US Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Saudi city of Jeddah this week, with Yemen’s brutal civil war high on the agenda as he met officials from Britain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Yemen’s warring parties are in the midst of a bloody stalemate: The Zaydi Shia-led Houthi rebels who along with military loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh have controlled Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, since their joint coup in September 2014; and Saudi-backed anti-Houthi forces ostensibly led by the President in exile Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who are supported by the Saudis, most notably through a campaign of aerial bombardment in Houthi-controlled parts of the country.
Unfortunately, the talks between the self-described «quad» of the US, UK, UAE and Saudi Arabia, are more likely to be an exercise in public hand-wringing than a serious effort to end the war and prevent further loss of life.
It’s doubtful, for example, that they addressed the recent decision by Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to withdraw its staff from hospitals in northern Yemen after a series of broken promises from Riyadh that the medical facilities it operates and supports would be protected from airstrikes. And the framework for peace will be issued not by neutral parties but four of the foreign countries most deeply entangled in the conflict, along with the UN’s top diplomat working in Yemen.
The meeting in Saudi Arabia could have ended differently, however. The US and UK might take a stand and reclaim some of the moral authority and independence they have lost through unconditional support for the Saudi-led aerial campaign. The alternative is more bloodshed — and further loss of faith in the commitment of two founder members of the UN Security Council to International Humanitarian Law.
Last week MSF, which does vital lifesaving work in Yemen, withdrew staff from six medical facilities in the northwest of Yemen after a Saudi-led airstrike killed at least 14 people at a hospital the NGO was running. It was the fourth time an MSF facility had been hit by an airstrike since the war began and one of dozens of schools and hospitals that the coalition has hit, many of them hundreds of kilometers from the frontlines of the war.
«This latest incident shows that the current rules of engagement, military protocols and procedures are inadequate in avoiding attacks on hospitals, and need revision and changes,» Joan Tubau, the General Director of MSF wrote at the time.
The UN believes that a huge number of the more than 8,000 civilian casualties in Yemen have been caused by Saudi-led airstrikes. In June, the UN added Saudi Arabia to a list of state actors that violate the rights of children in war due to the incredibly high toll the aerial campaign has taken on Yemeni kids, before being cowed into temporarily reversing its position.
For all that they would have us believe otherwise UK and US are not mere bystanders in this. Both countries have sold Saudi Arabia billions of dollars of weapons for use in Yemen since the war began. The US helps the Saudis plan air strikes and provides air traffic control and aerial refueling services to Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) jets taking part in the campaign. London and Washington have also provided the Kingdom with political cover both at home and at the UN.
But as they have done so it has become increasingly clear that Riyadh either cannot or will not use its expensively-purchased Western weapons with the care and skill needed to properly avoid loss of civilian lives when targeting heavily-populated civilian areas. In some diplomatic circles the Yemen war has become a symbol of Western disinterest in laws of war that they helped craft in the wake of the Second World War.
The Houthis and Saleh, it needs to be repeated, are almost certainly committing war crimes in Yemen, according to human rights groups. With this in mind the Saudis, Yemenis opposed to the coup, and indeed Western officials, find it difficult to understand why so much attention is being paid to the Saudis’ worst excesses. They aren’t the bad guys, the argument goes. But this attitude contains a serious moral hazard: why should rogue states and rebel groups like the Houthis feel accountable for their actions if an ally of two of the UN’s most influential member states is not also held to account for its actions or at least reined in?
It’s doubtful that the UK and the US will stop arms transfers or freeze the logistical support they are giving the Kingdom, as many aid groups and NGOs are calling for them to do. But at the very least they should call, publicly, for the Saudis to limit their airstrikes to the frontlines of the war. Privately, a number of Western officials concede that the Saudis are «not very good» at so-called dynamic striking — hitting moving targets or responding to real-time intelligence. So they could at least stop these kinds of strikes anywhere other than clearly defined «hot» zones of combat.
While the initial aerial campaign destroyed most of Yemen’s stock of long-range ballistic missiles, another 15 months of air strikes away from the frontlines have had no notable effect on the course of the war, and have turned a large number of Yemenis against the Saudis, the Emiratis — a key Saudi partner in the Yemen campaign — and the US and UK.
If they are serious about peace, and want to be able to claim the moral high ground in the future conflicts, Kerry and his British colleagues might want to start thinking about how to rein in the Saudi bombing campaign.
Peter Salisbury is the associate follow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House in London. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.