Canada's complicity in the Saudi-Yemen war

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Photo: flickr/ Rod Waddington

The richest country in the Arab region wasted no time quoting their American arms dealers when they declared an end to their bombing campaign on the poorest Arab country last month.

'Mission Accomplished,' declared a Saudi newspaper on April 22 after Riyadh announced the end of a month-long air campaign on Yemen. Hours later, the strikes resumed. It's hard to assess which was more ironic: Quoting a banner on a U.S. warship where then-president George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq in 2003 -- or the fact that Riyadh continued to drop cluster bombs - while simultaneously declaring a reconstruction effort named 'Operation Renewal of Hope'?

The premature declaration of the end of 'Operation Decisive Storm' was only one of many contradictory statements put out by the Saudi-led coalition that killed at least 1,244 people, injured 5,044 and more than 100,000 homeless.

Envisage this in a country where half of its 26 million population were already malnourished before the air campaign. Aid agencies report that the Saudi air and sea blockade is preventing Yemen from importing food, hospitals are shutting down due to a lack of fuel for generators, and car owners are being asked to help move the sick and injured.

In short: Yemen is in the midst of a humanitarian disaster. Worse still, Canadian media coverage and public interest has been dismal.

For the sake of understanding what actually happened, and why it matters, let's deconstruct the contrived propaganda produced by Saudi Arabia and its allies:

1. The mission was a complete failure.

According to Sami Al Faraj, a Kuwaiti security advisor to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Operation Decisive Storm was needed to restore "the legitimate" government in Yemen led by former U.S.-backed president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. They coalition also wanted to counter the growing rise of the Houthis, an embedded tribal faction backed by Shia Iran that took over the capital Sanaa in a surprise offensive last September.

But analysts concur that the Houthis are far from being eliminated. "The Houthis did not lose anything in this war," explains Houchang Hassan-Yari, a professor at Queen's University and the Royal Military College of Canada. In fact, they gained control over new territories, he says, including access to the oil-rich and largely Sunni-populated southeast province of Hadramawt.

It's 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," explains Catherine Shakdam, a Yemen analyst with defense and security firm Anderson Consulting in London. "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 that the U.S. is adopting the same strategy to destroy Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda, says Hassan-Yari. But it doesn't work. "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 adds: "The Saudi's have a 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.


2. The war was more about re-asserting regional Sunni control than fighting the Houthi's.

Sunni Gulf nations have long had a fear of 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 from Shia Saudi's in their 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 of these movements has in reality been minimal.

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," says Gillian Schreiber, a writer with Middle East magazine Muftah. "However its role in the war has been overstated. Contrary to what the GCC want 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 have another trusted source for their weaponry: The militia was already flush with American arms from Saleh.


3. Neither the Saudi's or the U.S. 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 for two decades. Their recent takeover of the Yemeni army granted them unprecedented access to strategic military bases. So when the coalition began to destroy Houthi targets, weren't they simultaneously destroying one of the only militias in the region who have successfully battled Al Qaeda? As Shakdam questions, "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. And if that isn't disconcerting enough, consider too IS' sinister first official video release from its 'new Yemen branch' last week: 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 to maneuver in that country," he adds. Given the highly motivated and experienced nature of their force, Hassan-Yari believes there would have been a real possibility to see the beginning of the end of Al Qaeda in Yemen.

Conspiracy theorists may also consider current whisperings on the Arab street -- that 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 Saudi's would risk witnessing the rise of a potentially democratic government in their own backyard.


4. The Canadian government was a silent ideological partner in the coalition.

Canada was not officially a member of the coalition but it did take a position. Soon after the air strikes began, the foreign ministry released a statement: "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."

Our press coverage was not much better. Video and photos of the war's crippling impact on infrastructure and humanitarian lifelines were almost completely absent. Compare this to UK media, where Sky News correspondents regularly interviewed civilians, including Mohamed Al-Ammari who lost seven family members when an airstrike hit a fuel truck next to his house at 2:30 a.m. Even American media was more attentive, with intermittent, albeit U.S.-centric, reports of collateral damage.

It would be a grave mistake on our part to think Canadians don't need to know, or won't be impacted by what some might view as yet another senseless sectarian conflict between Arab countries. The truth is, we are guilty -- by association: Association of our government who on the one hand sends Canadian troops to Syria and Iraq to join the fight against terrorists, but on the other quietly backs them through miscalculated foreign policies and alliances with rogue regimes.

Let's not forget that our Saudi 'friends', in their claims to bring back democracy to Yemen, rule over a despotic monarchy whose theological foundation forms the genesis of every Islamist terror group in existence today. What could the Saudi's possibly know about democracy? And should we really be so taken aback then, when terrorist attacks are planned on Canadian soil?

A version of this piece originally appeared on Muftah and is reprinted with permission.

Shenaz Kermalli freelancer based in Toronto and writes about geo-politics in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @ShenazKermalli.

Photo: flickr/ Rod Waddington

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