National Security & Defense

America’s Gulf State ‘Allies’ Have Created a Humanitarian Disaster in Yemen

Aftermath of a Saudi coaliion airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, in February. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty)

On March 4, Islamist militants in Aden, Yemen, stormed a nursing home run by the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa. According to the account of the lone surviving nun, Sister Rio, ISIS gunmen captured Sisters Anselm, Reginette, Judith, and Marguerite, bound them to trees, shot them, and then smashed their skulls. A dozen other workers at the home were murdered, as well. Apparently knowing there was a fifth nun, the gunmen scoured the compound. For roughly 90 minutes, Sister Rio hid, until, unable to find her, the gunmen departed. They took hostage a Salesian priest, Father Thomas Uzhunnalil, whose status is unknown as of this writing.

“Let us be ready for martyrdom,” Father Thomas reminded the sisters daily. That risk became imminent last year, after Houthi rebels were driven from Aden by the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar, among others. The coalition, watching as Aden descended into chaos late last year, eventually withdrew altogether, leaving the city to armed militants, the strongest of which belong to al-Qaeda and ISIS. The sisters observed all this and knew well the danger but refused to leave.

Yemen’s civil war is the latest front in the Sunni–Shia intra-civilizational war and the fourth conflict in the Arab Middle East in which America has taken an active role. The Saudi-led coalition, at war in Yemen for the past year, is receiving support in the form of intelligence, logistics, and weapons from the United States. Saudi Arabia and its allies’ reckless military campaign in Yemen has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians, including many women and children. While the Saudis have shown indifference to the lives of Yemeni civilians, they have not at all hindered the operations of two groups also fighting the Houthi rebels: al-Qaeda and ISIS.

RELATED: The Yemen Mess Is Sparking a Full-Fledged Regional War

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and in the Middle East bedfellows can be very strange indeed. At a minimum, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Saudi coalition share a common enemy in Yemen, much as they share a common religious origin, Wahhabi Islam. The Saudis and their coalition allies regard Iran’s proxy, the Houthis, a more immediate threat than al-Qaeda or ISIS, and apparently an exaggerated threat at that. Put simply, Saudi Arabia made a strategic decision to overlook lesser threats (al-Qaeda, ISIS) in the short term to focus on the larger threat (Iran) over the long term. It is the sort of calculation the Saudis have made successfully for more than a century. In this obscurity of complex amities and enmities, the casual Westerner is quickly lost. The White House, however, should have known better. Indeed, it did know better.

It is a tragedy that an administration generally committed to peace in the Middle East will leave the Yemeni war as part of its Middle East legacy. In “The Obama Doctrine,” his masterful review of Obama’s foreign policy, Jeffrey Goldberg presents the deeply considered views of a president both mindful of the naïve idealism of his predecessor and inclined to defer to his own realist instincts. U.S. backing of the Saudi war in Yemen, so the consensus goes, was quid pro quo for the Saudis’ toleration of the Obama administration’s Iran deal. It may prove to be more costly to the administration’s legacy than anticipated.

#share#With the Yemeni civilian death tolls mounting, the White House is keen to keep its fingerprints off the wreck in Yemen. “This is not our war,” White House senior adviser Robert Malley recently told the New York Times.

But it is America’s war, at least in part. James Ross of Human Rights Watch has asserted that, under international law, the United States is party to the conflict in Yemen. Some lawmakers on the Hill are also of this view. Senator Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) told Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy last year that “the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has received too little attention, and it directly, or indirectly, implicates us.” Lynch noted that the Saudi coalition airstrikes, which have killed many civilians, “may violate legislation [that Leahy] authored barring the United States from providing security assistance to countries responsible for gross human rights abuses.” Lynch also cited Senator Christopher S. Murphy (D., Conn.) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who observed that “the result of the coalition campaign has been to kill a lot of civilians, . . . to sow the seeds of humanitarian crisis, and to create space for these groups — these very extremist groups that we claim to be our priority in the region — to grow.” In the months since Murphy’s remarks, al-Qaeda and ISIS have seen their ranks swell in Yemen to a degree reminiscent of ISIS’s growth in Syria since 2011.

RELATED: Obama’s Bloody Yemen Disaster

The Saudi problem with violent extremism is that of holding the proverbial wolf by the ears. For more than a century, the House of Saud has played a dangerous game of alternatively cultivating and then shunning extremists. One day they will be too clever by half.

America is also holding a wolf by the ears: its putative allies in the Gulf. Malley’s contention that Yemen is “not our war” is more wishful thinking than reality. No doubt the administration did not foresee a protracted conflict with thousands more Muslim deaths, or murdered nuns, and is likely hoping that the meddlesome conflict in Yemen simply goes away.

Good Friday, March 25, 2016, marks the one-year anniversary of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Yemen has witnessed injustice committed by all sides, but the murders of the Missionaries cries out in a special way for justice. It is likely to be elusive. The Saudi coalition is as unlikely to pursue the perpetrators of the murder of the sisters as Mississippi law enforcement was to investigate the deaths of civil-rights workers in 1964. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the calloused observer will say. No, Sister Rio, the only survivor, wrote: The sisters were “in the right place at the right time” and ready when the moment of their martyrdom came. Sister Rio asks for prayers that their blood will be the seed of peace in the Middle East, and for prayers to stop ISIS.

RELATED: Yemen and the Collapse of Obama’s Middle East Policy

Wherever poverty and terrible human suffering are to be found, so are the Missionaries of Charity, offering not only medical care but compassion. Their compound in Nairobi is an oasis from the wretched poverty in their midst; in Kathmandu, they hold the abandoned orphan in their arms; in Reykjavik, they tend to the violent addict; even in Washington, just a few miles from the White House and Capitol Hill and K Street, they feed the poor and house unwed mothers with young children. And in Yemen, until recently, they comforted the elderly as they lay dying.

#related#The sisters themselves died as Jesus: innocent victims, tied to a tree, murdered. The devout Christian will say that this is how Christianity has triumphed over evil for two millennia, somehow victorious in the midst of death and seeming defeat. This may be of some consolation to the believer. For those more concerned with temporal affairs, however, the question of justice remains. Until America acknowledges and acts on the understanding that the Gulf States are not allies but the purveyors of extremism and violence, injustices like those endured by the Missionaries of Charity will continue.

Andrew Doran served on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 2018 to 2021. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.


The Latest