The group Doctors Without Borders announced Friday that they were pulling its staff and resources out of northern Yemen after 19 people were killed when a Saudi-led coalition airstrike bombed a hospital on Monday. Tragically, this is not an unusual occurrence, with this being at least the fourth hospital destroyed within the past year.
We hear the phrase ‘Saudi-led coalition’ a lot when describing this conflict here in Yemen, and here to help us decipher some of the complexities is Phyllis Bennis. She is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Kim.
BROWN: Phyllis, there has already been condemnation from the group Human Rights Watch about civilian sites and strikes in Yemen, like markets and hospitals being attacked, with Saudi-led coalition, using American weaponry, no less. Human Rights Watch said in a statement, quote: “When unlawful attacks are carried out deliberately or recklessly against civilians, they are war strikes.”
there had been a ceasefire in place for a few months in Sana’a, which is Yemen’s capital, but UN-backed peace talks broke down. What exactly caused the fight to start back up?
BENNIS: Well, I’ll just say the peace talks broke down about a week and a half ago. And the fighting had never really stopped. It had slowed a bit. And when the peace talks collapsed, the fighting went on full-scale.
Now, we should be clear that this is very one-sided fighting. The so-called enemy that the Saudi coalition–and it’s not much of a coalition, it’s basically the Saudis backed by the United States with some other backing from some other Western countries. But this is really a Saudi initiative. They are moving against the Houthis, who are an indigenous Yemeni grouping who follow a kind of Shia Islam. They have some loose ties, that was even the term used by the New York Times, loose ties to Iran. And the whole war that was launched by Saudi Arabia is very much bound up with the Iran-Saudi competition for regional hegemony. That’s really at the root of it.
The problem, of course, is that the people who pay the price is not the leaders of Iran any more than it’s the leaders of Saudi Arabia who pay the price. It’s people on the ground. It’s ordinary Yemenis. And an extraordinarily high percentage of the people killed–it’s been about 6,500 people killed–a huge percentage have been children. And according to the United Nations, particularly Unicef, the children’s agency, 60 percent or more of the children have been killed by the Saudis. That’s using our weapons, our planes, our bombs.
So not surprisingly, in a poll that was taken in Yemen about a year ago when the war was already underway, 82 percent of Yemenis viewed the United States as an enemy. That’s not surprising. They understand where those weapons are coming from.
BROWN: Yes, and there’s been extensive reporting in the region, especially from journalists on the ground. I believe the BBC did an investigative piece there, where all the fragments of missiles and artillery shelling, it was all U.S.-made stuff.
And it brings me to a separate question I wanted to ask, because there is–earlier this month there was an announcement from the U.S. State Department about an arms sale to Saudi Arabia of over $1 billion. Why does the United States continue to back the Saudis in this bombing campaign in Yemen?
BENNIS: The reason has everything to do with arms. The $1.5 billion arms deal that is currently underway, it’s being considered in Congress, there are moves, there are petitions and other efforts to convince members of Congress to get the administration to call it off. Or at least stall until there can be some further investigation.
This arms deal involves primarily tanks and armored personnel carriers. But it’s in the context of a much larger level of arms sales that have been underway for a long time. There was a $60 billion arms sale at that time, the largest in history, that was signed between the United States and Saudi Arabia back in 2010. And according to Bill Hartung, who monitors these arms sales probably better than anyone else, he said that in the first year of the Obama administration there were agreements that were reached, although they didn’t all go through yet, that totaled $190 billion worth of weapons and training for the Saudi government, the Saudi army. There was another $122 billion arms sale last year that included tanks, but also included cluster bombs, a weapon that is prohibited by a very important international treaty which the United States has still refused to sign.
So this is an ongoing reality. The Saudis are by far the largest purchasers of weapons from the United States from the U.S. arms industry. And we’re looking–in the context of this Saudi-Iran competition, we’re also looking at the impact of U.S. concerns about Saudi fears or Saudi feelings or Saudi whatever following the U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal. This was, of course, a deal that was not just between the U.S. and Iran, but it involved six other countries, the five permanent members of the Security Council, all the nuclear powers, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France, plus Germany, plus negotiations were actually carried out by the European Union as a whole. So that’s 28 more countries.
When that agreement was signed the Saudi government was very unhappy about it, claimed that it was going to put them at greater risk. Claimed that the United States was rebuilding a new kind of relationship with the Iranians at the expense of the relationship with Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the possibility of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement of some sort, many of us hoped that would be on the table, but it was not. But nonetheless, the U.S. has been very concerned since that time, the Obama administration, of making sure the Saudi authorities are pacified. Making sure that the Saudi authorities are pacified, making sure that they do not, for example, consider buying arms from somewhere else. They don’t want to do anything to jeopardize this very lucrative arms trade.
So that’s a huge part of what’s going on. And then of course the war in Syria, sorry, the war in Yemen has become the major Saudi use of U.S. military equipment. So the more they use, the more bombs they drop, the more Yemeni children they kill, frankly, the better it is for U.S. arms industries. The better it is for U.S. business.
So the Obama administration, while expressing some concern about the human rights violations, about the violations of the laws of war, or international humanitarian law, they have so far done nothing to actually bring any real pressure to bear on Saudi Arabia to stop this war, to stop this set of attacks.
BROWN: There was a presence in Yemen for some time of Al-Qaeda, and there appears to be somewhat of a resurgence–I’m not sure what scale of a resurgence–of this terrorist group and their activities in Yemen. Is that a possible reason why the U.S. is silent on the human rights violations that Saudi Arabia is causing, or is possibly causing, with their attacks because it could possibly be keeping Al-Qaeda at bay in that country?
BENNIS: You know, that would certainly be a possibility, but there’s no evidence of it. The Saudis are at war with the so-called Houthis, this group within Yemeni society. They’re not going after Al-Qaeda. The group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, was for a long time, until after the U.S.-led attack on Libya, that led to the creation in Libya of what is now considered the strongest affiliate of Al-Qaeda, until that time the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen was considered the most dangerous, the affiliate most likely to launch an international attack.
But so far we have seen no evidence that the Saudi attacks are going after Al-Qaeda at all. They are going after Yemeni cities. They’re going after hospitals, markets, schools. And the people they’re killing are Yemeni civilians. They’re not going after Al-Qaeda.
BROWN: And lastly, Phyllis, the Arab Spring of 2011 was initially a harbinger of hope for many people in the region, not just in Yemen but obviously countries across the region. Some nations have been more successful at it than others. Describe Yemen post-Arab Spring 2011. What is the state of their government, if any?
BENNIS: Well, there was the beginning of an uprising in Yemen that was linked to the broader regional uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring. One of the effects was that the longtime president of Yemen was deposed and he fled to Saudi Arabia. The excuse the Saudis are using for the war against the Houthis, who led part of the uprising, the armed part of the uprising that led to the expulsion of the president, is to restore President Hadi to his original position.
So this is very much bound up with it. Of course, since the last month, and it’s over a year, it’s about a year and a half of this war going on, with thousands of people being killed. The nonviolent political protest of the Arab Spring has not been able to reemerge. So the question of recreating that kind of civil opposition, civil resistance, that characterized the first stages of the Arab Spring in Yemen, as in other countries in the region, is simply outside of the parameters of the agenda right now because the violence is so severe, because so many civilians, particularly children, are at risk of being killed.
BROWN: 19 people were killed in an attack in northern Yemen against a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, or Medicins Sans Frontieres. They have also made an announcement that they will be withdrawing their resources from the north of the country because of these attacks on civilian sites like hospitals and markets.
We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis. She is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She’s also the author of many books, including her most recent book, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Phyllis, we certainly appreciate you joining us today.