The Forgotten War in the Middle East: War and Starvation in Yemen

As the world watches the horrific news and sees the disturbing images emerging from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, another staggering humanitarian crisis is unfolding a thousand miles south. Yemen has been embroiled in an intense civil war with international implications for more than two years, and the suffering of the civilian population of the poorest country in the Middle East continues to worsen.

The Arab Spring uprising in 2011 forced Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former authoritarian leader, to leave office and concede power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, his long-time deputy. As Hadi struggled to deal with a myriad of issues in the country, politically disenfranchised Houthi rebels in the north of the country mounted an armed insurrection – supported by security forces allied with Saleh – and quickly took control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, in 2014. Since then, the conflict has evolved into an international quagmire, where a Saudi-led coalition has killed thousands, many of them civilians, with airstrikes and ground troops in an attempt to prop up Hadi’s government. Iran has provided extensive military and financial support for the Shia Houthi rebels, turning a domestic conflict into a proxy war between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia has used increasingly barbaric military tactics on civilian populations in their attempt to restore Hadi’s rule, including near-constant air strikes on civilians and a naval blockade on rebel-held areas, which has prevented the transmission of emergency food supplies and medical aid to impoverished civilians. More than 10,000 people, many of them civilians, have died in the conflict so far, with no end to the conflict in sight. The true toll of the conflict is even more visible in its impact on the food security and health of the Yemeni people, particularly women and children.

Recently, the United Nations (UN) declared that Yemen was on the brink of famine, with almost 19 million of the entire Yemeni population of 25.6 million people in dire need of assistance. The UN stated that around 14 million people are “severely food insecure,” and in need of immediate food aid, while two million children are acutely malnourished and in danger of starvation. The UN’s humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, said in January that a child under five in Yemen dies every ten minutes from easily preventable diseases, mostly stemming from malnutrition or lack of access to clean water. As the Saudi-led coalition continues to push to retake Sanaa and the important port city of Hudaydah, and as the summer months approach with temperatures rising up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the humanitarian crisis will likely worsen dramatically.

The United Nations held a fundraising conference in Geneva on Tuesday with the goal of raising the $2.1 billion that the organization has deemed necessary to prevent a devastating famine that could claim the lives of millions of Yemenis. The conference and previous fundraising efforts have raised about half of the desired total, but it is increasingly clear that there is little international political will to pledge billions to help save the starving population. Adding to the desperation is the difficulty of distributing aid. Even if more money is pledged, transporting aid to the people who are in the most need will continue to be close to impossible. International aid groups have been largely unable to distribute supplies to their intended recipients due to regime checkpoints and concerted efforts to steal supplies or prevent aid convoys from reaching their destination for political reasons.

Despite calls for aid, the United States and other Western countries continue providing military support for the Saudi-led coalition that seems to be using famine as a weapon of war. The US is also considering significantly expanding its support for the Hadi-led government and Saudi Arabia as part of a larger strategy to counter Iran’s regional power, despite the potential humanitarian impact and the prospect of furthering the power vacuum that has allowed al-Qaeda to establish a stronghold in parts of the country. The American strategy in Yemen is yet another indication that in an increasingly tumultuous international sphere, humanitarian ideals continue to fall by the wayside in favor of geopolitical power-balancing against Iranian influence.

Despite legitimate geopolitical concerns about growing Iranian influence, there is no excuse for the international community to continue to ignore the devastating human toll of the war in Yemen. Hundreds of thousands of people could die in the coming months because of a man-made famine, and increased turmoil in the country will continue to benefit extremist groups. The world needs to take notice of the tragedy transpiring in Yemen and act now.