Saudi Arabia to investigate Yemen funeral air raid as US reviews support
Coalition announces inquiry into strike that killed 140 people in Sana’a as US says its backing is not ‘a blank cheque’
Riyadh , Saudi Arabia, Kingdom of - 9 Oct 2016 - Guardian
The US said its security cooperation with Saudi Arabia was not a “blank cheque” as Riyadh agreed to mount an investigation into a widely condemned air raid on funeral in Yemen that killed 140 people. In one of the deadliest attacks of the country’s civil war, which Saudi Arabia entered in March 2015, airstrikes on Saturday hit a funeral hall packed with thousands of mourners in Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sana’a.
More than 525 people were wounded. The Saudi-led coalition has not acknowledged responsibility for the attack, even as it announced an investigation, but is the only force with such air power in the conflict. The White House issued a statement saying it had begun an “immediate review” of its support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
The attack has been condemned by the UN, the European Union and the United States. What is happening in Yemen and how Saudi Arabia's airstrikes are affecting civilians - explainer Read more The issue is embarrassing for the US since it has decried the Russian failure to be more open about its role in the air attack on a UN aid convoy in Syria, and it will face allegations of double standards if it allows the Saudis to delay an inquiry. The US, like the UK, supplies arms to Saudi Arabia and practical military advice, even though the precise extent of that advice is disputed.
White House national security council spokesman Ned Simon said: “We are deeply disturbed by reports of [the] airstrike on a funeral hall in Yemen, which, if confirmed, would continue the troubling series of attacks striking Yemeni civilians. US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque.
Yemen's powerful ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key ally of the country's dominant Houthi movement, called for an escalation of attacks against their common enemy Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
"I call upon all the sons of this nation ... to face this aggression with all their strength and you must proceed to the battlefronts," Saleh said in a televised speech.
“Even as we assist Saudi Arabia regarding the defence of their territorial integrity, we have and will continue to express our serious concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged. In light of this and other recent incidents, we have initiated an immediate review of our already significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led coalition and are prepared to adjust our support so as to better align with US principles, values and interests, including achieving an immediate and durable end to Yemen’s tragic conflict.”
Bruce Riedel notes that the Saudi-led war continues to fail in achieving any of its objectives. Because of the war, the new Saudi leadership has earned a reputation in the region for recklessness:
There are mutterings around the Gulf states now that the Saudi leadership is impulsive and rash. The Saudis have traditionally been very conservative and risk averse. From Faysal to Abdullah, Saudi Kings were cautious and careful. Now there is hushed talk of a team out of its depth with no plan for an endgame.
The UK foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood also called for the Saudis to urgently investigate. Reuters quoted Saudi officials as denying any strike and insisting its air force has clear instructions to avoid such targets. The Foreign Office has insisted UK arms export licences to Saudi Arabia do not need to be revoked since there was no serious risk of a breach of humanitarian law.
In an unexpected twist, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks even though it is thought the deaths were caused by an air raid, and Isis has no access to aircraft. The Saudi-led coalition issued a statement saying it was aware of reports about the “regrettable and painful” bombing of the Great Hall in Sana’a. The coalition expressed its deepest condolences and support to the families of the victims of hostilities in Yemen since 2014.
The statement added: “The coalition confirms that its troops have clear instructions not to target populated area and to avoid civilians. The coalition will immediately investigate this case along with Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) in Yemen.” A call for an independent UN-led investigation into general breaches of humanitarian law in the 18-month conflict were last month fended off by Arab states at the Human Rights Council in favour of a compromise that allows the UN to advise a national inquiry.
It was clear from the beginning of the campaign that the Saudis had no “plan for an endgame.” As interventionist states often do, the Saudis and their partners rushed in to a conflict they were never likely to win and declared goals that they were always very unlikely to achieve. The Saudi decision was a classic case of choosing to intervene in a conflict because they could. The Saudis sought to impose their political preferences on Yemen through force, which they should have already known would be a fool’s errand.
The Saudis evidently underestimated the difficulty of what they were trying to do and never considered what they ought to do if the initial campaign failed.
They can continue to bludgeon and starve Yemen, and they seem intent on doing so, but the war is likely to provide them with nothing except increasing costs and increased insecurity along the border with Yemen. As Riedel mentions, the Houthis are now shelling targets inside Saudi Arabia, so at this point the war is exposing Saudi territory to attacks that would not be happening were it not for the intervention.
Meanwhile, Iran can just sit back and watch as the Saudis sabotage themselves with an ill-conceived and unnecessary war. Riedel writes:
Instead — after weeks of air attacks on the Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies — the prince’s war looks like a stalemate. The immense damage done to Yemen’s weak infrastructure has created considerable bad blood between Yemenis and their rich Gulf neighbors that will poison relations for years. Yemenis always resented their rich brothers, and now many will want revenge. Iran is scoring a victory on its Gulf rival without any cost to Tehran and with only limited Iranian assistance to the Zaydis.
At least 10,000 people have been killed in the 18 month conflict. Thousands of Yemenis, many armed, gathered at the UN headquarters in Sana’a on Sunday calling for an international investigation into the air raid. Radios and mosque loudspeakers throughout the city blared mourning verses as demonstrators crowded the streets around the UN headquarters, many waving their rifles in the air.
Exaggerated fears of Iranian influence in Yemen contributed to the Saudi decision to launch their dangerous intervention, so it is fitting that the Saudis are hurting their own cause with self-inflicted wounds in their desperate gamble to thwart an “expansion” of Iranian influence that was not actually taking place.
The dead and wounded from Saturday’s attack include senior military and security officials from the ranks of the Houthi rebels fighting the internationally recognised government of president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as well as their allies – loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Ambulances rushed to the site to ferry the wounded to hospitals. In radio broadcasts, the health ministry summoned off-duty doctors and called on residents to donate blood. Rescuers, meanwhile, sifted through the rubble in search of more casualties but a fire hindered their efforts.
The funeral was for Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the interior minister Galal al-Rawishan, an ally of the Houthi movement and Saleh. Witnesses and medics said a missile hit the hall in the south of the capital, destroying the building. Pictures showed the inside of the once-ornate hall reduced to a pile of twisted metal and rubble after two huge explosions.
The Houthi-controlled news site sabanews.net said:
“Dozens of citizens fell as martyrs or were wounded in this attack by planes of the Saudi-American aggression.” Saleh on Sunday called for an escalation of attacks against Saudi Arabia on Sunday. “I call upon all the sons of this nation ... to face this aggression with all their strength and you must proceed to the battlefronts,”
the former president, who commands troops that have defected and sided with the Houthi rebels, said in a televised speech. “The defense ministry, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the interior ministry must put in place the necessary measures for battle readiness at the fronts on the border.” Saudi Arabia intervened in the conflict in March 2015 to support the Yemeni government, which took power after Saleh stepped down in 2012 following Arab Spring protests, against Houthi rebels in control of Sana’a.
It has faced repeated accusations that its campaign has breached international humanitarian law and last month the Guardian published data indicating that more than a third of the coalition’s airstrikes had hit civilian sites such as schools, hospitals, markets, mosques and economic infrastructure. The Houthi rebels are also accused of human rights violations, including the use of landmines and indiscriminate shelling. Saudi Arabia fears the Houthis are proxies for its regional rival, Iran.
The UN has put the death toll in the war at more than 10,000, many of them civilians. Dozens of emaciated children are also fighting for their lives in Yemen’s hospital wards, as fears grow that the war and a sea blockade are creating famine conditions in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country. More than half of Yemen’s 28 million people are already short of food, the UN has said, and children are particularly badly hit, with hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation. Stephen O’Brien, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said he was “horrified and extremely concerned” by the attacks and called for a prompt and impartial probe.