August 27, 2009

Yemen’s "Scorched Earth" Bombing Campaign Creates Humanitarian Disaster, Regional Concerns

The Sa'ada War in Yemen re-erupted on August 12, 2009 for the sixth time since 2004. The war expanded to parts of Amran province as well as most districts in Sa’ada. Both provinces border Saudi Arabia. The war is primarily a political dispute between Zaidi Shia rebels (Houthis) and the Salafi leaning government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978.

The Yemeni government terms the rebels “Satanic” and says their aim is to re-institute a Zaidi theocracy in Yemen. The rebels insist they are fighting a defensive war with demands for political inclusion and religious equality. With journalists excluded from the region since 2004, both sides are skewing battlefield reports in their favor. There are a few things we know:

The Yemeni military is engaged in a bombing campaign (termed “Operation Scorched Earth”) that is targeting mountainous rebel hide outs. Villages and major cities such as Dhayan were also subject to repeated and intense bombing in the last two weeks.

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The bombing and fighting forced 35,000 civilians to flee their homes, in addition to the estimated 100,000 civilians displaced during the last rounds of war. There are nearly 150,000 war refugees in total, the vast majority women and children.

The UN, EU, US, ICRC, OIC and a Yemeni civil society coalition have all appealed for a humanitarian cease fire so that aid can reach the displaced civilians. In prior wars, the ICRC had very limited access to Sa’ada town, but was denied access to the tens of thousands of outlying refugees. In the current conflict, assessment teams report thousands of women and children literally wandering the roads with no food, water or shelter. Others are sheltering with in the mountains, with host families or in poorly supplied refugee camps.

Food, water and medicine shortages are at “critical” levels in northern Yemen. Amnesty International urged the government to avoid the “gross violations of human rights” that occurred in other outbreaks. Previously, Human Rights Watch found the denial of access by aid organizations to civilian refugees appeared to constitute illegal collective punishment. Arbitrary arrests of Hashimites occurred throughout Yemen (2005-2009) and their continued detention, in violation of a 2007 settlement mediated by Qatar and an earlier 2005 cease-fire, is one of the triggers for the new fighting.

Although some have framed the war as a Saudi-Iranian proxy war, this is an over simplification. The Iranian media is cheerleading for the rebels, infuriating the Yemeni government which responded with heated rhetoric. Evidence of Iranian logistical support is weak. Although the Yemeni government found a few Iranian made weapons, the countries of origin of the rebels’ armaments are varied. Research by the International Crisis Group among others indicates that the rebels buy their weapons from the robust weapons markets in Yemen or obtained them from the Yemeni military, either through capture or sale.

Saudi support for the Yemeni government effort is prompted by fears of regional instability and incitement of its own oppressed Shia population on the other side of the border, but the level of monetary and military support is unclear. The rebels have alleged the Saudis are flying sorties over Sa’ada, allowed Yemeni troops to attack from Saudi territory and are funding Yemen’s military efforts.

Regionally, Iraqi Shiite MPs suggested opening a headquarters for the Houthi rebels in retaliation for Yemen’s hosting wanted Iraqi Baathist insurgent leaders. A Bahraini Sunni MP accused a Bahraini Shiite party of contacts with the rebels, which they denied. Reportedly Egypt offered to mediate between the rebels and the government through back channels.

Both sides have claimed significant battlefield victories. The rebels posted Youtube videos of the military fleeing an attack, captured vehicles and skirmishes. Some reports indicate the Houthis have control of a substantial part of the governorate. As in prior outbreaks, the Yemeni military is utilizing tribal militias, calling them volunteers. Rebels have alleged the use of white phosphorous as a weapon. As in prior outbreaks, the Yemeni government has vowed to crush the rebels.

The Sa’ada War is only one of the major challenges to Yemeni stability. Last month, sixteen protesters were killed by police during a protest in Abyan, South Yemen where a separatist movement is gaining strength. Southern demonstrations began in 2007, protesting institutionalized discrimination after the north’s victory in Yemen’s 1994 civil war. As in the Sa’ada war, southern grievances of political exclusion were met with government violence against civilians and attempts at co-option. Authentic power sharing is anathema to the Saleh regime. Additionally, Western concerns center on al Qaeda which conducted over a dozen attacks on tourists and foreign targets since 2007, including the September 2008 attack on the US Embassy.

For more, see my category Sa'ada War.

WARNING: Extremely graphic photos of civilian casualties aned body parts below the fold. The photos are from the August 18th bombing of Dhayan City and are not for the faint of heart.


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By Jane at 06:18 PM | Comments |