Pakistan in quandary over involvement in Yemen crisis

by Anna K. Poole
Posted 4/08/15, 11:45 am

As Shiite rebels advance across Yemen, an air blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia is preventing medical supplies from reaching victims of the conflict. As of Monday, Doctors without Borders reported more than 500 wounded, with another 500 slaughtered in the violence. 

UNICEF has nothing but midwife kits left to treat injured civilians. According to Sitara Jabeen, a spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross, a cargo plane in Jordan loaded with 17 tons of aid is awaiting clearance from Saudi coalition forces to land in Yemen. 

“If these medical supplies do not reach Yemen … many more people will just die because they will not have the treatment on time,” Jabeen said.

In the last two weeks, 74 children died and 44 were wounded, according to UNICEF. But the ongoing bloodshed makes casualty figures difficult to estimate.  

The Red Cross is calling for a break in fighting so bodies can be collected. 

Saudi forces are backing fighters loyal to ousted Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Iran is backing the Houthi rebels in what has become a proxy war between the two nations. On Wednesday, Iran sent two warships to the Gulf of Aden, just off Yemen’s coast.

The Houthi rebels seized Yemen’s capital in September, forcing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. What began as a power grab has escalated into a regional conflict. Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia initiated airstrikes on Yemen, intending to halt the Houthi advance. The fighting has paralyzed major cities and urban centers. 

“Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, some by crossing the sea to Djibouti and Somalia,” said Valerie Amos, United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs. 

Last week, Saudi officials asked Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, for military manpower to bulk up the coalition targeting the Houthis. Their request for more troops raises the possibility of a ground offensive in Yemen. 

Muslim-majority Pakistan prizes the safety of Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s two most sacred sites, Mecca and Medina. 

In Islamabad, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed a joint session of parliament convened to debate whether Pakistan should join the Saudi-led coalition against the Shiite rebels. On Tuesday, Sharif’s office released a statement saying “any violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Saudi Arabia would evoke a strong reaction from Pakistan.” 

Asif has voiced support for the mission. But Pakistan has yet to approve military assistance, and the country may not be able to afford another conflict. Between Islamic and sectarian militants allied with groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, Pakistan has its hands full. In a clash pitting Sunnis against Shiites, the nation’s sizable Shiite majority further complicates engagement.

Already crippled from years of internal warfare and political upheaval, Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest nation and has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world. 

“Somalia is now in a better shape than us,” Yemeni citizen Ahmed Rageh lamented. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Anna K. Poole

Anna is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

Read more from this writer