The conflict has killed at least ten thousand civilians, and the country faces famine. Why are we still involved?
By Nicolas Niarchos | This article appears in the print edition of the January 22, 2018, issue, with the headline “Making War.” | Nicolas Niarchos is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker
Funerals in Yemen are traditionally large affairs. When prominent figures die, hundreds or even thousands of people come to pay their respects and to pray for them. Abdulqader Hilal Al-Dabab, the mayor of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, could expect such treatment. But Hilal used to ask for a simple burial. “If I get killed when I’m in office, I don’t want a state funeral,” he told his sons. He wanted to be buried in a grave he’d reserved next to his father’s.
Hilal had seen enough devastation to know to make plans for his demise. In the past three decades, Yemen has had nine wars, two insurgencies, and a revolution; Hilal governed a region with strong ties to Al Qaeda, and had survived an assassination attempt. A father of eleven, he was a former marathon runner who won North Yemen’s inter-university challenge three times. In Sana’a, Hilal kept a garden with a gazebo, where he received guests. Stephen Seche, the former United States Ambassador to Yemen, recalled sitting there while Hilal explained Yemeni politics. Other diplomats saw him as a moderating force, someone who could negotiate the intricate mesh of tribal, business, and political affiliations that make up Yemeni society.
Yemen’s most recent conflict began in early 2015, when Houthi rebels, from the country’s northern highlands, overran Sana’a and a Saudi-led coalition began bombing them. The Houthis allied with a former President and co-opted tribal networks in an effort to solidify and expand their power. Now they control much of the northwest of the country, while the internationally recognized government holds the south and the east. The Saudi coalition is made up of nine Middle Eastern and African countries, and is supported by the United States.
Sana’a has been in Houthi hands since the start of the war, but Hilal was neutral. “He had a lot of the right characteristics of somebody who you easily could have seen as being the person that would have been a consensus figure to emerge as a new transition President or Vice-President or Prime Minister,” Matthew Tueller, the current U.S. Ambassador, told me.
In early October, 2016, the father of Hilal’s close friend Jalal al-Ruwayshan died. Ruwayshan, the Minister of the Interior, was working with Hilal in negotiating between Yemen’s various factions to end the war. The Ruwayshan family announced that it would receive condolences at the Al-Sala Al-Kubra Community Hall, in Sana’a. On the night before the funeral, Hilal’s son Hussein called his father and asked him to urge the Ruwayshan family to consider postponing the event. Since the beginning of the war, the Saudi coalition’s air strikes have hit large civilian gatherings. Hilal replied that the Saudi Air Force would not bomb the funeral. “Even war has morals,” he said.
As Hilal left for the funeral, Ammar Yahiya al-Hebari was preparing his d.j. mixing board at the community hall. Hebari is a solid-looking forty-year-old, with a white stripe in his hair. He is famous across northern Yemen as a funeral chanter. Like Hilal, Hebari thought there would not be a strike. The rebels and the Saudi government had just agreed to a U.N.-brokered truce, and the funeral “was not a political or political-party gathering,” he told me.
In the early afternoon, the hall began to fill with men wearing white head scarves and the traditional curved daggers, called janbiyas, in their belts. Many were chewing high-quality khat, a mild stimulant leaf, which had been brought from Khawlan, the seat of the Ruwayshan family. At around one-thirty, Hebari started to chant. He estimated that some three thousand people had crowded into the hall. A rumor spread that the former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Houthi ally, would soon arrive. Documents given to Nawal Al-Maghafi, a journalist who made a documentary about the day’s events for the BBC, show that informants were providing the Saudi coalition with updates on who was there.
When Hilal arrived, Hebari noticed how relaxed he appeared. At one point, a beggar approached Hilal. His guards tried to shoo the man away, but Hilal reached into his shirt pocket and gave the beggar all his cash. “This was his last act,” Hebari told me.
A little after three o’clock, one of Hilal’s guards heard a noise. It was a coalition jet, crashing eastward through the hot afternoon sky. “Boss, I heard a jet,” he said. Hilal looked at him and shook his head. The hall rumbled with the noise of an aircraft a second time, louder, lower. The guard turned nervously to Hilal. The Mayor grinned and said, “Son, I’m not going to leave.”
The third time that the hall shook, Hilal’s guard heard the sound of air whistling against the tail fins of a bomb as it zigzagged toward them, its guidance system making corrections to its trajectory. “Sir, it’s a missile!” he shouted. Hilal was smiling. The floor erupted in flames. As the guard lost consciousness, he saw a wall collapse and crush Hilal.
More than a hundred and forty mourners were killed and five hundred were wounded in the strike. Afterward, Yemeni investigators unearthed a tail fin of one of the bombs. The serial number indicates that the bomb, a Mark-82—a sleek steel case eighty-seven inches long, twelve inches in diameter, and filled with five hundred pounds of explosive—was produced by Raytheon, the third-largest defense company in the United States. The bomb had been modified with a laser guidance system, made in factories in Arizona and Texas, called a Paveway-II. The weapons are sometimes referred to as “dumb bombs with graduate degrees.” “They had been sold to the Saudis on the understanding that they would make their targeting more accurate,” Mark Hiznay, the associate arms director at Human Rights Watch, told me. “It turned out that the Saudis were failing to take all the feasible precautions in attacks that were killing civilians accurately.”
Many who died had been negotiating between the warring factions. “It was such a foolish strike, because even the Saudis recognized that more people who were sympathetic to the Saudi position than the Houthi position were killed,” a senior State Department official told me. I asked a senior Arab diplomat from the Saudi coalition whom he could envisage in a transition government. “Who would you hand Yemen to? Who would be part of that?” he asked. “There is nobody.”
Since the war began, at least ten thousand Yemeni civilians have been killed, though the number is potentially much higher, because few organizations on the ground have the resources to count the dead. Some three million people have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands have left the country. Before the war, Yemen was the Middle East’s poorest state, relying on imports to feed the population. Now, after effectively being blockaded by the coalition for more than two and a half years, it faces famine. More than a million people have cholera, and thousands have died from the disease. unicef, the World Food Program, and the World Health Organization have called the situation in Yemen the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Yet the U.S. and Great Britain have continued to support the coalition, mainly with weapons sales and logistical help. (A small contingent of U.S. Special Forces fights Al Qaeda militants in the south of the country.) Without foreign assistance, it would be very difficult for the Saudis to wage war. As casualties mount, legislators in the U.S. have begun to question support for the Saudis. Nonetheless, the Administration of Donald Trump has refused to criticize the kingdom.
Yemen’s history is marked by foreign interventions that have failed to reckon with the complexity of the country’s politics. In the nineteen-seventies, the country was divided into South Yemen and North Yemen. In 1978, Saleh, a young colonel, took power in the North, after his predecessor was killed by a Communist agent with a suitcase bomb. Saleh was little known, and not from the Yemeni élite, but he was skilled at manipulating the country’s mixture of tribes, religious groups, and interested foreign parties—a feat he called “dancing on the heads of snakes.” When the two Yemens unified, in 1990, it was under Saleh’s leadership.
The Saudis saw Saleh as an effective but unreliable ally, and they began to influence Yemen by going around him. Flush with money donated by sheikhs from the Gulf states, Yemenis who had been living in Saudi Arabia came home and founded schools that promoted Salafi Islam, an austere Sunni doctrine that is closely linked to the Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia. The Salafis soon became a powerful religious and political constituency, and they preached against Zaydism, the branch of Islam that the Houthis practice.
The Houthi movement takes its name from the Houthi family, whose home province, Saada, in the north of Yemen, has always enjoyed a degree of autonomy. (A long-serving State Department employee remembers visiting an open-air arms market there soon after Saleh came to power. He was told that he could order a Polish tank.) In a photograph of the family taken in the nineteen-nineties, Badreddin al-Houthi, a small man with dark eyes and the traditional white turban of an imam, is dwarfed by his sons, who surround him. At the beginning of the nineties, Badreddin began to organize the Houthi clan to counter the Salafi movement around Saada.
Badreddin had four wives and at least thirteen sons, who set up popular summer camps, which, by the mid-nineties, had attracted some twenty thousand people. The camps, using rhetoric borrowed from Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and its Iranian backers, promoted Zaydi Islam. They also embraced the causes of Shiites, whom they saw as being oppressed by Sunnis around the Middle East and North Africa. Badreddin’s sons screened videos of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. In the mid-nineties, Badreddin’s eldest son, Hussein, travelled to Qom, a Shiite center of learning in Iran, where he reportedly began developing ties to the Iranian regime. When he returned to Yemen, he started denouncing the U.S. and Israel. He founded Ansar Allah, the political movement that came to be known as the Houthis. In January, 2002, he delivered “A Scream in the Face of the Arrogant,” a speech that ended with a slogan that is now chanted by Houthis, and which, in red and green Arabic letters, adorns fighters’ assault rifles:
God is great!
Death to America!
Death to Israel!
A curse on the Jews!
Victory for Islam!
Saleh, who had begun receiving weapons and equipment from the U.S., in exchange for promising to oppose terrorism, found this anti-Americanism untenable, and sent troops to the north. In June, 2004, Hussein took refuge in the mountains and began a guerrilla war. Saleh’s troops found the cave in which he was hiding, poured gasoline inside, and set it on fire. Hussein was soon captured and, in September, Saleh’s government announced that he had been killed, and hung posters of his corpse around Saada.
In the following decade, the Houthis fought six wars with Saleh’s government. “Those wars really were brutal,” Bernard Haykel, a scholar of the Middle East who visited Saada at the time, told me. They “pushed the Houthis to the edge of despair: huge numbers of casualties, lots of generally displaced people.” During this period, the Saudis largely ignored Yemen. “I think that a vacuum was created that was filled by Iran and Hezbollah,” Haykel said. “Lots of Houthis and Zaydis were going back and forth to Beirut and also to Iran.” Still, Iranian investment was limited. As Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi Arabia who teaches at Texas A. & M., said, “The Houthis wanted to be affiliated with the Iranians much more than the Iranians wanted to be affiliated with them.”
In 2009, at Saleh’s request, the Saudis began attacking the Houthis. Abdulqader Hilal had led efforts at mediation with the Houthis, but he had resigned after he was accused of sending a sweet cake to a rebel leader. The Houthis were more useful to Saleh as enemies: a leaked State Department cable shows that he tried to kill one of his generals, who he thought posed a threat to his power, by telling the Royal Saudi Air Force that his headquarters was a Houthi target; multiple reports from soldiers indicate that Saleh allowed the Houthis to rearm, and even left them weaponry.
At the same time, Saleh told the U.S. that he was being undermined by the Iranians, and he requested more funding. “The Houthis are your enemies, too,” Saleh told John Brennan, President Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, when he visited that year. “Iran is trying to settle old scores against the U.S.” Seche noted that, since 2002, the U.S. had spent more than a hundred and fifteen million dollars equipping Saleh’s forces.
These days, Hezbollah’s and Iran’s relationship with the Houthis is no secret. Hassan Nasrallah and Abdelmalik al-Houthi, the current head of the movement, praise each other in videos posted online. Iran has not admitted to arming the Houthis, but I recently asked a senior Iranian diplomat whether his country was supporting the Houthis. “Iran has its own self-interest in the region,” he told me. When I pressed him, he smiled and replied, “Iran is no saint.”
In early 2011, April Alley, a researcher for the International Crisis Group, was sitting with Abdulqader Hilal at a friend’s house, where he was hosting a khat-chewing gathering. On TV, protesters in Tunisia were demanding that their President step down. It was the beginning of the Arab Spring. “We were all debating what it would mean for Yemen, exactly,” Alley said. “And I remember him saying it wouldn’t be the same.” Yemen’s situation differed from that of countries like Tunisia and Egypt, where authority was centralized, and most of the weapons were held by the military. Yemen had the second-highest level of civilian gun ownership in the world, and the armed forces had divided loyalties. “Yemen is different going into all these things,” Hilal said.
Protesters gathered in Sana’a, and a violent year followed, in which government troops shot demonstrators and Saleh was wounded in a bomb attack. In February, 2012, he stepped down. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, a diminutive bureaucrat who had served as Vice-President, began a two-year term. But the Houthis, who had participated in the uprising against Saleh, argued that power-sharing reforms endorsed by Hadi unfairly removed the northern regions’ access to the sea. They started pushing southward, out of their traditional homeland.
After Saleh left office, Abdulqader Hilal was appointed mayor of Sana’a. In 2014, when the Houthis began fighting Sunni Islamists on the outskirts of the capital, he led a negotiating team to enforce a truce that both sides had signed. “We just climbed the mountain to talk to them, and reminded them of what the agreement had been,” his son Hussein told me. “We were successful to stop this round of the war.”
A couple of months later, Saleh resurfaced, having performed a remarkable feat of political acrobatics: after leaving office, he had begun secretly collaborating with the Houthis. With his help, the Houthis invaded Sana’a, where, under the guise of fighting corruption, they began to install their leaders in key positions. After the Houthis took Sana’a, Hilal complained that their forces were stealing municipal equipment. When his car was stolen at a checkpoint, he briefly resigned. Hadi, who, though under house arrest, was still technically the head of state, refused his resignation. Hilal used his position to negotiate the release of high-profile officials who were being held by the Houthis. “We were expecting at any time that the Houthis might also keep my father from going outside his home,” Hussein said. “But that didn’t happen.”
In March, 2015, Hadi managed to escape, fleeing south. The Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain, and seven other Arab and African countries, began bombing Yemen, with the stated aim of restoring Hadi to the Presidency. In Washington and Riyadh, Saudi diplomats and soldiers assured their U.S. counterparts that the war would be over within six weeks. A U.N. Security Council resolution legitimatized their intervention.
Some officials in Washington were skeptical of the Saudis’ plans, however. “I think they had a slightly rosier interpretation of how quickly the military effort would be successful,” Nitin Chadda, who was an adviser on national security to the White House, told me. The Saudis had been “choreographing” their desire to take steps against the Houthis, because they were uncomfortable with the idea of an Iranian proxy on their border, he said. But the specific plans to attack Yemen were not communicated to the U.S. Within D.C. circles, Chadda said, “there was certainly frustration” that the Saudis had acted so quickly, without clearly defining their long-term objectives.
In May, Andrew Exum was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy. “When I arrived, I sensed a lot of frustration,” he told me. The Administration was unsure about whether it wanted to be involved in the war. “Are we supposed to help the Saudis win or not? I don’t think we ever made our mind up there.”
Hilal decided to remain mayor of Sana’a, because he was concerned for the inhabitants, Hussein told me. “We’re talking about four million lives, we’re talking about people from everywhere in Yemen,” he said. “If he left office, things would be under the control of Houthis,” who had no experience running large metropolitan areas. In speeches to citizens, Hilal urged a kind of Blitz spirit: “Keep going for the glory of Yemen, for the ascendance of Yemen, for the stability of Yemen, for the revival of Yemen.”
The Saudis pounded Saada day and night, using bombs and cluster munitions, but they didn’t manage to dislodge the Houthis. Exum told me, “It was always going to be exceptionally difficult for the Saudis and the Emiratis to achieve a desired political outcome through the use of primarily air forces.” Apart from a couple of skirmishes, the Saudis used no ground troops. On May 8th, a spokesperson for the Saudi Army declared the entire city of Saada and a nearby area to be “military targets.” Within two months, air strikes had destroyed two hundred and twenty-six buildings in the city.
In November, 2015, despite American skepticism toward the Saudi war plan and evidence of heavy civilian casualties, the Obama Administration agreed to a giant weapons sale totalling $1.29 billion. The Saudis were authorized to buy seven thousand and twenty Paveway-II bombs. By the end of Obama’s Presidency, the U.S. had offered more than a hundred and fifteen billion dollars’ worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, the largest amount under any President, including warships, air-defense systems, and tanks.
The history of large-scale arms sales to Saudi Arabia dates to the late sixties, when U.S. weapons manufacturers realized that the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the era were being fought with Soviet and French arms. “For our defense companies, it was very frustrating,” Rachel Bronson, the author of “Thicker Than Oil,” a 2006 book on U.S.-Saudi relations, told me. The arms manufacturers lobbied the U.S. government, contending that arms sales were good policy. After all, U.S. experts would have to assemble and maintain the weapons, which could theoretically be dismantled if the Saudis were pursuing anti-U.S. policies. It was also good business: in 2016, the maintenance contract for the Royal Saudi Air Force’s two hundred and thirty F-15 fighter jets alone was worth $2.5 billion.
The Obama Administration saw Saudi Arabia both as a bulwark against terrorism and as a counterbalance to Iran. In “Kings and Presidents,” a book on the history of U.S.-Saudi relations, the former C.I.A. officer Bruce Riedel writes that “no president since Franklin Roosevelt courted Saudi Arabia as zealously as did Obama.” Not only did Obama authorize more arms sales than any other U.S. President; he visited Saudi Arabia more frequently than any of his predecessors. On his first trip to the Middle East, Riyadh was his first stop.
But, during the Arab Spring, the Saudis became angered by Obama’s failure to support their allies in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain. The nuclear deal with Iran, signed in mid-2015, upset them further. “The Obama Administration was legitimately worried that a major fissure between the United States and Saudi Arabia could weaken the Iran deal,” Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, who has opposed the U.S. government’s policy in Yemen, told me. “I think these arms sales were a way to placate the Saudis.”
The Obama Administration found itself entangled in the complexities of a war that involved so many regional players. The confusion extended to humanitarian concerns. Jeremy Konyndyk, at the time the director of usaid’s office of U.S. foreign-disaster assistance, told me that it often seemed as if the Saudis were thwarting efforts to get food to Yemen’s starving populace. Another former senior Administration official told me that the U.S. government spent four million dollars on cranes to unload relief ships at the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, but the coalition, which had blockaded Yemen, did not allow the cranes into the country.
U.S. officials tried to help the Saudis improve their targeting. They eventually expanded a “no strike” list to include thirty-three thousand targets. “We broadened and broadened and broadened that list over time as the Saudis kept striking things that we would have thought they wouldn’t strike,” Konyndyk told me. The State Department sent an expert, Larry Lewis, to Saudi Arabia. When a civilian target was hit, Lewis wanted to help the Saudis implement ways of investigating the incident, to “avoid the same kind of thing happening again,” he said. Lower-ranking Saudis seemed pained by the casualties. “There was definitely a feeling that, of course we want to protect civilians, you know, we’re good Muslims,” Lewis said. The Saudi leadership was less concerned; as Lewis put it, from the rank of lieutenant colonel upward “there was less pressure for change.”
In the last months of the Obama Administration, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to mediate between the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the Saudi-backed government. Hilal and Ruwayshan were involved in efforts to negotiate peace. But the meetings collapsed, owing first to Houthi intransigence and then to Hadi’s resistance to a U.N. road map to the negotiations. As Peter Salisbury, a fellow of Chatham House, the British policy institute, told me, the Houthis have few incentives to negotiate, because, “from their perspective, they’re doing the best they’ve ever done.” U.S. officials also noted Iran’s open support for the Houthis. “They were basically waving at our surveillance aircraft,” one official told me. In retrospect, this seems to have been a calculated move. “Remember that the Iranians in Yemen will always get a phenomenally high return on investments,” Salisbury said. “Let’s say they’re spending ten, twenty, thirty million dollars a year on Yemen. The Saudis are spending billions of dollars a year.”
The funeral-hall strike that killed Hilal appalled the U.S. officials who had been working with the coalition to reduce civilian casualties. The Saudi government initially denied responsibility for the bombing. On October 9th, a U.S. spokesman made an unusually harsh statement, saying, “U.S. security coöperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check.” A few days later, the coalition admitted that it had dropped the bombs, but blamed bad intelligence from its Yemeni partners. The informants had erroneously indicated that Saleh was in the hall: the leader’s security detail had entered, but Saleh had remained outside.
The U.S. saw the Saudi explanation as insufficient. The strike “so clearly symbolized much of what was wrong” with U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia, Robert Malley, a special assistant to the President at the time, told me. At the end of 2016, the U.S. halted the sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia. “It got to the point where the Saudi intervention was going so off the rails it was destroying the country,” Max Bergmann, a former State Department official, said. Opposition to the Saudi-led coalition grew in Congress. Ted Lieu, a Democratic representative from California, had served as a judge advocate general in the Air Force. “These look like war crimes to me,” Lieu told me. “I decided to try to help those who don’t have a voice. There were really no lobbyists out there championing civilians in Yemen.” In July, the House had passed the Lieu Amendment, which increased the obligation for the State Department and the Department of Defense to report whether the Saudi-led coalition was prosecuting the war in a way that abided by their humanitarian commitments.
A month after the funeral-hall strike, Donald Trump was elected President. In January, when he was inaugurated, he promised a review of Obama’s foreign policy. “Their objective is a strong relationship with the Saudis, a strong relationship with the Emiratis,” Bruce Riedel told me. “Yemen is just not a priority.” The Saudis lobbied Trump’s National Security Council for the cranes purchased by usaid for Hodeidah to be returned. The National Security Council acceded, and the cranes have been sent to storage, at the U.S.’s expense. The former senior Administration official told me, “Since January, you’ve seen the humanitarian situation in Yemen fall off a cliff, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” According to Rajat Madhok, of unicef, the cholera crisis and the malnutrition are unprecedented. “ ‘Bad’ would be an understatement,” Madhok told me. “You’re looking at a health collapse, a systemic collapse.”
Trump’s connections to Saudi Arabia are hardly hidden. During the 2016 election, his organization opened eight companies there, which he subsequently closed after their existence was made public. Shortly after his Inauguration, in January of last year, as Isaac Arnsdorf reported for Politico, lobbyists for Saudi Arabia checked into a Trump hotel and ended up spending more than a quarter of a million dollars. In April, Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, signed on to a partnership with a law and lobbying firm retained by Saudi Arabia.
In May, Trump travelled to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip. Amid great pageantry, he posed for a strange photograph with the King, their hands atop a glowing orb, and performed a traditional sword dance. According to documents obtained by the Daily Beast, the Saudis presented Trump with lavish gifts, including robes lined with tiger and cheetah fur. While there, Trump announced a hundred-and-ten-billion-dollar arms deal. Reversing Obama’s decision, precision-guided missiles were included in the package. Trump said that the deal would see “hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Since the election, Saudi Arabia has increased its lobbying presence in Washington. Some of the lobbyists have even found their way into Trump’s government: soon after being hired as a commissioner for White House fellowships, Rick Hohlt, a Republican political consultant from Indiana, filed forms indicating that he had received nearly half a million dollars from the government of Saudi Arabia. Hohlt declined to speak with me, but he told the Center for Public Integrity that he was involved in lobbying congressional officials about weapons sales.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is also associated with the Saudis. He has flown to the kingdom repeatedly for secret talks. In a relationship fostered by the Emiratis and by the Lebanese-American businessman Thomas Barrack, who is a friend of Trump’s, Kushner has grown close to King Salman’s thirty-two-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a chief proponent of the war in Yemen. (Gause, the professor at Texas A. & M. University, told me, “This is his war, it was his idea, he owns it.”) Kushner negotiated the new arms deal. As initially reported by the Times, he called Marillyn Hewson, the chair of Lockheed Martin, and asked her to lower the price of a radar system. According to a number of current and former government officials and weapons experts, Kushner’s action was irregular. It was also bad dealmaking. “Usually, a U.S. official would be lobbying a foreign government on behalf of U.S. industry, not vice versa,” Andrew Exum told me. “That just struck me as odd.”
As Riedel and others pointed out, however, the deal isn’t all that it appears to be. Riedel said that the agreement doesn’t actually commit the Saudis to purchasing arms. With falling oil prices, he said, “where is Saudi Arabia going to get a hundred and ten billion dollars these days to buy more weapons?”
Still, a parsing of Trump’s words is terrifying; when he visited Riyadh, he made no mention of human rights. As the senior State Department official told me, “The Trump Administration has decided to de-link the human-rights dialogue from the security-support dialogue.”
Senator Murphy told me that the U.S.’s support for the coalition will prove detrimental to the country’s interests. “Our first job is to protect our citizenry, and, to me, these arms sales put U.S. lives in jeopardy,” he said. Dafna H. Rand, a Middle East expert who covered Yemen for the State Department under Obama, said, “The longer this war goes on, the longer there’s a risk of deep resentment against the United States that will be radicalizing and lead to full-strain extremism.” The Yemenis I spoke to expressed frustration with the U.S.’s role in the war. “We used to love and appreciate the U.S., because a large number of Yemenis live there,” Hebari, the chanter, told me. The war has now changed that calculus. “What appears to me is that the U.S. is funding and Saudi Arabia is the implementer.”
In August, the alliance between the Houthis and Saleh began to show cracks. The Houthis murdered a top Saleh aide at a checkpoint; in response, to prove his popularity, Saleh threw a huge celebration in Sana’a, with giant banners and blaring music. Sixteen hundred poems were composed in his honor for the event. But his power had been diminished by the conflict. “President Saleh used to say that ruling Yemen was like dancing on the heads of snakes,” Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemeni expert in conflict resolution, told me. “Well, now one of the snakes—the Houthis—has bitten him.” On the morning of December 4th, a group of Houthi soldiers raided Saleh’s house in Sana’a; later that day, a video was released showing his dead body in the bed of a pickup truck.
The State Department insists that it is doing everything it can to bring an end to the war and to reduce civilian casualties. “Everybody, including the Saudi leadership, agrees the war has gone on too long, proved too costly, killed too many lives, caused too much humanitarian damage, too much infrastructure damage,” Timothy Lenderking, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State who oversees Yemen policy, told me. “The Saudis are not going to get everything that they want, nor are the Houthis.”
But since President Trump’s visit to Riyadh, and the new precision-guided-munitions sale, the pace of the coalition’s bombing raids has increased. In May, the Saudi foreign minister committed to expanding the no-strike list in Yemen and promised to abide by the laws of armed conflict. But, in a single week this past summer, some sixty civilians were killed in Saudi-led strikes. On August 23rd, coalition bombs killed around fifty farmers who were staying at a hotel. A journalist who visited the site said that the ceiling of the building turned black with charred blood.
Two days later, a Saudi strike, aimed at what the spokesman for the coalition later said was a Houthi command-and-control center, hit an apartment building in Sana’a. Mohamed Abdullah Sabrah, a forty-two-year-old sales supervisor at a food-importing company, lives in an apartment about thirty yards from the building that was struck. He said that the area had housed a missile-storage depot on a nearby mountain before the Houthis came to Sana’a. Since the beginning of the war, he told me, the Saudis had frequently bombed the neighborhood. Yet he hadn’t seen trucks or soldiers arriving for a long time. “It would be impossible for Ansar Allah”—the name for the Houthis—“to be stupid enough to keep weapons inside that place,” Sabrah said.
On the night of the bombing, at around 2 a.m., he heard the thud of ordnance on the mountain. “We went to a corridor in my apartment that has no windows or doors, for fear of glass and shrapnel,” he told me. “We hid there. I was holding my granddaughter, and my wife was holding my daughter.”
Another blast followed. “Suddenly, the whole world turned upside down, the building was shaking beneath us, and shrapnel came to us,” Sabrah went on. It was as if some malevolent spirit had rushed through the room. “Nothing was left. My furniture, the cabinets—every wooden thing was broken.”
In the rubble outside, Sabrah saw what he described as “bits and parts” of human beings. “A woman used to live with her children in one floor of the building. They used to get up in the morning and sell boiled eggs,” Sabrah told me, his anger rising. “What danger did these children pose to the coalition? What danger did they pose by selling eggs in the street?”
When I asked Sabrah how he felt about U.S. involvement in the war, he replied, “America is the main sponsor of all that is happening to us.” He had reached this conclusion only recently. “The Gulf countries are merely tools in its hands.”