Stop the Splitting, Stop the Bleeding in Yemen

The Old City district of Sanaa of Yemen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The U.S. is part of a coalition which is bombing civilians in the civil war in Yemen.

The Old City district of Sanaa of Yemen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The U.S. is part of a coalition which is bombing civilians in the civil war in Yemen.

An important step we need to take to find our way out of the current Endless War we’re now engaged in is to stop splitting.  "Splitting" is the common but mistaken human tendency to neatly divide the world into the righteous “good guys” (ourselves) and those other “bad guys” over there.  Splitting is not only foolish and wrong; it’s also very dangerous because it’s how wars get started by rationalizing violence by the “righteous” against the “unrighteous.” 

A case in point is the tragic split in the Muslim world between the Shia'a and the Sunni.  While the theological issues are of course totally different, the Shia'a/Sunni split might be compared to the Catholic/Protestant split in the Christian world.  For many years our Catholic and Protestant ancestors fought each other in many very bloody years of war and torture — my own Mennonite ancestors were among those persecuted in the process.   Centuries later we now see how terribly wrong those religious wars were and that there are good people on both sides of that ecclesiastical divide.

We Christians have learned something from all of that suffering and we should be sharing our wisdom on this point with the Muslim world — encouraging each side to see the good of the other side in the Shia'a/Sunni split.  Instead, with very deadly consequences, we’ve foolishly decided to join in on the Sunni side of the fight against the Shia’as.  Rather than using our massive power and influence to try to stop the fighting, we've been throwing kerosene on the fire and the sum effect is that by taking sides we're greatly adding to the misery of the Middle East.

As we saw in our last blog, this Sunni/Shia'a split is being played out in the proxy war in Syria, with the U.S. piling on in an unnecessary war already in progress — funding and arming some of the Sunni rebels while Russia supports the Shia'a-related Alawite government of Bashar Assad.  In doing so we are prolonging the fight while at the same time trying to organize peace talks.

A smaller but similar catastrophe is happening in Yemen.  An indigenous group of Yemeni rebels called the Houthis have been making major gains in a battle against the government of Yemen.  The conflict has drawn the attention of the international community because of the enormous humanitarian suffering it is causing.  There should be a U.S. response — a special effort by our State Department to find a negotiated end to the fighting and the immediate sending of massive amounts to humanitarian aid to the suffering people of Yemen.

But instead, we have been foolishly drawn into this proxy war against the Houthi rebels because they are Shia'a and the main party trying to roll back their advances are our allies the Saudis, the powerhouse of the Sunni world.  In the course of the war, as in every war, there have been atrocities committed by both sides.  But what has brought the condemnation of the international community and the United Nations is the fact that Saudi Arabia, whose U.S.-built aircraft control the skies over Yemen, are dropping U.S.-built bombs on civilians and by all accounts causing the majority of the suffering.  

A particularly egregious example of this is the recent bombing of three Doctors Without Borders medical facilities in Yemen.  In a January 20, '16 op ed in the British Guardian newspaper, Doctors Without Borders U.K. Executive Director Vickie Hawkins wrote that "With total impunity, essential medical services are being destroyed as a military strategy . . . This cannot become the new normal."

An editorial in the December 16, '15 New York Times entitled "The Urgent Need for Peace in Yemen" notes that both sides "have displayed a careless disregard for human life.  But the Saudi-led coalition, crucially supported by American intelligence, has been responsible for most of the deaths. . . Given this irresponsible record, it is baffling and disgraceful that the Obama administration is proceeding with the sale of $1.29 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia…"  

A few days later on Dec. 23, the Times quoted Steward M. Patrick of the Council of Foreign relations who said that "Having supplied many of the weapons that the Saudi coalition is using against their targets [in Yemen], the United States is clearly worried about being linked to the resulting atrocities and deteriorating humanitarian situation."

Besides being a moral stain on our national reputation, our active participation in the Yemen war ultimately endangers our national security by greatly adding to the number of people in the Middle East who are profoundly outraged by meddling in affairs we have no business being involved in.  We must stop the splitting and stop the bleeding in Yemen by insisting that the Saudis stop bombing civilians and hospitals.

Mel Lehman
February 20, 2016

Photo Credit: Andrew Shantz

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.