Opinion Column

Saudi airstrikes in Yemen fuelled by foolishness

By Gwynne Dyer, Special to Postmedia Network

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

"They hit everything, hospitals, orphanages, schools," Hisham al-Omeisy told The Guardian newspaper six months ago. "You live in constant fear that your kids' school could be the next target."

No, he's not talking about the wicked Russians bombing the eastern side of Aleppo in Syria. He was talking about the air force of Saudi Arabia, that great friend of the West, bombing his friends and neighbours in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen.

The Saudi Arabian bombing campaign in Yemen is now eighteen months old, and is responsible for the great majority of the estimated 5,000 civilian fatal casualties in that time. The Saudi authorities swear that it wasn't them every time there is an especially high death toll -- "(our) forces have clear instructions not to target populated areas and to avoid civilians" is the familiar refrain -- but they are the only side with aircraft.

A case in point is last Sunday's strike on the Great Hall in Sana'a, a distinctive building of no military importance whatever. Last Sunday it was crowded with hundreds of people attending the funeral of Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the current interior minister, Galal al-Rawishan.

The younger al-Rawishan is the interior minister in the government that sits in the capital, which is supported by "rebel" Houthi tribesmen from the north of Yemen and by the part of the army that still backs the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His father's funeral was therefore attended by many senior Houthi officials and supporters of the former president, as well as large numbers of other people.

By the sheerest coincidence, we are asked to believe, an airstrike accidentally hit the Great Hall at just the right time on just the right day to kill 150 people and wound 525, among whom there would probably have been a dozen or so "rebel" officials.

This war is really about Saudi Arabia's ability to control Yemen's government. The two neighbours have about the same population but Saudi Arabia is thirty times richer, so that should be easy.

Yemen's long-ruling dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hostile to Saudi Arabia, so the latter took advantage of popular protests against him in 2011-12 to engineer his replacement by a Saudi puppet, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Saleh then made an alliance with his former enemies, the Houthi tribes of northern Yemen, and struck back. When the rebel forces seized Sana'a in late 2014 and eventually drove Hadi out of the country, Saudi Arabia put together a "coalition" of conservative Arab states and launched the current military intervention to return Hadi to power.

The other motive behind this foolish war is the Saudi claim that Iran, its great rival in the Gulf, is the secret power behind the rebel forces in Yemen. No doubt Iran does sympathize with the Yemeni rebels, since they are mostly fellow Shias, but for all the talk of "Iran-allied Houthis" repeated in Western media, there is no evidence that Iran has given them military or financial aid.

So, then, three conclusions. First, the Saudi-led coalition will not get its way in Yemen if it remains unwilling to put large numbers of troops on the ground -- and it might not win even if it did. Second, the relentless bombing of civilians is largely due to the coalition's frustration at the failure of its political strategy.

And third, this is the stupidest of all the wars now being fought in the Middle East. Who runs Yemen is not a matter of strategic importance to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi obsession with the Iranian "threat" is absurd.

Does Washington understand this? Only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Old habits die hard, and it's all too easy to condemn Russian air strikes in Syria while condoning similar Saudi airstrikes in Yemen.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.