The Saudi-Led Coalition’s Airstrikes in Yemen, and the Civilian Toll
The New York Times
Airstrikes killed as many as 81 people at awedding party in a Yemeni village on the Red Sea coast on Monday. The attack was one of the deadliest involving civilians since the conflict began in March. Saudi Arabia has led a military coalition, aided by the United States, that aims to oust the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran, and reinstate the former president. Kareem Fahim, a New York Times correspondent, recently traveled to Yemen to cover the toll that the coalition airstrikes have taken on the civilian population. He answered questions, somesubmitted by readers, on the continuing Saudi-led aerial campaign.
Q. What does the Saudi-led coalition say is the aim of its air campaign in Yemen?
A. The coalition says it is trying to defeat the Houthis, a rebel movement from northern Yemen that captured Sana, the capital, and other parts of the country over the last year and forced the Saudi-backed government from power.
Beyond the coalition’s stated goals — which include restoring the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi — the fight in Yemen has a regional dimension: The coalition of Sunni states fighting in Yemen appears anxious to project military strength as a warning to Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis.
Q. How have the airstrikes changed the course of the conflict? Are they enabling the Saudis to make military gains?
A. Forces allied with the coalition certainly seem to have enjoyed a significant advantage because of the warplanes, which have bombed Houthi positions and supply lines as well as their ammunition depots and military bases. At the same time, the most notable coalition success, the capture of the southern port city of Aden in July, occurred after hundreds of troops from the United Arab Emirates joined the fighting against the Houthis, who were routed.
In several cases, coalition warplanes have accidentally bombed their own forces. And even after six months of fighting and thousands of airstrikes by the coalition — which in some cases have hit the same ammunition depots time and again — the Houthis seem to still possess enough firepower to carry out large scale-attacks on coalition forces closing in on Sana or across the border in Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis have also repeatedly deployed their weapons against civilian areas, especially in Aden and the central Yemeni city of Taiz.
Q. What role has the United States had in the air campaign?
A. The Obama administration says it is providing logistical support, like refueling, to coalition warplanes, as well as intelligence. The United States is also a major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states in the coalition, so American weapons, including munitions, are being widely deployed in the war.
In April, a report in the Los Angeles Times said that American personnel were working in a joint coalition operations center in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, “to check the accuracy of target lists,” and that the Pentagon had “expedited delivery of GPS-guided ‘smart’ bomb kits to the Saudi air force to replenish supplies.” American officials told the newspaper that increasing concern about the high number of civilian casualties caused them to step up their involvement in the coalition effort, including adding personnel in the operations room. “U.S. reconnaissance drones now send live video feeds of potential targets and of damage after the bombs hit,” it reported.
Q. What has been the humanitarian impact of the airstrikes?
A. In many places, catastrophic. I recently visited northern Yemen at a time when the coalition had stepped up the bombing, especially in Sana. Many of the airstrikes in the capital appear to be roughly aimed at security installations, military bases or government buildings. But many of these places are in the middle of residential areas, so the airstrikes inevitably plunge into homes and kill civilians. This happened on several occasions while I was there. In one case, the coalition, apparently trying to hit a university that the Houthis were using as a base, peppered the neighborhood next to it with bombs, killing at least nine people in two separate houses.
The damage in Sana is mild in comparison to some of the northern provinces, where the airstrikes have been so intense and fall so frequently on residential areas that they have prompted a huge exodus of civilians. Some neighborhoods in the northern city of Saada — part of an area that the coalition declared was a “military zone” — are almost destroyed.
On several occasions, warplanes have targeted buildings that are not only civilian in nature, but also far from any military target. A Times photographer and I visited one, a water-bottling plant in Hajja Province, where 13 workers were killed in an airstrike. We saw nothing else around the place for miles.
Q. What, if anything, are Yemenis doing to protect themselves from airstrikes?
A. In the capital, many residents stay home or severely limit their movement until the airstrikes, which seem to come in waves, subside. In areas along the border with Saudi Arabia, where the bombing is more intense, some people have taken shelter in caves, aid workers told us.