Peace talks in Kuwait: Will they solve Yemen’s crisis?

Helen Lackner writes: Thirteen months into the full scale war which has encompassed the country, negotiations started in Kuwait on 21 April between the Saleh-Huthi alliance who control the Yemeni northern highlands and the capital Sana’a and the internationally recognised government of president Hadi who was elected in 2012, and has been in exile in Riyadh for most of the last year.

A month into the talks, their main achievement is that they have not definitively broken down. Insofar as any negotiations are taking place, it is thanks to the systematic interventions from the Shaikh of Kuwait or other senior figures from different countries to bring one or the other side back to the table after their routine almost daily walk outs. Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN special adviser and his team do their best and this time, at least, have real support from the international community.

While naïve observers might think that the ongoing and worsening suffering of 25 million Yemenis might have brought the warring parties to their senses to seek a solution without imposing further starvation, thirst, destitution and death, it would seem they consider this irrelevant.

Ensconced in their luxury hotels in Riyadh or their protected environments in Sana’a, living conditions of the population appear to be the least of their concerns. Instead, their petty rivalries, long-standing feuds and greed for power and control determine their tactics. Any planning they may be doing for the future may well focus more on how they will appropriate future external humanitarian and development funding.

So, why are these negotiations taking place? Answering this question may also help to understand their likely outcome. In addition to the military stalemate, and the collapsed economy, the role of external actors is as relevant today as it was to reach the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement of 2011 and the transitional regime which followed it. [Continue reading…]

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As war strangles Yemen, many fear the grip will never break

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The New York Times reports: The familiar thud of shelling echoed off the mountains that cradle this besieged and ravaged city. For a few terrifying minutes, a warplane circled over neighborhoods and humming afternoon markets before dropping a bomb that momentarily silenced the guns.

But the fighting never stops for long in Taiz, or across Yemen for that matter, a country that has endured 14 months of shattering civil war.

Yemen’s government and its main opponents, the Houthi rebels, have been negotiating for weeks to end the conflict, under intense pressure from the United States and from other Western nations alarmed that Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is gaining recruits, weapons and money in the midst of the country’s collapse.

A frenzied escalation of violence over the last few days is threatening a nationwide cease-fire that was supposed to build confidence for the talks. The bloodshed has laid bare the furious rivalries — between aging warlords, tribes, Islamist groups and regional powers — that are making Yemen’s hostilities almost impossible to stop.

Even if the negotiations somehow succeed, Yemenis scarred by the vicious fighting, past broken promises and deepening divisions say they fear that any truce would just be a prelude to an even uglier war, fought between regions, religious sects — even neighbors. [Continue reading…]

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Court papers reveal Anwar al-Awlaki’s work as trainer and bomb expert

The New York Times reports: The Qaeda bomb-making instructor carefully demonstrated for his student how to mix the chemicals to make a volatile powder, then supervised a test explosion and added a sinister final tip: tape bolts around the homemade bomb to produce lethal shrapnel.

The explosive expert’s identity, revealed by a Qaeda operative facing sentencing next week, came as a surprise: He was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who had joined Al Qaeda in Yemen and become the terrorist network’s leading English-language propagandist.

Mr. Awlaki had long been known for public oratory on behalf of Al Qaeda before he was killed in a drone strike in 2011 on President Obama’s orders, making him the first American citizen killed without criminal charges or trial in the campaign against terrorism.

But new court filings in New York offer the most detailed account yet of a hidden side of Mr. Awlaki’s work inside Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen — as a hands-on trainer who taught recruits how to make bombs, gave them money for missions and offered suggestions about how to carry out suicide attacks.

The papers, part of a sentencing memorandum submitted by the government, were filed Tuesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan in the case of Mr. Awlaki’s former bomb-making student, Minh Quang Pham, a Vietnamese-British convert to Islam. He has pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related counts and is to be sentenced Monday.

In their papers, federal prosecutors suggested that 50 years would be an appropriate sentence for Mr. Pham, who is in his early 30s and traveled secretly to Yemen in 2010, where he swore allegiance to Al Qaeda’s affiliate there and worked on the group’s online propaganda publication, Inspire.

The court papers make it clear that Mr. Pham admired Mr. Awlaki. He “visibly teared up” when discussing Mr. Awlaki, and he repeatedly referred to Mr. Awlaki with the honorific title “sheikh,” prosecutors wrote. [Continue reading…]

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UK’s claim Saudi Arabia hasn’t breached humanitarian law in Yemen adds to ‘anything goes’ attitude, say MPs

The Guardian reports: The British government’s claim that Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen has not breached international humanitarian law is “deeply disappointing” and contributes to an “anything goes” attitude from the opposing sides in the conflict, the international development select committee has said.

The finding comes as a rebuke to the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who made the assessment despite a UN-sponsored report and many charities presenting evidence to the contrary. The Conservative-dominated committee said the Saudi inquiry into the Yemen campaign, supported by the Foreign Office, was inadequate and called for an independent inquiry.

“It is deeply disappointing that the UK government does not accept that breaches of international humanitarian law have taken place in Yemen,” the committee said in a report. “The failure to hold parties to the conflict to account for their actions appears to have contributed to an ‘anything goes’ attitude by both sides to this conflict.” [Continue reading…]

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Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan: The world’s most-needed hospitals are under attack

The Washington Post reports: The al-Quds hospital in Aleppo targeted in Wednesday night’s attacks was one of 150 hospitals supported by Doctors Without Borders in Syria. The organization directly runs six in the country, but provides funding and medical supplies to other medical facilities.

The international charity group, also referred to as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in French, said the medical facility was directly hit and reduced to “rubble.” The organization has condemned the overnight attack, which also claimed the life of one of the area’s last pediatricians.

“Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?” said Muskilda Zancada, the MSF head in Syria, in an online statement.

The United Nations estimates that at least half of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed, and the spark of attacks on hospitals is an especially disturbing trend. In armed conflict, hospitals are protected by international law. Yet the facilities supported and run by the Nobel Prize-winning organization have frequently come under attack. And it’s not only medical structures. The group said five rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defense organization have also been killed. [Continue reading…]

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‘America treats us worse than animals’ — victims of Obama’s secret drone war speak out

The Guardian reports: Because US drone strikes are cloaked in secrecy, occur in remote or dangerous locales and target people presumed to be terrorists, Americans rarely hear from survivors or their relatives. But a theme emerges in interviews the Guardian has conducted with more than half a dozen drone survivors: the pain from the strike never ends, as the apparatus of secrecy renders closure unobtainable.

According to six people in Pakistan and Yemen who have lost their brothers, sons and grandparents to drone strikes, the strike lasts a moment and the consequences last a lifetime. Most of them have never told their stories to an American reporter. Some of them have theories about whom the US was targeting, while others are left guessing. The interviews were facilitated by the human rights group Reprieve and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights and conducted in translation.

The people are left impoverished, anguished and infuriated. Justice, let alone apologies, never arrive, even as a modest amount of blood money flows from the local governments. The United States, which styles itself a force for justice in the world, is to them the remote force that introduced death into their lives and treats them like they are subhuman, fit only to be targeted. At any moment, they fear, another drone could come for them.

The White House has said it will soon release of a tally of drone deaths. Relatives of the dead and survivors of the attacks expect little of it to include the truth, and doubt it will lead to the public apologies they desire – particularly since a senior aide to Barack Obama recently told the Atlantic that the president “has not had a second thought about drones”.

The CIA would not comment for this piece. An Obama administration official said: “It is certainly not the case that lives of a certain nationality are more valuable to us than those of any other. What is true, however, is that the president has said … that the American people need information to hold their government accountable. That is in part why we have been especially transparent when it comes to the deaths of US citizens.”

Nabila’s father, and Mamana’s son, Rafiq ur-Rehman, took a different view. “If America kills any westerner, one of their own, white people, they apologize and compensate. But if it’s Pakistanis like us, they don’t care. In my opinion, America treats us worse than animals.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi-led air strikes with U.S. support responsible for two thirds of civilian deaths in Yemen conflict

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Reuters reports: U.N. investigators say that air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition are responsible for two thirds of the 3,200 civilians who have died in Yemen, or approximately 2,000 deaths. They said that Saudi forces have killed twice as many civilians as other forces in Yemen.

On the ground, Saudi-led forces have often struggled to achieve their goals, making slow headway in areas where support for Iran-allied Houthi rebels runs strong.

And along the Saudi border, the Houthis and allied forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh have attacked almost daily since July, killing hundreds of Saudi troops.

Instead of being the centrepiece of a more assertive Saudi regional strategy, the Yemen intervention has called into question Riyadh’s military influence, said one former senior Obama administration official. “There’s a long way to go. Efforts to create an effective pan-Arab military force have been disappointing.”

Behind the scenes, the West has been enmeshed in the conflict. Between 50 and 60 U.S. military personnel have provided coordination and support to the Saudi-led coalition, a U.S. official told Reuters. And six to 10 Americans have worked directly inside the Saudi air operations centre in Riyadh. Britain and France, Riyadh’s other main defence suppliers, have also provided military assistance.

Last year, the Obama administration had the U.S. military send precision-guided munitions from its own stocks to replenish dwindling Saudi-led coalition supplies, a source close to the Saudi government said. Administration officials argued that even more Yemeni civilians would die if the Saudis had to use bombs with less precise guidance systems. [Continue reading…]

William D Hartung writes: When President Obama visits Saudi Arabia this week for a meeting with representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, he should avoid doing what he did at Camp David last May, the last time he met with them: promise more arms sales. Since Mr. Obama hosted that meeting, the United States has offered over $33 billion in weaponry to its Persian Gulf allies, with the bulk of it going to Saudi Arabia. The results have been deadly.

The Saudi-American arms deals are a continuation of a booming business that has developed between Washington and Riyadh during the Obama years. In the first six years of the Obama administration, the United States entered into agreements to transfer nearly $50 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia, with tens of billions of dollars of additional offers in the pipeline.

The Pentagon claims that these arms transfers to Saudi Arabia “improve the security of an important partner which has been and continues to be an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.” Recent Saudi actions suggest otherwise. [Continue reading…]

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Britain’s covert war in Yemen

Vice News reports: In a rural valley in southern Yemen lies Wadi Rafad, a collection of farms 50 miles from the provincial capital of Ataq. Amid an arid landscape dotted with lemon orchards and cornfields, villagers were used to the peace being disturbed by the buzzing of US drones flying overhead. But on the afternoon of May 6, 2012, something changed.

Around 4.30pm an aircraft came into view, its white fuselage clearly visible against the stark blue sky. Rather than overfly the valley, the CIA drone fired Hellfire missiles straight at Fahd al-Quso, who was working his land. He was killed instantly — but shrapnel from the blast also engulfed Nasser Salim Lakdim, a 19-year-old student who had just returned home to tend his family’s plantation. Nasser’s father came rushing back to the farm to find his son in pieces. “It was horrifying, I can barely describe it,” he told VICE News.

The strike was among the foremost successes of the US counterterrorism effort in Yemen. Al-Quso, its target, was a senior field commander in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He had participated in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and had threatened to attack American embassies.

It was also an example of successful cooperation between British and American intelligence agencies. The US had hunted al-Quso for half a decade, and the intelligence that led to this strike came from a British agent working for the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) — commonly known as MI6 — who had infiltrated AQAP.

Far from being a one-off tip, a VICE News investigation can exclusively reveal that this was a high point in systemic collaboration between SIS and the CIA to degrade AQAP through a combination of special forces operations and drone strikes.

A former senior CIA official responsible for operations in Yemen told VICE News that “the most important contribution” to the intelligence for the strike came from “a very important British capability.” The UK agent provided the CIA with al-Quso’s position, allowing a drone to track his car. “That was quite unique,” the former official explained, “it was something we didn’t have.”

The use of drones in Yemen has long been characterized as a unilateral US policy. In response to a 2014 parliamentary question on Britain’s role in the US drone program, UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hugh Robertson said: “Drone strikes against terrorist targets in Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US governments.”

However, following interviews with more than two dozen current and former British, American, and Yemeni officials, VICE News can reveal that the UK played a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program. The US-led covert war in Yemen, now in its 15th year, has killed up to 1,651 people, including up to 261 civilians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. [Continue reading…]

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Cash, candy, and ‘collateral damage’: An anatomy of a CIA-MI6 drone assassination

Vice News reports: “I was on my way to play football with my friends when the airstrike hit,” Amin Ali al-Wisabi told VICE News, recounting the day when a CIA drone struck his hometown of Azzan in Yemen. “We had stopped to sit down and plan the match when all of a sudden an explosion hit a passing al-Qaeda car.”

Recovering from his shock, 13-year-old Amin realized he had been hit by shrapnel. “Blood was pouring from my leg.”

Next to Amin, his friend Hamza Khaled Baziyad lay unconscious. In total, five children aged between 10 and 14 were injured as they gathered close to the local mosque.

Though the number of people injured in covert US strikes is not officially recorded, they play a crucial role in the struggle for hearts and minds across Yemen’s southern hinterland. Bystanders and family rushed the children to a local clinic, where Hamza awoke while shrapnel was extracted from his chest. All of the children survived. [Continue reading…]

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Two ways the war in Yemen is turning into a disaster for the U.S.

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Two significant reports last week illustrated the awkward role of the United States in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, which has claimed thousands of lives, seen the virtual collapse of the fragile Yemeni state, and sparked a grim humanitarian crisis in what was already the Middle East’s most impoverished nation.

An investigation by Human Rights Watch published on Wednesday alleged that at least two deadly airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition last month used munitions supplied by the United States. The attack, which hit a town in northwestern Yemen, killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children.

Last month also marked the anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s entrance into the civil war on its southern border — an intervention that has seen Riyadh and its allies get bogged down in a difficult battle with the country’s Houthi rebels, who still control the capital Sanaa and much of northern Yemen.

Separately, a Reuters special report raised the possibility that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group’s influential Yemeni wing — long the target of U.S. counterterror operations — has gained ground in the shadow of the Saudi-led war, exploiting Yemen’s security vacuum to consolidate its position in a string of coastal cities while building up an impressive treasury of plundered wealth. [Continue reading…]

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How Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger – and richer

Reuters reports: Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of Islamic State abroad and security crackdowns at home, al Qaeda in Yemen now openly rules a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.

If Islamic State’s capital is the Syrian city of Raqqa, then al Qaeda’s is Mukalla, a southeastern Yemeni port city of 500,000 people. Al Qaeda fighters there have abolished taxes for local residents, operate speedboats manned by RPG-wielding fighters who impose fees on ship traffic, and make propaganda videos in which they boast about paving local roads and stocking hospitals.

The economic empire was described by more than a dozen diplomats, Yemeni security officials, tribal leaders and residents of Mukalla. Its emergence is the most striking unintended consequence of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The campaign, backed by the United States, has helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago.

Yemeni government officials and local traders estimated the group, as well as seizing the bank deposits, has extorted $1.4 million from the national oil company and earns up to $2 million every day in taxes on goods and fuel coming into the port.

AQAP boasts 1,000 fighters in Mukalla alone, controls 600 km (373 miles) of coastline and is ingratiating itself with southern Yemenis, who have felt marginalised by the country’s northern elite for years.

By adopting many of the tactics Islamic State uses to control its territory in Syria and Iraq, AQAP has expanded its own fiefdom. The danger is that the group, which organised the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris last year and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners, may slowly indoctrinate the local population with its hardline ideology.

“I prefer that al Qaeda stay here, not for Al Mukalla to be liberated,” said one 47-year-old resident. “The situation is stable, more than any ‘free’ part of Yemen. The alternative to al Qaeda is much worse.” [Continue reading…]

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Yemen: U.S. bombs used in deadliest market strike

Human Rights Watch: Saudi Arabia-led coalition airstrikes using United States-supplied bombs killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children, in northwestern Yemen on March 15, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. The two strikes, on a crowded market in the village of Mastaba that may have also killed about 10 Houthi fighters, caused indiscriminate or foreseeably disproportionate loss of civilian life, in violation of the laws of war. Such unlawful attacks when carried out deliberately or recklessly are war crimes.

Human Rights Watch conducted on-site investigations on March 28, and found remnants at the market of a GBU-31 satellite-guided bomb, which consists of a US-supplied MK-84 2,000-pound bomb mated with a JDAM satellite guidance kit, also US-supplied. A team of journalists from ITV, a British news channel, visited the site on March 26, and found remnants of an MK-84 bomb paired with a Paveway laser guidance kit. Human Rights Watch reviewed the journalists’ photographs and footage of these fragments.

“One of the deadliest strikes against civilians in Yemen’s year-long war involved US-supplied weapons, illustrating tragically why countries should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The US and other coalition allies should send a clear message to Saudi Arabia that they want no part in unlawful killings of civilians.” [Continue reading…]

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Growing international movement seek to place arms embargo on Saudi Arabia

The Intercept reports: A lawsuit filed last week in Canada is seeking to halt a major $15 billion sale of light-armored vehicles to the government of Saudi Arabia, part of a growing international movement to stop arms sales to the Saudi government over its alleged war crimes in Yemen.

The suit, filed by University of Montreal constitutional law professor Daniel Turp, argues the vehicle sales to Saudi Arabia violate a number of Canadian laws, including regulations on the export of military equipment, which prohibit arms sales to countries where human rights are “subject to serious and repeated violations” and there is a reasonable risk exported equipment “will be used against the civilian population.” Saudi Arabia, which has a deplorable human rights record at home, has inflicted considerable civilian casualties in Yemen as part of its yearlong bombing campaign in support of the contested government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

“The suppression of human rights in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi government’s actions during the war in Yemen make the sale of these armored vehicles legally unacceptable,” Turp said.[Continue reading…]

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Why it’s wrong to say that the Arab uprisings failed

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Marc Lynch writes: Conventional wisdom holds that the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 failed. It’s hard to argue with such a harsh verdict. Most Arab regimes managed to survive their popular challenges through some combination of cooptation, coercion and modest reform. Egypt’s transition ended in an even harsher military regime. Yemen and Libya collapsed into state failure and regionalized wars, while Syria degenerated into a horrific war.

But simply dismissing the uprisings as a failure does not capture how fully they have transformed every dimension of the region’s politics. Today’s authoritarians are more repressive because they are less stable, more frightened and ever more incapable of sustaining their domination. With oil prices collapsing and popular discontent again spiking, it is obvious that the generational challenge of the Arab uprising is continuing to unfold. “Success or failure” is not a helpful way to understand these ongoing societal and political processes.

Instead of binary outcomes, political scientists have begun to more closely examine the new political forms and patterns, which the uprisings generated. A few months ago, the Project on Middle East Political Science convened a virtual symposium with 30 political scientists examining how the turmoil of the past five years have affected Arab politics. Those essays, many of them originally published on the Monkey Cage, are now available for open access download as an issue of POMEPS Studies. Those essays offer an ambivalent, nuanced perspective on what has and has not changed in the region since 2011 – and point to the many challenges to come.

The new politics shaped by the Arab uprising can be tracked along multiple levels of analysis, including regional international relations, regimes, states, and ideas. [Continue reading…]

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How Saudi Arabia captured Washington

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Max Fisher reports: There was a moment almost exactly one year ago, in March 2015, that revealed some uncomfortable truths about America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

That month, as Saudi Arabia prepared to launch what would become its disastrous war against Shia rebels in neighboring Yemen, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, brought a list of “high-value targets” to CIA Director John Brennan. The Saudis were asking for American support in the war; the list was meant as a show of cooperation.

But when US intelligence agencies checked the list against their own information, they found that many of the targets had little or no military value, according to a report at the time by the Wall Street Journal’s Maria Abi-Habib and Adam Entous. Many were civilian structures in or near population centers.

The US warned Saudi Arabia off the targets, and Saudi officials said they complied. But when the air war began, Saudi bombs fell heavily on “hospitals, schools, a refugee camp, and neighborhoods,” according to the Journal.

The US initially held back from the war. But soon, in an apparent effort to purchase Saudi acquiescence to the nuclear deal with Iran, the US substantially increased support for the Saudi-led campaign, providing midair refueling, weapons and supplies, targeting information, and 45 dedicated intelligence analysts.

A year after the war began, it is now a disaster, as detailed in a New York Times account. Half of the 6,000 casualties are thought to be civilians; al-Qaeda’s hold in Yemen has strengthened; Saudi Arabia has failed in its objective to force the war’s end, instead only exacerbating the ongoing violence. The US has helped Saudi Arabia to accelerate the implosion of another Mideast state, with unknown but surely far-reaching implications.

You would think that Washington’s foreign policy community — a close-knit network of think tanks, academic outfits, and other institutions that heavily influence the media and whose members frequently rotate into and out of government positions — would be outraged. That community is overwhelmingly focused on the Middle East, prides itself on high-minded humanitarian ideals and far-thinking strategy, and is often critical of President Obama’s foreign policy.

But aside from a few dissident voices, the Washington foreign policy community has been relatively quiet on America’s involvement backing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Instead, this week, much of that community expressed outrage over a very different story about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia: Obama, in an interview, had seemed to deride the Saudi leadership and its influence in Washington. [Continue reading…]

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