Journalists and human rights organizations have appropriately condemned the suffering in Syria as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, and the recent Amnesty International report of the state’s sadistic torture and mass executions at a prison near Damascus makes the hellish disaster appear even more horrific. While regional hegemons meet in board rooms and raise or stay refugees from the eastern-most shores of the Mediterranean like poker bids, another crisis is worsening at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. The stories of the people of Yemen deserve a more complete narrative—and, more importantly, comprehensive action—but I can only sketch a few scenarios that point to the relationship between their struggle and the violent conflict of power-hungry states.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia began an attack against Iranian-backed Houthi militants who had ceased control of Yemen’s capital, and in the first year of the war over 900 children had died. Additionally, the Saudi-led coalition has bombed four Doctors Without Borders hospitals.
Although the Obama administration eventually blocked some specific arms deals with Saudi Arabia due to high civilian death tolls in Yemen, in recent years Saudi Arabia has been the largest recipient of American-made weapons, including a $30 billion deal for 150 new and repaired F-15 fighter jets in 2011. The U.S. government defended the deal with the oppressive Saudi state by claiming that the transaction was good for the American economy. The U.S. is by far the largest weapons exporter in the world.
A couple weeks ago, the U.S. executed its own operation in Yemen, with the Trump administrating approving a SEAL Team 6 raid that killed 24 people. Initially, the U.S. claimed that there were no civilian casualties, but in fact local sources say that 9 of the victims were children, and some accounts dispute that any of those killed warranted significant military attention. The U.S. suffered the death of one Navy SEAL, and three others were wounded. Additionally, a $70 million aircraft was destroyed. The White House has declared the raid a success, citing the attainment of valuable intelligence.
Two sick narratives in particular seem to intertwine among so many disturbing details of this mission. The first involves the death of the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an Al-Qaeda leader and American citizen that the U.S. assassinated with a drone strike in 2011. His 16-year-old son had also been killed with a drone two weeks after his own execution. Now the recent murder of his young daughter raises the question of whether her death was a coincidence or whether Trump was making an early example of his campaign claim that “when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” The other problematic narrative has to do with the brutality of SEAL Team 6, a premier counter-terrorism unit that was also responsible for the execution of Osama bin-Laden. Leaks and testimonies from the unit show patterns of revenge killing and battlefield mutilations. Trump’s heartless attitude and SEAL Team 6’s desensitized violence pair well in an exhibition of the lowest form of American foreign policy.
For Yemeni civilians, unfortunately, the direct destruction of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war is compounded by an even broader impact, as 3.3. million people in that nation are acutely malnourished. Fishing boats, farms, and homes have been bombed, leaving families who are suffering from violence, hunger, and disease. As of July 2016, the UN reported 2.2 million internally displaced persons within Yemen, as well as 180,000 fleeing to neighboring countries. Those combined figures equal about 10% of the nation’s population.
Yemen is 8,000 miles away from me, yet the starvation of children and the bombing of homes feels closer when American-made F-15s are flying over such carnage. The longstanding relationships between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, as well as the U.S. history of helping to undermine pluralism and democracy in Iran, sets a context for understanding the complicity of the U.S. government and its patriotic taxpayers in such horrible and unnecessary suffering. Tragically, intervention is the rule, not the exception, and the greatness of America, in terms of economy and power, corresponds to direct hostility and indirect negligence abroad. Regardless of the U.S. share of the blame compared to that of other oppressive states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, or Russia, for example, the U.S. has some power to affect positive change only if it replaces its America-First doctrine with a more humanitarian foreign policy.
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