Latest update: October 23rd, 2012
There is a country in the Middle East accused of conducting a brutal decades-long occupation. A country where a blockade causes starvation among a civilian refugee population. A country that violently cracks down on all opposition and shoots into crowds of protestors but receives substantial financial aid from the United States as an ally in the War on Terror even as it undermines our war efforts by pursuing its own agenda.
We refer, of course, to Yemen.
The country of Yemen, on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been a simmering pot of violence. One conflict is geographic; much of largely secular southern Yemen (which was the independent Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen from 1967 until 1990) claims to suffer from an unwanted occupation from its more theocratic and traditional northern counterpart. This conflict between North and South has long been a sort of proxy between various influences in the region including at one time or another Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis, British, and Soviets.
Another conflict involves the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels on the border of Saudi Arabia near the city of Sa’dah, stemming from an ancient feud that goes all the way back to the rebellion of the Zaydi tribes in 1905.
A third, and much newer, conflict is with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, though some assert the Yemeni government’s stance on al Qaeda is closer to cooperative then confrontational.
In November 2009, the government of Saudi Arabia, which is allied with Yemen against the Shi’ite rebels, placed a naval blockade along the coast of Houthi-occupied Northern Yemen in order to prevent the Iranians from re-supplying their proxy fighters. As former Israeli ambassador to the UN Dore Gold noted during the Mavi Marmara incident, there was no outcry against Saudi Arabia or Yemen for that action.
Astoundingly, the purpose of the blockade – to prevent Iranian arms from reaching the area of conflict – was identical to that of the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza which receives such harsh international criticism.
In Southern Yemen, a land blockade meant to put pressure on separatists there has caused dislocation and dwindling food and medical supplies. But unlike the Israeli checkpoints into Gaza, which permit about 15,000 tons of supplies to cross every week, there is no such humanitarianism on display in Yemen. In January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asserted that as many as a quarter of a million civilians have been dislocated in Yemen due to fighting.
Yet unlike the Palestinians, who have a billion-dollar-a-year agency (UNWRA) devoted specifically to their needs, the Yemeni refugees were faced with cuts in food assistance when donors could not be found. Those who did contribute were, not surprisingly, largely Western countries, including the U.S. and France, while neighboring Arab states such as Saudi Arabia have provided little or nothing.
Police in Yemen have opened fire on Southern protestors and conducted torture while the Yemeni military has shelled Southern homes with little provocation. American and British flags are often present at demonstrations of secessionist protestors, though they are generally waved in solidarity, not burned as in Gaza and the West Bank.
And while the world screams in protest when Israeli bulldozers demolish Palestinian houses for lacking legal permits or hiding smuggling tunnels, there was no similar outcry when the Saudis annihilated an entire village, including a mosque, in Northern Yemen during their intervention against the Houthi rebels.
But despite such ham-handed and bloody tactics, American assistance continues to flow to the Yemeni government.
The importance of Yemen in the global war on terror has escalated since American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki fled there. Al-Awlaki was the confidante and spiritual mentor of many terrorist plotters, including three of the 9/11 hijackers, the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day “underwear bomber,” and was an inspiration for failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shazhad.
Incredibly, though, $150 million in military aid does not even buy the U.S. the ability to extradite al-Awlaki from Yemen in the event of his capture. Yemeni authorities say Awlaki will be tried in Yemen for terrorist acts he may have committed there, even though Yemen’s track record of keeping terrorists behind bars is abysmal at best and conducting jihad against foreigners outside of Yemen is not even a crime under Yemeni law.
This is not to say that Yemen is not a crucial battleground in the war on terror, or that the United States should cease to be engaged there. On the contrary, the area is vital to both regional and American security.
But Yemen provides a particularly interesting case study because it is home to the three above-mentioned primary conflicts that exist throughout the Middle East and that have nothing at all to do with Israel.
Solving the three conflicts would do more for regional and indeed international security than any number of peace agreements between Palestinians and Israelis.
It is essential that people understand the real root causes of Middle East conflict, as demonstrated in a single country, Yemen. Many of those root causes point to something endemic within the sociological norms and culture of Arab society.
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a think tank and policy center based in Washington. Kyle Shideler is senior research fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth.
About the Author: Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a think tank and policy center based in Washington. Kyle Shideler is senior research fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth.
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