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Cholera, hunger and war are ravaging Yemen. What role does the U.S. play?

A brutal, three-year civil war in Yemen has drawn in regional and global powers, led to the fastest growing cholera epidemic and, perhaps soon, famine. A Saudi coalition is lifting a recent blockade on the country after aid groups warned it would trigger a humanitarian disaster, but millions remain vulnerable. P.J. Tobia offers an update on the conflict and what the U.S. is doing there.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: As we reported earlier, the Saudi-led, U.S.- backed coalition has begun to lift its blockade of Yemen. However, humanitarian groups on the ground say that famine is still a possibility for millions, while a cholera epidemic rages on.

    The NewsHour's P.J. Tobia has the latest on the crisis and the U.S. role in the conflict.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    A brutal civil war, that's led to pestilence, and perhaps soon, says the United Nations, famine. Millions are in danger, either from manmade food shortages or an exploding outbreak of cholera, a waterborne diarrheal disease that could sicken one million people by year's end.

    The three-year civil war has drawn in regional and global powers, global powers spilling local blood.

    Last week, the Saudis enforced a blockade, shutting down ports and border crossings, preventing critical aid from getting to Yemen. The Saudis said the move was needed to prevent the flow of arms from Iran. Today, the blockade was lifted in some areas.

    Justin Armstrong is Yemen country director for Doctors Without Borders in Sanaa.

    We spoke via Skype.

  • Justin Armstrong:

    If we can't get people in, if we can't supplies in, that strangles our ability to run medical programs, and has a similar effect on humanitarian activities across the country.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    On one side of the conflict, Houthi rebels who deposed a Saudi-allied government. The Houthis are said to be allied with Iran, though how much is in dispute.

    On the other, a Saudi-led coalition backed by U.S. weapons and logistics. Nine days ago, the Houthis launched a missile at the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It was their deepest strike into Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials say the missile was supplied by Iran, and enforced the blockade as retaliation.

    On Friday, a U.S. Air Force official in the region said remains of the rocket bore Iranian markings. Iran has long denied supplying rockets to the Houthis.

    As the war grinds on, Yemen endures what the United Nations calls the fastest growing cholera epidemic in history. Nearly 900,000 people have the illness, half of them children. More than 2,000 Yemenis have died in the epidemic. The U.N. predicts one million cholera cases by January.

  • Justin Armstrong:

    It affected the vast majority of the country, with patients reported from every corner of Yemen. And it's compounded by the fact that the health system has already collapsed in many respects.

    Health workers have not been paid, and over half the health facilities in the country have ceased functioning. Other ones struggle with even the most basic needs.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    But the war continues. Al-Qaida, ISIS, tribal and militia groups are also active. The U.S. conducts airstrikes against the terrorists. In January, a Navy SEAL was killed in a raid in Central Yemen.

    Abdulwahab Alkebsi was born in Yemen. He's now the deputy director for programs at the Center for International Private Enterprise.

  • Abdulwahab Alkebsi:

    The conflict in Yemen, unfortunately, right now has reached a level of equilibrium. So, nobody is gaining ground, nobody is losing ground. Most of the belligerents right now are benefiting from the status quo.

    So, they would benefit from continuing the war, while they would also lose from a peace process. So we have reached a level where it seems like there's no solution in sight.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    A United Nations report in September says that both sides of the conflict have committed war crimes. The Houthis are accused of recruiting child soldiers. But the U.N. says coalition bombings are the leading cause of civilian deaths.

    Some of those bombs were sold to the Saudis by U.S. defense contractors. A single October 2016 Saudi airstrike killed 140 people, and wounded hundreds more at a funeral in Sanaa.

  • Kate Kizer:

    Basically U.S. tanker jets are flying missions to refuel Saudi and UAE jets in air, so they can continue the high tempo of airstrikes over the country.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Kate Kizer is the director of policy and advocacy at the Yemen Peace Project.

  • Kate Kizer:

    The U.S. also has been sharing intelligence with the coalition for targeting purposes, and there are also U.S. personnel in the joint command center that the coalition runs. But it's pretty unclear still what the role of those U.S. personnel is, as there's never been really transparency from either the Obama administration or the Trump administration.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    A Pentagon spokesman would only tell NewsHour that the U.S. gives the Saudi air force information on enemy capabilities and networks. They wouldn't specify how much fuel U.S. tankers were pumping into Saudi and Emirati jets bombing Yemen. They'd only share figures for all operations in the Horn of Africa region.

    After the funeral bombing, the Obama administration launched a review of U.S. support for the coalition. Ultimately, Obama halted the sale of nearly 20,000 bombs to the Saudis, many manufactured by U.S.-based Raytheon.

    Last summer, the Trump administration notified Congress that it would permit the sale. Trump later announced the possibility of billions of dollars in new arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The president says the deals are a way to create U.S. jobs.

  • Kate Kizer:

    Providing military support that is then used in potential war crimes opens the U.S. into complicity for those war crimes. And so I think it's really important to recognize that, just because they're our allies, we shouldn't just blindly support them.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill agree. Senator Chris Murphy introduced bipartisan legislation last spring that would have limited U.S. bombing support. It was narrowly defeated.

    NewsHour's Judy Woodruff asked Murphy about the issue last week.


    The U.S. Saudi war in Yemen is a national security disaster for the United States. First of all, it's setting off one of the world's worst humanitarian crises inside Yemen. It's radicalizing the population against the United States. The U.S. is getting absolutely nothing out of this war inside Yemen.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    The national security stakes for the U.S. are high.

  • Abdulwahab Alkebsi:

    A failed state in Yemen will create a vacuum, will create the perfect breeding ground for terrorist organizations, whether it's the al-Qaida flavor or it is the ISIS flavor. And that's a very, very destabilizing thing for Yemen, for Saudi Arabia, for the region and for the rest of the world.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    More than one plot against the West has emanated from Yemen, including a 2010 plan to bomb cargo planes bound for the U.S. And continued instability is fertile ground for bad actors.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm P.J. Tobia.

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