Civil war

48-hour escalation

A Saudi-led airstrike on a Yemeni funeral hall is testing U.S. patience

Yemen’s 48-hour escalation

The last 48 hours in Yemen have put added strain on a U.S. State Department increasingly wary of its involvement in the country’s 2-year-old civil war. Saturday saw the Saudi-led coalition conduct an airstrike on a funeral hall in the capital Sana’a that left 140 people dead, more than 500 injured, and the White House nearly apoplectic.

Then on Sunday night, missiles launched from Houthi rebel-held territory splashed down near a U.S. Navy ship traveling far offshore in the Red Sea. “There were no injuries to our sailors and no damage to the ship,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement regarding the failed attack.

The attempted attack on the U.S. warship came less than 24 hours after the White House delivered its harshest criticism yet of the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition that has been engaged in Yemen’s civil war since March 2015. And it comes at a time when the Houthi rebel opposition has called for escalated attacks on the coalition, specifically Saudi Arabia.  

“U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check,” White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement following Saturday’s deadly strike in Sana’a. Price said the U.S. would undertake an “immediate review” of its “already significantly reduced support” of Saudi’s operations in Yemen.

For their part, Saudi officials, without taking responsibility for the strike, announced Sunday that they would begin their own investigation. Later that day, thousands of Yemenis took to the streets near the U.N. building in Sana’a to protest the latest airstrike and to decry a war that has claimed over 10,000 lives and displaced 3 million.

“U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check.”

Tension between President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s supporters and Houthi rebels from the north of the country boiled over in September 2014, after the rebels took control of Sana’a. The conflict soon escalated to war in March, 2015 after Hadi, who fled the country after further rebel advancements in his stronghold city of Aden, called for and was granted support from the Saudi-led coalition. Since then, and because of the country’s strategically valuable location, the war has morphed into a quasi proxy war between the Saudi-led coalition and nearby Iran. ISIS and al-Qaeda have also gotten in on the action by way of local affiliates.

Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for Global Advocacy at Human Rights Watch, said he was heartened by the White House’s sharp condemnation, but he was quick to point out that Saturday’s airstrike follows a pattern for the Saudi-led coalition. “The whole war has been marked by attacks on weddings, hospitals, civilian infrastructure, civilian locations, so it fits a pattern. Better late than never, but the world should have woken up a long time ago to this.”

Saturday’s air raid marks one of the deadliest attacks in the country’s civil war, but it’s hardly the first. In March, an airstrike led by Saudi-coalition forces on a market in Mastaba killed an estimated 119 people, and involved weaponry supplied by the U.S., according to Human Rights Watch. Since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented 57 unlawful coalition airstrikes in Yemen, and numerous violations by the Houthis and their allies. “Both have many violations under their belt,” Kristine Beckerle, a researcher at the organization, told VICE News. Beckerle added that because of its level of support to the coalition, the U.S. has a legal obligation to investigate allegations of war violations where its forces directly participated.

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut amplified such concerns when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper Sunday that “there’s an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen.”

Saturday’s airstrike came just days after the U.S. ratcheted up its criticism on Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian forces for their military actions in Aleppo and elsewhere, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said “beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes.”

The coincidence surely didn’t sit well with U.S. officials. “I don’t think there’s a single country that can boast a consistent record on these things, but there are times when the disparity is so glaring, and yesterday was one of those,” Bolopion said.

Joshua Hersh contributed reporting. 

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