With world headlines focused on North Korea’s nuclear tests, Russia’s ties to the Trump administration and landmark elections in France, it’s easy to forget about three ethnic conflicts that show no sign of going away in 2017.
The ongoing civil war in Yemen, the continuing massacre of Rohingya Muslim refugees in Myanmar and escalating bloodshed in South Sudan — the world’s newest country — add new dimensions of suffering to what the United Nations is already calling the worst humanitarian crisis it’s seen in decades.
Long overshadowed by the fighting in Syria and Iraq, Yemen’s ongoing civil war has killed 10,000 people and wounded another 40,000 in the last two years, according to the United Nations, although the actual figure may be even higher.
Yemen was already the poorest nation in the Arab world — even before March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government. That government, led by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, came to power in 2012 under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council after an Arab Spring uprising forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. But three years later, Hadi’s government was forced into exile by Houthi rebels, who have long chafed under Sunni majority rule. The military campaign has aligned the Saudis, other Sunni Gulf Arab countries and the United States against Houthi rebels backed by Shiite Iran and allied with Saleh’s ousted forces.
Peace talks have gone nowhere and extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State have moved in to take advantage of the vacuum.
In January, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, met with Hadi and other top officials in Aden to address the dire humanitarian situation.
“The current political stalemate is causing death and destruction every day,” the U.N. official said in a statement. “The only way to stop this is through the renewal of the Cessation of Hostilities followed by consultations to develop a comprehensive agreement. Yemen’s political elites have a responsibility to shield people from further harm, protect their country’s future and commit to a peaceful settlement.”
Yet there’s no sign of any letup in the violence. In fact, the U.N. recently warned that 7 million Yemenis face the threat of famine in what has become “one of the worst hunger crises in the world.” The world body has appealed for $ 2.1 billion in 2017 to reach 12 million people with life-saving assistance in Yemen. Only 6 percent of that funding has been received. So many people are dying that the Red Cross is now donating morgues to Yemeni hospitals that couldn’t cope with the influx of corpses.
Hospitals themselves have come under increasing attack. After Saudi fighter jets bombed a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, the NGO withdrew its staffers from six Yemeni hospitals; that attack prompted the State Department to condemn such bombings for the first time.
While both sides have committed atrocities, Saudi Arabia in particular has been criticized by human rights groups, the U.N. and members of Congress for indiscriminately targeting civilians. Last October, following a Saudi airstrike that killed 140 people at a funeral in Sanaa, the Obama White House announced it would reconsider U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. (In May, Obama quietly suspended the transfer of cluster munitions to Riyadh after reports of civilian shelling.)
Under President Donald Trump, however, the Pentagon will likely expand its cooperation with Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis and, by extension, counter Iranian influence in the region.
On Jan. 29, eight days after taking office, Trump authorized a raid on a Yemeni village that he later proclaimed was “highly successful.” But eyewitnesses say it killed over two dozen people — including a Navy SEAL as well as women and children — and that the mission was anything but successful.
In fact, everything that could’ve gone wrong during the risky commando raid — which Trump reportedly approved over dinner — did. Locals were tipped off about the mission beforehand, a messy gunfight ensued and a $70 million Osprey aircraft had to be destroyed because of a crash landing.
Officials told NBC News that the trove of data retrieved by the raid has yielded no significant intelligence so far. Meanwhile, Trump promptly blamed the botched raid on his generals and his predecessor.
The controversy hasn’t deterred Trump from pressing ahead with a more aggressive military posture in the region, in contrast to Obama’s more deliberative, judicious use of force. Some defense officials complained that Obama took too long to scrutinize operations, allowing plans to languish for weeks or months. Trump is reviewing ways to hand more authority over to the CIA and military brass to speed up the use of drone strikes and other targeted-killing ops around the world. Already in March, the U.S. unleashed a punishing aerial blitz against al-Qaeda targets in Yemen that eclipsed the annual bombing total during any year of Obama’s presidency. Trump has also suggested loosening restrictions on Saudi arms sales.
Critics worry that Trump is rushing into a convoluted battlefield he doesn’t fully comprehend. On the one hand, Yemen has become a proxy war between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and its Shiite rival Iran. On the other hand, the conflict is fueled by a complex web of tribes, militia movements, secessionists and Islamists with shifting loyalties and a litany of local grievances. For instance, many experts say the Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, only take nominal direction from Iran and are driven more by their own personal agenda. The group hails from the impoverished north and has long complained of marginalization by Sunni leaders.
Green-lighting stepped-up military action without a clear diplomatic strategy to address these underlying sectarian tensions could mire the U.S. in the sort of quagmire that the Saudis have found themselves in for the last two years.
Despite the danger of mission creep and the occasional unintended attacks on hospitals, markets and funerals, Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center, says Trump’s overall policy is to “limit, contain and eventually roll back the Iranian power projected throughout the Middle East” — from Yemen to Syria and from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, a span of more than 2,000 kilometers.
“The Trump administration is, in my view, justified in improving the intelligence capability and war-fighting, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism skills of our Saudi allies,” said Cohen, who was formerly with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “This includes the provision of smart bombs and training for the Saudis so that they minimize the tragic loss of civilian life that was going on in Yemen for the last couple of years.
“American policymakers, including our elected representatives in Congress, have to understand that what is at stake here is not just the engagement in Yemen, but also the important shipping lanes around the Yemeni coast, the Arabian Peninsula and the southern entrance to the Red Sea,” he added.
Cohen noted the huge amount of oil and petrochemical traffic in the region, and the importance of the southern port of Aden in controlling the Bab al-Mandab, a narrow strait through which millions of barrels of oil transit weekly.
“The fact that the alleged Houthi rebels fired anti-ship missiles against maritime traffic suggests that the Iranians provided those missiles, and trained and equipped the rebels to disrupt seaboard trade. But possibly it was the Iranians themselves. Therefore, we need to take this very seriously.”
Cohen added that this is not just about “supporting our Saudi allies” in their fight against Iranian proxies.
“There’s a war in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and we need to engage them with drone strikes and special forces,” he warned. “Al-Qaeda and ISIS [Islamic State] remain the principal radical Islamist enemies of the United States and the free world at large.”
Yet Mareike Transfeld, writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says claims of Iran’s influence over the Houthis have been overblown.
“Although Iran sees cooperation with non-state actors as an integral part of its foreign policy to protect and expand its influence in the region, its support for the Houthis has been marginal,” she wrote. “The military support Iran has provided to the Houthis since at least 2011 has largely been limited to training and mostly channeled through Lebanese Hezbollah.”
Another factor that helped the Houthis was the fact that Saleh, Yemen’s former president, indirectly supported the Houthi takeover of Sanaa by urging his loyalists within the military and tribes not to resist.
“Although Saleh was pushed out of office … he used his influence to sabotage the political process to regain power,” Transfeld wrote. “This alliance has driven the Houthis’ expansion and attempts at governance to a much larger degree than Iran ever could.”
Tucked into a forgotten corner of South Asia, the Rohingya Muslim minority of Myanmar (formerly Burma) face a large-scale military and police crackdown that has left hundreds dead and sent tens of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. Another 120,000 languish in camps that resemble detention centers since a wave of inter-ethnic violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state drove them from their homes five years ago.
About 1 million Rohingyas live in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 54 million. Yet they’re officially stateless — and are not considered one of the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the government in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). In fact, the regime considers the Rohingyas undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, and therefore ineligible for citizenship. (Bangladesh denies them citizenship as well.)
“While a previous Myanmar government stripped the Rohingya of a path to full citizenship in 1982, in more recent years, the plight of the Rohingya has gone from bad to worse,” Debra Eisenman, executive director of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a leader in ASPI’s Myanmar Initiative, wrote in a Feb. 24 brief.
In 2015, then-President Thein Sein effectively revoked the Rohingyas’ newly gained right to vote following pressure from Buddhist ultra-nationalists. And in Myanmar’s 2015 elections, not a single parliamentary candidate was of the Muslim faith.
Following an armed attack against border guards last October in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, authorities raided Rohingya villages and sparked a mass exodus of Rohingya. ASPI estimates that 65,000 to 100,000 refugees have fled to the relative safety (but squalor) of Bangladesh since then; others have attempted to reach Malaysia, Thailand and even Indonesia, where they similarly face hostile conditions.
In December, 11 Nobel Peace Prize winners and a dozen other prominent people — writing in an open letter — called the crackdown “ethnic cleansing,” while Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak went even farther, labeling it “genocide” and calling the current situation an “insult to Islam.”
“I will not close my eyes and shut my mouth,” Razak declared at a protest rally in Kuala Lumpur. “We must defend [Rohingyas] not just because they are of the same faith, but because they are humans. Their lives have value.”
One person who hasn’t said much at all on the plight of the Rohingya is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader and its iconic former political prisoner.
“In recent years, she’s been fairly quiet on the Rohingya, in a way that’s been surprising for a lot of people,” said ASPI’s Eisenman. “She’s also said at times that the international community has made too big of a deal out of the issue — creating problems at a level that didn’t exist. However, she established a commission last August, led by Kofi Annan, to review and create dialogue on solutions to ethnic conflict in Rakhine state. I think the U.N. report detailed something of a different magnitude, and she has vowed to investigate what is happening. But it remains to be seen who will investigate.”
That U.N. report accused Myanmar’s army and police officers of committing mass killings, torture and gang rapes that could amount to crimes against humanity, but so far the international community has resisted calls for an independent investigation.
Daniel Russel, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, warned recently that the escalation of violence could incite jihadist extremism in Myanmar.
“If mishandled, Rakhine state could be infected and infested by jihadism, which already plagues neighboring Bangladesh and other countries,” Russel told VOA News.
But Priscilla Clapp, who was U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002 and is now a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said she objects to extreme words like genocide, holocaust, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, “because that is not what this is. This is not Yugoslavia.”
Many groups on both sides of the conflict are working “very quietly” in Myanmar to resolve it, Clapp recently told a reporter for Claremont McKenna College’s website.
“An international response that consists primarily of assigning blame for this humanitarian tragedy is no longer tenable,” she said, noting that the conflict has an extremely complicated and nuanced history.
She added that while the sizable Rohingya diaspora has been very active in raising awareness of the problem, they don’t necessarily speak for the Rohingya actually living in Rakhine, “which makes it difficult to identify the starting point for solutions to this problem.”
At the same time, however, journalists are banned from the area, so it’s nearly impossible to speak to Rohingya on the ground or verify reports of rapes and killings by Myanmar’s soldiers.
“The best way to prove or disprove allegations of rights abuses is to allow independent media to probe the accusations,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “If the government truly has nothing to hide, then there is no need to restrict media access to the areas in question in northern Rakhine state.”
The Republic of South Sudan, which came into being July 9, 2011, amidst joyous celebrations in Juba, the capital, is today a war-ravaged, barely functioning state — and home to one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
Famine has been declared in South Sudan, most of whose 12 million people live in poverty. The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) considers 4.9 million of them “severely food-insecure.” Some 100,000 face immediate starvation, while another 1 million are on the brink of famine.
“Famine has become a tragic reality in parts of South Sudan, and our worst fears have been realized,” Serge Tissot, local representative of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said in a release. “Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive.”
South Sudan is not the only nation confronting the specter of famine. Last month, the U.N. warned that more than 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeastern Nigeria faced starvation and disease in what U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien called the “largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the U.N.” in 1945.
Yet the pleas for help come just as the Trump administration wants to significantly pull back on foreign aid. The president’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 would boost military spending at the expense of other agencies, including the State Department, which could see its budget slashed by nearly 30 percent. That would mean deep cuts in humanitarian and foreign assistance, as well as funding for U.N. programs.
In 2016, the U.N. says the United States alone contributed about 28 percent of all foreign aid going to Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan.
In fact, South Sudan attained its independence from the Muslim-majority nation of Sudan thanks in large part to a major diplomatic push by the United States, bolstered by a grassroots campaign led by Christian Evangelicals.
Yet unlike the looming famine in Somalia, which has been ravaged by a severe drought exacerbated by an El Niño weather pattern, South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis is almost entirely man-made. That’s because President Salva Kiir (a Dinka, the largest tribe in the country) and forces loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar (a Nuer, the second-largest tribe), can’t stop killing each other.
Three years of fighting between the two sides has displaced nearly 1.9 million in South Sudan itself, while another 1.5 million have fled to neighboring countries such as Uganda. The violence has prevented farmers from cultivating their crops while soaring inflation has caused the price of staple foods to skyrocket. Meanwhile, both government and rebel forces have blocked or stolen the delivery of food aid.
That’s why J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, says he has little sympathy for the leadership in South Sudan, or Washington for that matter.
In a lengthy interview with The Diplomat, Pham blames the country’s chaos on “an absolute failure of leadership in South Sudan” as well as a rush by the Obama White House to recognize the new country, which broke away from Sudan following a January 2011 referendum on independence approved by more than 98 percent of the population.
Despite rampant poverty and under-development after decades of war, hopes were hopes for the new country. South Sudan is awash in oil and “came to independence with all the goodwill in the world,” said Pham, noting the presence of many heads of state — even Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir — at South Sudan’s independence ceremony in 2011. “This is a place with extraordinary potential. There’s no reason why there should be food insecurity. South Sudan has more uncultivated arable land as a percentage of its size than any place in Africa.”
The current fighting is an outgrowth of what South Sudanese President Kiir claims was a Dec. 15, 2013, coup attempt by former Vice President Machar, his longtime rival. But an African Union investigation turned up no evidence of an attempted overthrow. It found, instead, that the dispute may have been triggered by a mutiny or disagreement among members of the presidential guard, and that “the ensuing violence spiraled out of control, spilling out into the general population.”
The report also concludes that people were targeted for their ethnicity when the fighting erupted.
“There was no coup attempt. The fact is, Salva Kiir is criminally incompetent,” Pham charged, claiming that in the midst of famine, the South Sudanese government has reportedly raised visa fees for humanitarian workers to $10,000 each. “There was a political dispute that began in the summer of 2013, when Kiir fired his vice president. But Kiir wasn’t content with that. He tried to eliminate his opponents by claiming they were staging a coup — for which there was no evidence — and then tried to kill them in December 2013. But he couldn’t even do that competently. So the government then took its wrath out by slaughtering around 10,000 people near Juba and thus starting a civil war which is still going on, three years later.”
But as is the case with Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims, journalists find it impossible to cover the war because the Kiir government intimidates them.
“The U.S. has provided more than $2 billion in humanitarian assistance, and yet they thumb their nose at us to the extent that they even expelled an American journalist,” said Pham, referring to the December 2016 expulsion of Justin Lynch, a freelancer for the Associated Press, for his critical coverage of the leadership in Juba.
George Clooney and John Prendergast, co-authors of a March 9 opinion piece in the Washington Post, said the Kiir government is “using the same destructive strategies” that Sudan’s Bashir used against the rebellious South Sudanese for years before it won independence.
“In South Sudan today, war crimes pay,” they wrote. “There is no accountability for the atrocities and looting of state resources, or for the famine that results. Billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars have supported peacekeeping forces and humanitarian assistance already, and one peace process after another has tried to break the cycle of violence. But nothing attempts to thwart the driving force of the mayhem: the kleptocrats who have hijacked the government in Juba for their personal enrichment.”
Yet Pham puts a lot of the blame on Washington itself and the “hysterical advocacy groups” that supported South Sudanese independence in the first place (that includes Clooney and Prendergast, both of whom strongly advocated for independence).
“In many respects, under the Bush administration and certainly under Obama’s, people were so personally invested in the creation of South Sudan by dint of their long activism that they were complicit,” said Pham, who advocates “tough love” and an arms embargo against South Sudan, at the very least. “These people were the ones who railroaded us into the creation of this non-viable state. Some people are now calling for trusteeship, but the last thing Africa needs is another failed state.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.