According to a new report, the number of clashes and airstrikes in Yemen have increased dramatically in 2017: In the first six months of the year, there were 5,676 airstrikes in Yemen – much higher that then total of 3,936 in all of 2016. Data gathered by the Protection Cluster in Yemen – led by the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) – found that the average number of monthly clashes has also increased by 56 percent.
Yemen’s conflict has been a relatively short one when compared to Iraq and Syria. The country has been mired in a civil war since March 2015, with the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi under attack by Houthi rebels.
The U.N. estimates that roughly 10,000 people have died, and according to the World Health Organization, 500,000 have contracted cholera in a country where nearly three million have been displaced. It has also been on the brink of famine for about a year.
As with so many major humanitarian responses, the U.N. funding for Yemen is seriously underfunded – the $2.3 billion needed for the effort is still $1.4 billion short
Shabia Mantoo, UNCHR’s spokesperson in Sanaa, Yemen, said the country’s public institutions are “buckling” under the strain and its health care system is “functioning by half.”
“Yemen has been on the verge…on the brink of collapse. We’ve been saying that for a while, but then no one anticipated that Yemen would have to deal with the world’s worse cholera outbreak. Everyone was talking about famine,” said Mantoo, adding the Yemen is “not a household name.”
“People are not aware of the severity of the conflict. It doesn’t receive enough attention. It doesn’t receive enough airtime,” said Mantoo. “The only solution is peace.”
But given the number of parties — ostensibly on the same side — pursing different targets in Yemen at the same time, peace seems unlikely at this point.
More weapons than aid
Although Protection Cluster in Yemen report does not name any particular party for the airstrikes, the Saudi-led coalition backing Hadi has been in control of Yemen’s airspace since the start of the deadlocked conflict.
In addition to the Saudi-let airstrikes, there has also been an increase in covert U.S. operations in Yemen. According to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) – a UK-based outfit with a special project tracking drone strikes and casualties — there have been at least 11 confirmed U.S. drone strikes in Yemen as well as 80 additional U.S. attacks using jet aircraft and cruise missiles.
Given the rather aggressive Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, what could be behind the uptick in drone strikes there?
“It was a really strange period of about…maybe eight weeks in March or April this year, when about U.S. 80 strikes hit in a relatively small part of the country. A sudden glut over the space of at most, two months. And very little is known about the specifics of what happened in each of those strikes,” said Jack Serle, a specialist reporter with TBIJ.
Access to the area and to sources – many of whom are afraid to speak – has been tough, said Serle, which does not help when trying to untangle what is really happening in Yemen.
“What’s especially bizarre, is that you have this aerial bombardment by the GCC — the Saudi coalition – [and]…like, suddenly a whole bunch of AQ [al-Qaeda] people running around the hillsides and the opportunity was there [for the U.S.] to carry out the strikes, which doesn’t seem entirely feasible, given the volume of the attacks,” said Serle.
The fact that the United States carried out scores of its own attacks in a situation, despite arming Saudi Arabia and its coalition forces to the extent that they can carry out over 31 strikes a day, points to the U.S. having different interests in Yemen than the Gulf Arab coalition it is arming.
“That’s an interesting point and does demonstrate that the U.S. is running a parallel campaign,” said Searle. And this, he said, is where things get complicated. “The U.S. is very much going after al-Qaeda and its associate groups – local armed militia of various loyalties who have turned their lot in with al-Qaeda, whereas the Saudis are very much going after the Houthi militia,” said Serle.
“Where all this gets more complicated is that the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the anti- Houthi Saudi coalition, is also working with the U.S. against al-Qaeda, while also appearing to be running its own agenda against the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, adding that while the United States provides support, weapons and bits of intelligence to the Saudis, “they are not striking the same targets – And the Emeratis are sort of splitting between the two.”