It was probably too much to expect that the arrival of Ramadan would be sufficient to secure a ceasefire in Yemen’s pitiless civil war, and so it has proved. Peace talks in Geneva have, unsurprisingly, collapsed under the weight of the carnage. Saudi air strikes, aimed at supporting the claims to power of an exiled leader, have proved effective mainly at taking the lives of civilians. In the latest case, a convoy fleeing from battle in Aden was attacked by the Royal Saudi Air Force, leaving 31 dead.
Human Rights Watch reminds us that much of the suffering is inflicted on children. As Iraq’s sad story since the reckless and illegal Western invasion of 2003, Afghanistan since 2001, and Lebanon for many decades before that show, states can exist in a fractured, violent limbo for the duration of many a childhood.
Though this was the bloodiest strike since the Saudi air force began its campaign three months ago, the loss of life is all-too familiar in this part of the world. Poor, dusty, bereft of oil, unfathomably complex in its divisions and rivalries, Yemen is a mess even by failed state standards. It makes Somalia look like Sweden. The violence has killed at least 1,412 civilians and wounded 3,423, since March, according to the United Nations.
And, despite its obscurity, the fighting in Yemen is not only a humanitarian disaster – though the imminent loss of water supplies in many parts of the country assuredly makes it precisely that. It threatens Saudi Arabia itself. The rebels have shown no fear of striking at the Saudi kingdom, shelling an air base and aiming rockets at border towns.
So this matters to the West too, though the humanitarian crisis should be at the front of our efforts. Saudi Arabia is no one’s idea of a liberal democracy, and it has distinguished itself in the barbarity it has displayed towards the mildest of critics – such as Raif Badawi, the blogger who was flogged for the crime of voicing his opinions on the web. Its attitudes to women, to minorities and to dissidents are well known. And yet the disorderly disintegration of the Saudi regime has been the ultimate goal of al-Qaeda and its allies (let us not forget Osama bin Laden’s origins). In Syria, in Iraq, in Bahrain and increasingly in Yemen, the Saudis are engaged in a series of proxy wars with the Iranians, often interpreted and exacerbated by the Shia-Sunni divide.
The Saudis do not deserve to “win” in any meaningful sense of the term, but it would also be a disaster if the instability that is now all around them began to throw the major power in the region – and source of so much of the world’s oil – into turmoil. That would do no one, rich or poor, in Saudi Arabia or the wider world, any good.
In Syria, the West learned the hard way that picking a winner in a civil war, among constantly shifting factions with uncertain loyalties and goals, can be a losing game. Much the same can be said for Libya, Somalia and the rest. There are at least eight separate civil wars raging in an arc from the Maghreb to virtually the borders of India and Pakistan.
The dilemma for the West is that doing nothing is not going to bring them to an end; intervening, on the ground or from the sky, usually adds to the tensions; and sponsoring peace talks has proved a fairly futile exercise.
Yemen’s agonies look set to intensify; and Saudi Arabia increasingly vulnerable.Reuse content