On the Death of Ali Abdullah Saleh

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Was Ali Abdullah a product of Yemen, or was Yemen a product of Ali Abdullah? The answer is a complicated mix of personality and history, and what it reveals promises an even bleaker future for this desperate and beautiful and time-torn land. 

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Paul Ryan Condemns Yemen as Going-Away Present

Christ, what an asshole

In the end, there wasn’t much question about them doing the right thing. If for some reason we naively wondered what the outgoing Republican majority would do before the door hit them on the ass, it is now clear: consolidate and ruin as much as possible. Under the leadership of Paul Ryan, who is the worst, misery and destruction has been their animating principle for years now; why would it change? 

They didn’t start with taxes or women’s rights or reversing the Americans with Disability Act or anything, though. They decided to maximize cruelty by letting Saudi Arabia reap unchecked through Yemen for at least two more months. 

Almost all Republicans and a handful of Democrats voted with Ryan to strip privilege from a bill endorsed by top Democrats that would have ended U.S. support for the Saudis and their allies in the four-year civil war in Yemen. Without privilege, the House leadership can ignore the bill. In other words, it’s now almost certain that the House won’t deal with the legislation ― and, more broadly, the conflict itself ― until Democrats take charge next year.

Huffington Post

It isn’t that things would change dramatically over the next couple of months, least of all for Yemen. The grinding conflict would continue. Even if Saudi Arabia was suddenly forced to cease all military actions (which they wouldn’t), the internal fighting, which is the real show, would carry on. 

And even if the fighting somehow miraculously ended, if a show of resolution by the US Congress would convince enemies to lay down arms and take up bread (it wouldn’t), the truth remains that there is no bread. The famine would continue. Disease would continue to spread. Barring a massive international effort to save the nation, there would be little material difference. 

Why Ryan’s Actions Matter

So what difference does it make? How is this more important than just garden-variety GOP sociopathy? 

It matters because it clearly signals to MBS that the Republican Party intends to let him continue his war, because Saudi Arabia has joined Russia and Israel as conservative totem countries, which is really weird, though it makes sense (they are all led by pseudo-macho right-wing authoritarian religious bigots). It is also a signal that Trump won’t really do anything to interfere, though anyone who thinks there is a “clear signal” involving Trump is a fool. 

(Which, incidentally, MBS might be. In a stroke of luck, his appointed Prosecutor found that his agents are responsible for the murder of Khashoggi, and is recommending the death penalty for five of them. Demonstrating your willingness to blame and then kill your henchmen is not exactly a guarantor of regime stability! 

It’s true that the Democrats have made ending US involvement in this war one of their top priorities. Nancy Pelosi (who better be the Speaker, dammit) has made it clear that she intends to strip funding. There is enough of a Dem majority to make this happen. 

It’s unclear what will happen next. Absent help from the White House, this might be meaningless. It’s very possible the admin and the Pentagon will simply ignore Congress. It’s happened before, and we live in a time where such an action would be met largely with shrugs. It’s also true the US could help perpetuate the war indirectly. There’s no end to indifferent venality. 

But, at the very least, the delay by Ryan gives Saudi Arabia time. It gives him at least a few more months to consolidate gains, which will almost certainly ramp up Yemen’s misery as we move toward our holidays. It seems the only war that Paul Ryan and the GOP think brings actual suffering is the War on Christmas. May they all rot in hell. 

The Idea of a Russia/Saudi Alliance in a Post-US Middle East

Last week, we looked at the (admittedly impossible) idea that the United States might break with Saudi Arabia over Yemen, and then over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. I still think it is impossible, but just today the President of Turkey made it very clear he believes the murder was premeditated, and not the result of the laughably absurd fistfight.

Now, it is not the official policy of this blog to turn matters of truth and morality over to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but in this case, we’re inclined to believe him. At the very least, the Turkish intelligence community has been sitting on information for weeks, letting it drip out to counter ever Saudi lie. It’s been sort of masterful, if you ignore the backdrop of a man’s brutal torture and murder.

The Turkish angle here isn’t entirely clear, though it also seems pretty obvious on the surface. They have been vying once again with Saudi Arabia for the leadership role in the Middle East, and indeed the broader Muslim world. For 1000 years Istanbul was the heart of Islam, and while it is reductive and probably Orientalist to say they want it back, the idea of Turkey as a world-historic power is part of Erdogan’s appeal.

We’ve talked about how in the post-West Middle East, powers like Russia, Turkey, and Iran were circling back to familiar patterns. This isn’t due to historical determinism, but rather to the realities of political geography. They are all jostling over borderlands. And while Saudi Arabia isn’t on a border with any of them, there is an imaginary borderland between the Arab world, the Persian one, the Turkish one, and the Russian one.

Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as the true fighter for the Arab world against Iran, and successive US administrations have rushed to reward them for it. But the eager complicity of Obama, while real and a true stain, pales in comparison to the headlong alliance the US under Trump has forged with Saudi Arabia. Their mutual obsession with Iran, and the ahistoric and indeed idiotic idea that it has no rights to influence the region, have created a relationship based on murder and mutual complicity.

But let’s say that it changes (it won’t). Is a Saudi/Russian alliance possible? We have seen a lot of commentators say that we can’t lose the alliance of the House of Saud, for economic and geostrategic reasons. They’d move into the arms of Russia or China.

Russia is possible, I suppose, in the short term, but I don’t really see it being a lasting thing, for a few reasons.

  1. Russia is already involved in the Middle East on the side of Asad and ostensibly Iran, so are basically opposed to Saudi interests. Cynicism could allow for flexibility, as the Russian position isn’t based on any strong regional ideology, but there are too many inherent contradictions.
  2. Russia doesn’t need Saudi oil. The US doesn’t really, either, but Russia would much rather be the sole supplier of Europe’s energy than enter an alliance with a potential competitor.

These can surely be overlooked for a time being. There is no doubt that Moscow is using this as a wedge issue. They made it clear that the murder of a journalist doesn’t bother them in the slightest. They didn’t explicitly say “Come on- you really think that bothers us?”, but the implication was pretty obvious.

Western governments are acting horrified, and maybe they are. Angela Merkel said they might stop selling arms to the Saudis (which, could have happened over Yemen, but small victories, I suppose). Western mucky-mucks are pulling out of the obscene Davos in the Desert wankfest. This gives Russia an opening.

If Russia were to become a patron and ally of Saudi Arabia, with enough skill they could be the main power broker in the region, bring a rough peace to Syria, and play Iran and the Saudis off each other. That is probably the Russian angle here, at least in the long run. The short-term is just to cause chaos.

But I don’t think they have that skill, and anyway, if the US were to back away, China is the much more likely suitor. Energy and resources without strings attached is the Chinese approach to foreign policy. That would be a far snugger fit for the Saudi ruling clique.

(So far I’ve been stipulating that it would be easy to just suddenly start buying arms from another country, which isn’t the case at all. That’s a generational process and would cripple the Saudi war machine, which is the main reason the US should cut them off.)

I don’t really think any of this will come to pass. In announcing that the US has no intention of giving up arms sales, the Trump administration has inverted the idea of the client state. We know we let “useful” countries do essentially whatever they want as long as they are useful. But now we’re saying “we’ll do whatever you want if you give our richest corporations some more money.” Trump has made the US a client state.

But still: the outrage from the West has to make the Saudi nervous. If they didn’t have such a stalwart dipshit as their primary ally, they could be in trouble. I think they’ll be casting for closer alliances with China, while using and being used by Russia.

This, combined with growing Turkish ambitions, threatens even more instability. Erdogan is clearly trying to influence internal Saudi politics and shake up the ruling family. Russia is trying to play all sides without a long-term strategy. Old alliances aren’t exactly crumbling, but are revealed to be shakier. A million temporary alliances of convenience come and go.

We’re not quite in the post-US Middle East, but we are in a state where the US is just another player, a powerful one, but one dumber and less rich than it thinks. That’s very dangerous, and promises a region where new weapons and strategies fit bloodily over old patterns.

What Is Yemen?

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Pictured: Yemen, just not “Yemen” 

Writing for Lawfare, my good and great friend Greg Johnsen discusses the three wars currently happening in Yemen: the civil war (encompassing both the Houthi war against the “central” government as well as the southern secessionist movement), the regional war (Saudi Arabia/UAE against Iran) and the war against ISIS and al-Qaeda (in which the US is droning and bombing at its leisure).

It’s a damn interesting piece, and Greg does a great job of showing how all these wars are intertwined. ISIS and AQ aren’t just fighting against the west; they are trying to get land, are fighting the Houthis, and of course have a simmering battle against each other. The drone wars against them waged by the US are mixed up with our mindless and cruel and self-defeating support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a brutal perversion of the AUMF while at the same time its full expression.

Greg argues that the regional component, while the most outlandishly deadly, has the easiest “off-ramp”; both sides could agree to stop arming combatants and cease any involvement. That’s not “easy”, per se, since sunk cost, national pride, and other somehow-important factors would have to be overcome. But it is possible, and as the war gets more mired, and as disease slithers its way to the front pages, and as the Saudis and Emiratis are increasingly blamed for Yemen’s genocidal starvation, it is likely they’ll find a way to leave.

That’s when, in Greg’s telling, the real fighting will begin, and there will be no way to put the country back together.

The Houthis have made a lot of enemies during their time in power, but have largely been given a pass by many under their control due to the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign. When that ends, so too will some of their support.

There is, simply put, no longer a single Yemen. There are multiple Yemens and no single individual or group capable of re-uniting them into a coherent whole. Yemen has too many groups with too many guns to ever be a unified state again. The civil war, which has taken a back seat to the regional conflict over the past three years, will eventually resume at full force. And when it does, the fighting it produces will be bloody and protracted.

Speaking militarily, Greg is absolutely correct. There is no one capable of uniting Yemen into a coherent whole. There’s no Lee who can bring a rebellious enemy to heel. But even if there were, I don’t think Yemen could ever be back the way it was, simply because the “way it was”, as a unified nation, never really existed.

Uneasy unification in 1990 was followed by a civil war in 1994, after which the south was virtually occupied by jihadis returning from Afghanistan. A decade later, the Houthi wars started in the north, an area which had been under essentially military rule after the civil war in the 1960s. The southern secessionist movement began in full force in the aughts, and never really abated.

What, then, is there to put back together? Hell, it’s been 150 years since the US fought its war, and we’re still fighting political battles divided by region, as well as fighting over the role of the central government to do simple things like enforcing civil rights. And we’re a rich and powerful nation, in which tax money is spent freely around the formerly-rebellious parts, and they have a full and even disproportionate representation in politics and military. That’s the textbook way to reconcile after a war, and we’re barely hanging on.

Yes, there are complicated reasons for that, but that’s the point: these things don’t heal.

So I don’t know if there is a chance for Yemen to ever again be one nation, because it never really was. The pieces to be put back together don’t really fit together, even before war and disease and starvation shattered them further.

Just because we draw the map of Yemen based on 1990 borders doesn’t mean that’s the way the map has to be. Political maps are a perception; they are a snapshot of a moment in time, giving the essential absurdity of borders a place of primacy over the lived reality of geography and history. They tell a story, not the story.

Greg’s piece is an important part of a growing body of work among Yemen experts arguing that we can’t try to force unity, and have to build legitimacy from local experts. The sooner the international community recognizes that, and the sooner it stops thinking of every solution as state-based, the closer we get to ending this endless horror.

US and UK Backed Yemen Wedding Massacre Goes Unnoticed

Over the weekend, a Yemeni family in a remote governate northwest of Sana got together to celebrate a wedding. Had you, for some reason, heard about the wedding in advance, you may have smiled. You may have been happy at the thought that, throughout the senseless horror and disease and starvation scything their ways through this shattered land, that people were still ready to start a life. That they still could have a night of dancing, of celebration, and of joining.

But then, you might have heard about what actually happened.

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This boy had a father seconds earlier; now he has a memory crafted, in part, by every US citizen

At least 20 people have been killed in two Saudi-led coalition air attacks in northwestern Yemen, according to residents and medical personnel.

Most of the dead were women and children who were gathering in a tent set up for a wedding party in Hajjah’s Bani Qays district on Sunday, a medical official told Al Jazeera.

At least 46 people, including 30 children, were wounded in the attack, the official added.

Chances are, though, that a lot of people didn’t hear about the strike. I had sort of a busy weekend, and didn’t really glom onto it, and it wasn’t until Tuesday that the enormity sunk into my sheltered life. Really, the odds that any westerner heard about the strike are only slightly better than the odds that you heard of an obscure wedding between strangers in a strange land in the first place.

Or, rather, I’m guessing a lot of you did hear about it; this is a find damn readership. And I know you were upset and sickened, and almost certainly as outraged as you were when you heard about Syrian kids being gassed. But you certainly noticed that the reaction was a little different. You noticed that some people are considered human, and some are essentially not.

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Endless War and Our Complicity: The Failure of the Sanders-Lee Yemen Bill Continues Genocide and America’s Brutalization

(Note: I was working on this piece for another publication before the bill in question failed to reach the floor, thanks to the shameful and bloodsoaked votes of 10 Democrats. So it might be too late, but only now, and hopefully there will be another fight. The article still stands, though, and I think illustrates how the bill failed with neither sound nor fury nor even a passing thought.)

 

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100 were killed when the Saudi bombed this funeral with US bombs

 

Do you believe the US President, Democrat or Republican, should have the unlimited power to wage unlimited war wherever he wants?

Do you believe that the United States should wage or abet war around the globe, without citizens or their representatives being able to have a say?

Do you think that the United States should be complicit in a genocidal war, even when we have essentially zero real interests in the outcome?

Does what your country does affect you? When blood is spilled in poor places, when families are pulverized into infinity by the sudden flash and pulsing thunder and tearing, renting metal, paid for with your money and launched in your name, does it matter? What responsibility do we have to the world, to ourselves, to history?

These are some of the questions being asked by a Joint Resolution introduced by Bernie Sanders and Mike Lee, saying that US support for Saudi Arabia’s murderous intervention in Yemen has never been authorized by Congress, and should therefore stop providing arms, tactical advice, and military support.

The legal heart of this question asks what it means to be at war in America in the 21st century. At its heart lies the tension between the War Powers declaration at our post-9/11 unlimited war on terror, which has created such an expansive and long-lasting view of war-making that it passes essentially unnoticed when the US participates in a non-Qaeda-based civil war on the Arabian peninsula.

Here’s the War Powers resolution of 1973.

The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

And here’s the Authorization of Military Force, passed right after September 11th:

(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Now, in theory, these don’t contradict each other. Indeed, the AUMF was drawn from clause 3, the “national emergency”. (For the definitive history of the AUMF, you should read Greg Johnsen’s Buzzfeed piece on it.) You might notice, though, that it changes “national emergency” to language allowing for the President to “prevent any future acts of international terrorism” by “nations, organizations, or persons.”

Whooboy! That’s the issue, right there. Because: what does that mean? In practice, it has meant: whatever the President wants it to mean, and that has been consistent through multiple administrations, through Bush, Obama, and now Trump. And since there is nobody reading, and indeed, nobody alive or who has ever lived in any conceivable universe, who admires all three of those men, we see that this is an enormous problem.

(And if you doubt its bipartisan credentials, remember that it was essentially reauthorized just last September, even as everyone understood the Current Occupant was a reckless fucking idiot.)

It has been a bloody disaster in practice far more than in theory, of course. There will be a million different opinions about US involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and who knows how many other nations in the years since 9/11. But there is probably no one, except maybe Max Boot, who supports them all. But the President has been allowed to wage war and kill human beings in all these lands, with essentially zero oversight, because of those words.

So why is Yemen now an issue? It’s because Yemen is the apotheosis of this madness, a country whose war is only tangentially about terrorism, and in which our pointless involvement is directly abetting one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century.

Yemen’s History is Its Present

It’s hard, possibly impossible, to overstate the degree of horror in Yemen. A civil war has engulfed the country for 7 years, or 10 years, or 14 years, or 24 years, or maybe 28 years. It’s probably best to say that the country has had overlapping civil wars for decades now, and all that stress has come to a head in the last three years.

Those three years have seen a vicious Saudi “intervention” against the Houthis, a group that had been fighting the government of the late Ali Abdullah Saleh since 2004, and has taken over control of large swaths of the country.

Saudi intervention has been a long-running war crime, a series of murderous bombing campaigns led by the US-blessed Mohammed bin Salman, wildly-corrupt future king and murderer of Yemen.  The Saudi campaign has pounded Yemen, deliberately targeting food and sanitation centers, destroying roads to cut off supplies, and blockading the ports.

 

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We’re supporting the side of a war who is doing this deliberately.

 

This has led, predictably, to mass famine and disease. Millions and millions of Yemenis face starvation, and it has seen the world’s worst cholera outbreak in decades. It seems to only get worse. It’s worth mentioning that the Houthis themselves have introduced a brutal rule, with executions, mass imprisonments, and vast corruption.

But don’t think the Saudis are intervening to protect human rights. Indeed, one of their bombing attacks, mostly done with US-supplied weapons, destroyed a prison where those innocents rounded up by the Houthis were living miserably. Freedom came at the bright and final light of an indifferent bomb.

So why are the Saudis intervening, and why does the US support them? It gets back, ostensibly, to Iran. Iran is supporting the Houthis, supplying arms, including missiles that can reach Riyadh. They are supporting their co-religionists in the Houthis, who are Shi’ites.

Because of this, we are told, the Saudis are fighting them. Yemen is a battleground in a larger civilizational war. And the US is deeply involved. The Trump administration, especially, has decided to go all in on the Saudi vs. Iran split, due both to a hatred of Iran, and a belief that helping the Saudis can lead to a regional peace deal which would make Trump look so damn good.

 

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Bragging and grinning about the weapons that lead to genocide

 

Except, it isn’t this neat. For one thing, as we’ve pointed out time and time again, Iran didn’t get involved in this war in the beginning. They were purported to, back in 2004, by Saleh himself, who wanted to turn the global community against the Houthis. And through the years, as everyone believed it, and as Iran became more invested in the regional frame of war, that they got more involved. After all, if everyone believes you are backing one side, that side better not lose.

But this isn’t based in the regional war; it is based in Yemen. The Houthi movement is part of general Zaydi discontent. Zaydi’s ran parts of north Yemen for 1000 years, before being overthrown in the 60s. In the ensuing civil war they were supported by the Saudis, who then thought monarchy trumped minor schisms. But they lost, and retreated to their ancestral safelands in the far north, near the Saudi border. Decades of neglect and minor oppression followed.

We then have to fast-forward a few decades. Yemen’s north and very secular, just-post-Communist south had united in 1990, but the marriage was a doomed one. When the bullets started flying in 1994, President Saleh used jihadis, just returned from Afghanistan and looking to spill more commie blood, as his troops. When he won, he let them essentially colonize the south, which led to years of discontent, boiling over into the Southern Movement in the late aughts (another of the overlapping civil wars).

That’s well-known, but what is less appreciated is that the jihadis were also allowed to build mosques and impose some thuggish demands on the Zaydis of the north. Now, a Saudi-based movement turned against the monarchists, and a younger generation (as well as one who had living memory of rule) chafed. War broke out in 2004, and lasted through six increasingly brutal rounds.

Now, if you’re reading this curious about terrorism, you might be wondering what the fuss is all about, or why I’m going so deep (although really surface level) into this. After all, the US has been fighting in Yemen for years. We’ve been battling al-Qaeda, the reconstituted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and ISIS there for years, to one extent or another. Why is it weird we are doing stuff there now?

Well, it is true that Yemen has seemed a direct extension of the AUMF, at least in its more expansive interpretations. AQAP, especially, has long been a powerful branch of Qaeda, and seems like it will outlast ISIS. And there have been counter-terrorism raids by the Trump admin, which wants to expand their scope. While I think that is madness and will only help AQAP, it still does seem to fit into the rough definition of the AUMF. So what’s the big whoop?

Well, regardless of what you think of the AUMF, our support for Saudi Arabia isn’t covered. As we saw, the very Sunni Islamists terrorists we’re fighting were supported by, trained by, and brought to life by Saudi Arabia. And yes, the Saudi government, or at least parts of it, is against the radicals now. But regardless: the Saudis are not in Yemen to fight al-Qaeda. We’re helping the Saudis bomb Qaeda’s enemies, the Shi’ite Houthis.

Even if you think the Houthis aren’t our allies, and they certainly are not, this is so far beyond the scale of the AUMF as to be ridiculous. This only has to do with Iran, the true sworn enemy of ISIS and AQ, who hate apostates more than infidels. When you combine that with the reality that the hideous destruction of the country can only boost Islamic militancy, you’ll see we’re 180 degrees from even the most hawkish reading of that short paragraph.

We Are the Nightmare We’ve Created

And yet, there is no outrage. There is no real debate. Sanders-Lee barely got any coverage, and its failure was completely ignored. That 10 Dems voted against it was met with outrage from several activist communities online, but I would be doubtful there will be much impact.

Granted, much of this can be tied to the daily cavalcade of tacky and obscene horrors committed by our slouchingly venal oaf of a President. It is hard for any story to get oxygen. But what has happened, what we’ve allowed to happen to ourselves, isn’t Trump. It’s bigger than that. It’s all-encompassing and generational. It’s where we’ve committed ourselves as a country, beyond party, beyond creed, and beyond reason.

We are so committed to an endless war, with endless permutations, that we greet its continuation with less than a shrug. We greet American complicity in what is nothing less than a genocide with indifference. We don’t even react when bombs we’ve created and sold on the cheap are dropped on hospitals, used to starve innocents and poison children. We can’t be bothered to care that our government is directly complicit in one of the true horrors of the 21st century.

We’ve also come to accept, bizarrely, that we can do this even in the face of abject failure. It’s not just that we’ve come to accept genocidal war. We’ve accepted it even though we know it does no good. We know that Iraq failed and made things worse. We know that Libya bred chaos and, in addition to the nightmares, created more safe havens for Islamists. We know that what’s happening in Yemen can’t end well, even if you only conceive of the world in the narrowest possible American-focused lenses.

So we’ve accepted total and complete war, and accepted we’ll lose. And we don’t care.

That’s terrifying and disquieting and teeth-gnashing and horrible on its own. But even if you accept all this, even if you think it is fine, as long as we are “fighting terrorism”, this particular intervention is pure madness. Because we’re essentially intervening on the side that is promoting terrorism, against the side that is supported by the #1 enemy of the combatants we’ve sworn to kill.

That isn’t to say Iran is the good guy. It’s just to say that being on the wrong, self-defeating side of this war isn’t a bug. It’s the whole goddamn point.

This is madness. And it is madness that we’ve accepted. It’s why Yemen may be the apotheosis of our post-9/11 state of myxomatosis-borne degeneracy, but, we recognize with frothing horror, might not end up being the worst.