The richest country in the Arab region wasted no time quoting its American friends when it declared an end to its bombing campaign on the poorest country in the Arab world last month.
It is hard to decide what was more ironic: quoting the banner that flew behind George W. Bush, when he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq in 2003, or the fact that Riyadh continued to drop cluster bombs after announcing a so-called cease-fire. The Saudis also declared the start of reconstruction efforts dubbed ‘Operation Renewal of Hope,’ to rebuild the country they had destroyed.
The premature declaration of “Operation Decisive Storm’s” end was only one of many contradictory statements released by the Saudi-led coalition that killed at least 1,244 people, injured 5,044, and left more than 100,000 homeless. This in a country where half of the 26 million population was already malnourished before the conflict began.
According to aid agencies, the Saudi air and sea blockade has prevented Yemen from importing food, and left hospitals without fuel for generators, causing them to shut down. Without adequate emergency medical care, car owners are being asked to help move the sick and injured.
In short, the air campaign has failed miserably and left Yemen in the grips of a humanitarian disaster. In Canada, the government and media were complicit in these crimes, albeit indirectly. Together with its Gulf allies, Canada perpetuated propaganda about the strikes that papered over the war’s devastating consequences.
The Mission Was a Complete Failure
In an interview with Muftah, Sami Al Faraj, a Kuwaiti security advisor to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), said Operation Decisive Storm was necessary to restore “the legitimate” government in Yemen led by former U.S.-backed president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The coalition of GCC and other Arab forces also hoped to counter the growing rise of the Houthis, a tribal faction backed by Shia Iran that took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa in a surprise offensive last September.
But analysts concur the Houthis have been far from eliminated. “The Houthis did not lose anything in this war,” Houchang Hassan-Yari, a professor at Queen’s University and the Royal Military College of Canada told Muftah. In fact, they gained control over new territories, he says, including access to the oil-rich and largely Sunni-populated southeast province of Hadramaut.
It is indicative of a military strategy gone very wrong. “The Houthis are a militia – they don’t function as a regular military force, therefore you can’t use the same techniques,” Catherine Shakdam, a Yemen analyst with defense and security firm Anderson Consulting in London told Muftah. “When the Saudi’s and the GCC devised their military campaign they imagined the Houthis would function as a regular military force because of their alliance with [former Yemeni president] Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Yemeni army.”
Both analysts point out the United States has adopted the same strategy for destroying the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda, says Hassan-Yari. It has not worked for the Saudis, any more than it has for their American allies. “Air strikes alone will not defeat your enemy. When you go into a war you have to have a clear exit plan… announcing prematurely the end of the campaign was a clear announcement of Saudi’s failure.” He added, “The Saudi’s have formidable hardware…last year they purchased $60bn of arms from the U.S. If they are not capable of defeating a group like the Houthis imagine if they were to fight against Iran?”
As for re-installing Hadi? He continues to sit snug in Riyadh, where he fled on March 25.
The War Was More about Re-asserting Regional Sunni Control than Fighting the Houthis
Sunni Gulf nations have long feared rising Iranian influence in the Arab region. As Al-Faraj puts it, “senior Iranian clerics have said they are now in control of four Arab capitals – Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and now Sanaa. So how [else] do we interpret their intentions?”
From the Saudi-led military operation to crush Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011, to the quiet stifling of protests by Shia Saudis in the Kingdom’s own restive Eastern Province, the GCC has never failed to “protect” Arab citizens from expanding Iranian influence. The problem with constantly citing Iran as a boogeyman, however, is that Tehran’s involvement in all these movements has been minimal to nonexistent.
The idea that “Iran lends support to the Houthis, particularly of the verbal and ideological kind and not excluding material and financial support, is likely,” wrote Gillian Schreiber in an article for Muftah. “However its role in the war has been overstated. Contrary to what the GCC wants us to think, this is first and foremost a Yemeni conflict – to say otherwise obscures the reality of what is actually happening and runs the risk of creating even more sectarian bloodshed,” she adds.
Besides, the Houthis already had another trusted source of weapons. The militia was already flush with American arms provided by former president and current Houthi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Neither the Saudis nor the United States Are Genuine Partners in the Fight against Al Qaeda or Islamic State
The Houthis have been a fierce opponent of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most active and dangerous branches of the terror group over the last six years. When the coalition began to destroy Houthi targets, they were simultaneously destroying one of the only forces in the region that has successfully battled Al Qaeda. Because the Houthis had taken over various Yemeni military installations, coalition airstrikes targeted these areas and, thereby, devastated the Yemeni government’s ability to fight AQAP. As Shakdam wonders, “why is Saudi destroying the Yemeni military? Who is going to destroy Al Qaeda if you leave Yemen without an army?”
The ensuing chaos has created more opportunities for AQAP to flourish. “Now Al Qaeda has more territory than it had under Hadi in the past,” says Hassan-Yari. If that is not disconcerting enough, consider the Islamic State’s sinister first video release from its “new Yemen branch,” which shows the beheadings of four Yemeni soldiers and shooting of ten others.
“If the Saudi’s had not intervened, or at least invited Hadi, the Houthis and others to work together, we would see a much more difficult situation for Al Qaeda and IS [Islamic State] to maneuver in that country,” Hassan-Yari says. Given the highly motivated and experienced nature of the Houthi forces, Hassan-Yari believes the group could have helped eliminate Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Conspiracy theorists may also consider current whisperings on the Arab street, suggesting one of the reasons behind the Saudi intervention in Yemen was to save Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. After all, if Yemen ultimately became stable, the Saudis would potentially risk having a democratic government in their own backyard.
The Canadian Government Was a Silent Ideological Partner in the Coalition
Though Canada was not officially a member of the coalition, it did take a position on the air strikes. Soon after the attacks began, the Canadian foreign ministry released a statement saying that “Canada is concerned by the deteriorating situation in Yemen resulting from the ongoing military actions taken by Houthi rebels… Canada supports the military action by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council partners and others to defend Saudi Arabia’s border.”
Coverage from the Canadian press was not much better. Video and photos of the war’s crippling impact on infrastructure and humanitarian lifelines have been almost completely absent. By comparison, correspondents from the UK’s Sky News have regularly interviewed Yemeni civilians, including Mohamed Al-Ammari who lost seven family members when an airstrike hit a fuel truck next to his house at 2:30am on April 17. Even the American media has been more attentive, with intermittent, albeit U.S.-centric, reports of collateral damage.
It would be a grave mistake to think Canadians do not need to know, or will not be impacted by what some might view as yet another, senseless sectarian conflict between Arab countries. The truth is, Canada is guilty by association. On the one hand, the Canadian government sends troops to Syria and Iraq to join the fight against the Islamic State, but on the other hand quietly backs terrorist organizations through miscalculated foreign policy decisions and support for rogue regimes. Let us not forget that Saudi Arabia is ruled by a despotic monarchy whose theological foundation forms the basis for many Islamist terror groups.
Canada’s decision to throw its support behind Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen makes it complicit in spreading sectarian hatred across the region and driving Yemen toward further chaos.