On Anniversaries

Originally, we at the Yemen Peace Project had decided to refrain from commenting on the third “anniversary” of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. Mostly this is because we recognize March 26, 2015 as the severe escalation, but not the beginning, of Yemen’s civil war. That dishonor goes to the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh, who took a faltering transitional government hostage by occupying San’a on September 21, 2014.

Yet Houthi attempts to co-opt this date in their favor, combined with the efforts of activists and allies to rally around this day for anti-war purposes, has compelled two extended comments. First, the Yemen Peace Project condemns the barrage of missiles fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia last night. The action, which could disrupt a backchannel Saudi-Houthi attempt at rapprochement, was a dangerous and unwarranted escalation, deadly chest-thumping at the expense of peace. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the Egyptian man killed, and the Saudi Arabian residents terrified, by the missiles directed at their homes. We also hold in contempt the militaristic rally held by the Houthis in Yemen’s capital today. Unable to provide gas in San’a or respect the human rights of civilians in Taiz, all the Houthis can offer is spectacle.

Second, if we’re going to acknowledge anniversaries, we should keep better track of others beyond September 21 and March 26. Activists and journalists in countries supporting the Saudi-led coalition latch onto today because it’s tangible; in the United States, we can point to this date as the day on which our government began refueling coalition warplanes and furnishing targeting intelligence without monitoring or follow-up. It’s also the day that the Department of Defense and domestic weapons manufacturers began scrambling to fill more orders for missiles and heavy munitions that would give these refueled coalition planes weapons to train on civilians and combatants alike.

Other dates, however, are equally important to understanding US complicity in the Yemen’s long descent into chaos. We could mark November 23, 2011, when Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative that was supposed to mark his exit from the political scene. Yet the initiative governed a political transition more stage-managed than real, supported by the United States and Yemen’s Gulf neighbors as a means of imposing an ephemeral stability. Though it didn’t meet youth protesters’ demands for social justice, it did reset elite relations on a more slippery footing and, most damningly, granted immunity to Saleh, who stayed in the country to wreak havoc.

We should certainly acknowledge December 17, 2009, when US cruise missiles struck al-Majalah camp in Abyan province, murdering dozens of civilians alongside a handful of purported militants and kicking off a targeted-killing campaign that has lasted nearly a decade, undermined governance in Yemen, and solidified a US policy posture of kinetic over constructive engagement with Yemenis.

Nor should we forget November 27, 2001, when Saleh met with President Bush to offer both unflinching support for the war on terror and an extended hand for hundreds of millions in security assistance, which successive US administrations unstintingly provided. The money not only helped Saleh perpetuate a corrupt patronage system that contributed to Yemen’s collapse, it gave his security forces the weaponry and training they needed to more effectively quell nonviolent dissent.

Looking even further back, we could mark November 29, 1990, when the United States vindictively cut off its aid to Yemen and encouraged Saudi Arabia to expel hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers in retaliation for Yemen’s “no” vote on the Security Council resolution that launched America’s first war in Iraq. A US diplomat infamously told the Yemeni ambassador in New York that this would be “the most expensive vote you ever cast.” Yemen never recovered from the economic damage done that day.

US policy elsewhere in the region provides further dates for reflection. The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 threw the region into chaos and fundamentally altered Yemen’s domestic politics. Well before then, the US turned a blind eye to its regional allies’ financing of violent extremists, so long as these forces could be put to use either against America’s antagonists or towards fights in which the United States remained marginally interested. Saleh took advantage of this selective blind spot by recruiting former mujahideen to fight against southern secessionists in 1994, brutalizing a civil conflict that sowed the seeds of many of southern Yemenis’ grievances through today.

As parties to the conflict exploit this anniversary for their own cynical purposes, we encourage our allies to look beyond anniversaries as rallying points for retrospection or protest. For those who want the US government to stop perpetuating strife in Yemen, the whole calendar is a call to action.