing what UN officials call "the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time", it has been conducted largely away from the eyes of the world, though a handful of journalists have managed to gain access.

On Thursday, 'The New York Times' ran another story about Amal, this time to report she had died of starvation that day.

On the same day, the Saudi-backed Yemeni government said it was ready to work on confidence-building measures as part of a UN-led peace process. But Riyadh and its coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, have not yet publicly responded to calls for a ceasefire from the US, calls which were supported by Britain and France.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - who spearheaded the Yemen intervention as defence minister in 2015 - is under pressure from some quarters following the Khashoggi murder.

Last week Germany said it suspended its arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The hope now is to get the warring Yemeni parties together for UN-mediated talks later in November.

But whether the US exerts enough pressure on its allies for a ceasefire to happen and then hold remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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