On Saturday in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, two bombs were dropped by Saudi warplanes. They were targeting a convention centre where a wake was being held for the father of a well-known local leader from the Shia Houthi, who have controlled the Yemeni capital since 2014.
One hundred and forty people died, 500 were wounded. The military terminology for such an attack is known as a “double tap”, in which the first bomb causes the casualties and the second bomb is aimed at the first responders. It is the military equivalent of the old terrorist tactics of detonating two bombs at the same site; one to kill the initial target and the other to target those trying to help the initial victims.
But when one is using US-supplied aircraft and weapons, maintained, guided and fuelled in mid-air by US forces, the effect is a lot more deadly than the suicide truck or car bombs that pioneered the “double tap” method of killing in Iraq and Afghanistan. The difference was this time it was the US allied Saudi Arabian airforce doing it, and they were a lot better at it.
Since the Houthis took control of large parts of Yemen in 2014 the Saudis, backed by the US and the UK, have supported the former leader Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who now still resides in the Saudi capital Riyadh. He has no real military power on the ground in Yemen and is effectively in exile. Since 2015, the Saudi led alliance that supports him has primarily used air power to try to bomb the Houthis into submission. It is a conflict that has killed more than 4000 people. It has displaced and wounded thousands more, mostly among the Shia Houthi who have seized control of most of the country.
The current Australian government policy towards Yemen is to support the Saudi-backed exiled government. The military action undertaken by the Saudi-led alliance is also supported by Australia. Several former Australian army personnel have been identified as either working for the Saudi or UAE regime as “contractors”, or mercenaries, and have been involved in fighting in Yemen.
Similarly, drone strikes and communication intercepts used by the Saudi led coalition in it’s war in Yemen have been reported as originating at the joint Australian US facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs.
Aside from mercenaries, signals intelligence and diplomatic support Australia has also provided indirect contribution to the war in Yemen in other ways. Just last week an Australian-made high-speed catamaran being used by the United Arab Emirates was destroyed by a Houthi missile. The UAE said they were delivering humanitarian supplies, but the rebels claimed they were delivering arms and ammunition.
Through Australia’s role and military co-operation for US support for Saudi Arabia and their allies in their war in Yemen, Australia is complicit in the ongoing civilian deaths of the bombing campaign.
The parallels to the current Russian and Syrian government bombing of besieged eastern Aleppo are stark. When you watch footage circulated online of the bombing last Saturday and other recent bombings you see the same dun-coloured buildings, devoid of windows and doors, shattered by the bombs. The same images of men, women and children being dragged, dust covered from the rubble of a shattered Arab city.
Except the difference is simple: in Syria we, the West, the UN, human rights organisations and by and large the media, condemn the bombings carried out by Russia and Syria on the trapped civilians. In Sanaa we, by and large, ignore it. Because those planes dropping those bombs are physically and practically from the US and UK, maintained by US and UK engineers and paid for by the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a traditional ally of the Western democracies that have relied on its vast amounts of oil reserves for so long that international protest is muted.
Describing the attack in Sanaa as outrageous UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein this week reiterated his urgent call for creating an international investigative body; a call that was supported by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“Since the beginning of this conflict in Yemen, weddings, marketplaces, hospitals, schools — and now mourners at a funeral — have been hit, resulting in massive civilian casualties and zero accountability for those responsible,” the High Commissioner said in a news release issued by his office in Geneva this week.
“This deadly attack comes just weeks after the UN Human Rights Council, for the second year in a row, dismissed my call to take decisive action to create an international, independent investigative body to look into extremely serious alleged violations of international law, including possible war crimes, in Yemen,” the UN human rights chief added.
They were comments reinforced by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York. At UN Headquarters in New York, Ban told reporters that “aerial attacks by the Saudi-led coalition have already caused immense carnage, and destroyed much of the country’s medical facilities and other vital civilian infrastructure”.
In contrast to the strong response to ongoing Russian and Syrian air attacks on civilians and aid convoys in Syria conveyed recently by US Secretary of State John Kerry, in which he accused them of committing war crimes — an accusation repeated by US ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers — the response to the Saudi bombing in Sanaa has so far been muted.
Kerry spoke with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and said he welcomed bin Salman’s commitment “to launch a thorough and immediate investigation of the strike,” according to the statement by State Department spokesman Mark Toner. It was also announced that a review of the 18 month old Saudi led bombing campaign would be made by the US state department. Kerry urged bin Salman to take “urgent steps to ensure such an incident does not happen again,” Toner said.
That was as far as US condemnation of the Saudi attack went. To highlight the US domestic obliviousness to the war they are supporting through Saudi Arabia in Yemen the subject was not raised at all in the US Presidential debate this week.
The war in Yemen has never been simple. You have Iranian backing of the Houthi rebels (who are Shia), you have Saudi backing for the former Sunni regime, you have al-Qaeda elements in control of parts of the country. Just this week you had what was reported as Iranian supplied missiles being fired from Houthi territory at both a US destroyer in international waters and a Saudi airbase.
So the US finds itself fighting Iranian influence in Yemen (by Saudi proxies) and Syria, where they are supporting the Assad regime, but relying on Iranian support in Iraq in the fight against ISIS. Meanwhile the US and the UK supply and sell billions of dollars worth of military equipment and support to Saudi Arabia and the gulf states involved in the war in Yemen.
If that is not confusing enough, you also have US condemnation of the very same tactics of indiscriminate bombing by the Russians in Syria but support for and assistance provided to carry out the same bombing in Yemen. The hypocrisy inherent in the policies in both countries is glaring. Russian bombing is a “war crime”. Saudi bombing is an error that must be reviewed. But one fact is irrefutable. The Saudis have oil and money. The Yemenis do not. And the Syrians well, they have the Russians, who are not going anywhere soon. And the UN, although loudly condemning the deaths of civilians in both Yemen and Syria, have, it seems, no power to do anything in either conflict.