Yemenis attend the funeral of members of the same family on October 8, 2016 a day after they were killed in a reported airstrike by Saudi-led coalition air-planes that hit their house in Bajil in the western province of Houdieda. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemenis attend the funeral of members of a family killed in a reported airstrike by Saudi-led coalition air-planes in Bajil, Yemen, on Oct. 8, 2016. AFP/Getty Images

The Human Rights Abuses in Yemen's "Forgotten War"

A double airstrike incinerated a packed funeral hall in Yemen’s capital on Oct. 8, killing about 140 people. It was a scene of fire and blood that was widely blamed on a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia that has intervened in Yemen since March 2015.

The attack underscored the human cost of the Saudi-led operation in Yemen, where an estimated 10,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations. It also illustrated one of the more uncomfortable aspects of American foreign policy in the Middle East, where the U.S. supports the Saudi-led military campaign while condemning similar mass attacks on civilians elsewhere in the region.

Read More: The U.N. Failed Yemen’s Children

Washington responded to the attack by announcing a review of aid to its longtime ally Saudi Arabia, whose government purchased more than $20 billion in arms from the U.S. in 2015 alone. A White House statement on the attack says the administration has “serious concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged.” The statement, by U.S. National Security Council Spokesman Ned Price, added that “U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check.”

But Saturday’s attack was not the first one to call into question the rationale for U.S. support for the Saudi-led operation. The Saudi coalition has a long record of attacking civilian targets in Yemen, including schools, hospitals, factories and marketplaces. In May 2015, the coalition dropped leaflets declaring the entire province of Saada a military target. Data compiled by independent researchers and published by the Guardian in September showed that one in three Saudi-led airstrikes hit civilian targets.

Read More: Salmon Fishing in Yemen

“Unfortunately the reality is United States support has not actually decreased the human cost at all,” says Farea Muslimi, a Yemeni analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center. “It has unfortunately contributed to it, given the Saudis a blank check over Yemen in this war.”

The timing of Saturday’s attack seemed to illustrate U.S. inconsistency in its approach toward alleged war crimes. The same day as the Saudi-led strikes on the funeral in Sana'a, the United Nations Security Council met in in New York, where U.S. ambassador David Pressman condemned the Russian and Syrian regime offensive in the besieged city of Aleppo, calling the bombing there “terrifying” and an exercise of “brutal force.” That juxtaposition—criticism for Russia and Syria, relative silence for Saudi Arabia—offered fodder for critics who say American support for the Saudis undermines U.S. credibility elsewhere in the region.

“You can’t be trying to negotiate a resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Saturday to condemn Russia and sanction Russia for airstrikes in Syria when your ally and partner, Saudi, is doing the exact same thing," says Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights watch.

Like the conflict in Syria, the current war in Yemen has its roots in the Arab Spring of 2011. After months of protests, Yemen’s autocratic president Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to hand power to his deputy, Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, in February 2012. But by 2014, the government failed to build a consensus around the transition process. Riding a wave of popular discontent, Houthi rebels entered the capital and in 2015 forced Hadi into exile. The Houthis—drawn from the Zaydi-Shiite population primarily in northern Yemen—are now allied with former President Saleh and his supporters, who control some units of the military.

Photographing the Cost of War in Yemen

Stars shine above the Old City on Saturday, May 23, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.
Stars shine above the Old City on Saturday, May 23, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.Alex Potter
Stars shine above the Old City on Saturday, May 23, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.
Smoke rises from an airstrike on Tuesday, June 9, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.
A Yemeni security guard looks on in shock as rescuers attempt to dig out family members from a destroyed home in the Old City on Friday, June 12, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen. Four houses collapsed after a Saudi airstrike in the city. It is unclear if an unexploded rocked landed inside the homes, or the pressure of a nearby explosion caused them to collapse.
Yemeni men from al Qasimi neighborhood dig through the remains of four homes destroyed in an airstrike Friday, June 12, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen. The Old City of Sana'a is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a densely populated civilian area. The Saudi-led coalition denied hitting the Old City.
Rescuers, mostly neighbors and local men, attempt to dig a family out of a collapsed home in the Old City on Friday, June 12, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen. Four houses collapsed after a Saudi airstrike in the city. It is unclear if an unexploded rocked landed inside the homes, or the pressure of a nearby explosion caused them to collapse. (AP Photo / Alex Potter)
Rescuers and family members attempt to pull a man from the rubble of his home on Friday, June 12, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen. Four houses collapsed after a Saudi airstrike in the city. It is unclear if an unexploded rocked landed inside the homes, or the pressure of a nearby explosion caused them to collapse.
Yemen Health Care System
Yemeni brothers climb the remains of an apartment building in Faj Attan, a district in Yemen heavily targeted by airstrike, Monday Auugst 17, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.
Yemeni children play in the Silah drainage road after heavy rains on August 6, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.
Yemeni men gather for a wedding celebration in the Old City on June 4, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.
Airstrike Civilian Casualties
Airstrike Civilian Casualties
A young Yemeni man lays recovering from his injuries in Amran Hospital on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 in Amran, Yemen.
Airstrike Civilian Casualties
A Yemeni mother holds her malnourished daughter in the children's ward of MSF-supported al Salam Hospital on July 7, 2015 in Amran, Yemen. The mother was too malnourished to breastfeed, and couldn't afford formula or fresh powdered milk. The powder she bought turned out to be spoiled, and her daughter fell ill for weeks.
Fadhl Ahmad, a guard for the qat fields, sits with his two sons in his home on July 22, 2015. Since the war started, there has been no diesel to pump the water to water the qat, so he’s had no work.
Yemeni men dance the bara'a, a traditional tribal dance of northern Yemen for a wedding celebration on June 4, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.
A Yemeni boy hands a crown of jasmine flowers to his friend at  a wedding celebration in the Old City on June 4, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.
A Yemeni boy stands for a portrait after collecting water from a public tap near a mosque on Tuesday, June 2, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen. Most homes did not have access to water before the war, and the dry conditions have only been exacerbated by the conflict, as most families cannot afford to purchase trucks that deliver water.
Mohammad Abdulrab Qahed, originally from the Razih district of Sa'ada, bordering Saudi Arabia, stands with his wife Umm Sa'ad, and three children, Imad, Wiam, and Dua'a, on June 10, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen. Now living in a school with other IDP's, they are some of the 1.5 million Yemenis displaced from their homes across the country.
Children from a Yemeni family originally from the heavy-hit northern province of Sa'ada sit in their tent outside on July 7, 2015 in Amran, Yemen. They are members of Yemen's marginalized community, the Muhamashin, most of whom are not able to shelter in schools or family elsewhere.
Yemeni women displaced from Sa'ada by airstrikes, sit for a portrait in the home of a Yemeni family that is hosting them on June 10, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen. A young boy in their family has leukemia, and three men from their family shared a single motorcycle for the eight our ride to Sana'a from Sa'daa.
Airstrike Civilian Casualties
Muthana Abdullah Jaylani (center) prays over the graves of his relatives and neighbors who were killed by an airstrike, July 22, 2015. The strike killed at least five people, though only two were reported to the local MSF Hospital.
A Yemeni man tends to his vegetable garden on July 4, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen. Old Sana'a used to be full of green gardens; most have now dried out due to water shortages.
Airstrike Civilian Casualties
Stars shine above the Old City on Saturday, May 23, 2015 in Sana'a, Yemen.
Alex Potter
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Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other mainly Sunni Arab states intervened in Yemen in March 2015 in an attempt to roll back the Houthis, who they regard as a proxy for Saudi Arabia’s chief rival in the region: the Shiite power Iran. The intervention also came as the U.S. had entered the final stages of negotiations toward a nuclear deal with Iran—a deal Saudi Arabia was vociferously opposed. In part to assuage those Saudi concerns, the U.S. lent its support for the war in Yemen.

From the beginning, the operation was marred by attacks on civilian targets, including at least four hospitals supported by the renowned international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). In August, the aerial bombing of a hospital in Hajja province killed 19 people, forcing MSF to evacuate its staff from northern Yemen.

The Obama administration has given the Saudi coalition intelligence and ammunition, but U.S. officials have often sounded less than enthusiastic in their defense of the operation. The U.S. has also places some limits on its operational support. In May the White House quietly halted the transfer of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia after human rights groups documented their use in attacks on civilians. “It’s impossible to defend this or justify this or explain this in a way that doesn’t undermine everything else you’re trying to pursue in the region," says Whitson. "They know it."

The recent fighting in has also created a power vacuum that offered opportunities for Yemen's al-Qaeda franchise to grow in strength. Months after the launch of the Saudi operation, al-Qaeda's forces had gained ground, but in 2016 the coalition announced that it began actively fighting al-Qaeda, declaring that it retook key areas from the group. ISIS has also attempted to capitalize on the chaos, with limited success.

The funeral that came under attack on Saturday was for Sheikh Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the interior minister in the Houthi government, and was packed prominent Yemeni officials and elites. The location of the funeral was publicized in advance, suggesting that the attack could have been deliberate. The victims included Sana’a's mayor, Abdel-Qader Helal, a popular figure unaffiliated with either side in the war. The attack was a so-called “double tap” airstrike: an initial strike, followed by a second bombing that often comes after ambulances arrive. “There is no doubt in our minds that the Saudis knew they were striking a funeral hall,” says Whitson.

Muslimi, the analyst with Carnegie, puts it simply: “It’s an unbelievable war crime.”

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