For three years, the United Nations estimates the War in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people and brought the country to the brink of collapse.
Saudi Arabia leads a coalition of Arab countries in Operation “Decisive Storm” – launched to crush an uprising of Iran-backed Houthi militia
While coalition jets hover the sky, Houthi missiles hit from the ground
The people of Yemen, who are caught in the middle, are also confronted by a Saudi blockade which has aggravated an already devastating food crisis in the country.
The result: millions face famine and disease.
Major General Ahmad Hassan Mohammad Asiri was the spokesperson for the Arab coalition fighting in Yemen until July last year.
He agreed to speak with Euronews’ Annelise Borges in Paris to talk about Riyadh’s military strategy in Yemen, as well as its vision for the future of the wider region.
Anelise Borges Andrade, Euronews: “I want to thank you once General Asiri, thank you very much for speaking to us.”
“I want to start by asking you about the conflict in Yemen – which according to the United Nations is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Saudi Arabia has been leading the military intervention. And you were at the forefront of their efforts as the spokesperson for the coalition.
“Do you feel responsible for the deaths of thousands and the displacement of millions of people? Is Saudi Arabia responsible for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis?”
General Asiri: “To answer this kind of questions we need to see the picture in large angle. What happened in Yemen? Yemen, it’s one of the countries that were destabilised by what we called at that time – the Arab Spring. In 2011, people went to the streets to change. To change the Ali Abdullah Saleh government. To avoid the collapse of the country the Kingdom and the GCC countries moved through what we called at that time the GCC initiative: it’s a plan to avoid the collapse of Yemen and to give people hope by two ways: first, they elected a transitory country, a government that would lead the country through two things – a new constitution inclusive for everybody of the Yemeni population, even the Houthis minority. And second, reorganising a free election to elect a new government, a new president etc. This process was supervised by the UN and the EU and the GCC. And the coup d’etat came. Why did the coup d’etat come? The Houthis are a minority… and if they went through elections they would not rule the country. Now we see what happened. Now the country, let’s say went through a dark way, and will go to be another failed state.”
Euronews: “Surely the air campaign and the blockade have contributed to what Yemen has become now. The country has been brought to its knees.. you don’t feel like Saudi Arabia has had a role to play in that crisis?”
General Asiri: “If you allow me.. I will give you the total history. We cannot see Yemen as a segment. Despite the numbers that you mentioned there are different numbers, different evaluations of the situation… different angles to see the situation.
There is no doubt there are problems in Yemen. There is a humanitarian crisis, but what the Kingdom and the coalition are doing – we treat the cause and the consequences. Most of those people who comment on the crisis in Yemen, unfortunately remotely, just focus on the consequence and forget the cause. The cause is that there is a country that will go and be under control of the militias. What is the situation today in Lebanon? In Lebanon there is no government… no effective government…first, let’s say, there is an interface government but there are militias running the country and this is what we are working against…”
Euronews: “I just want to focus on Yemen to start. We can explore other parts of the region later but.. my question is – over the past 3 years the Arab coalition you worked for has been accused of targeting homes, shops, markets…why has nothing been done to protect civilians in this war?
Intentionally killing civilians and destroying civilian property amount to war crimes?”
General Asiri: “Well, I think it’s not true. There is an investigation team.”
Euronews: “It’s not true that the Arab coalition targeted homes and shops?”
General Asiri: “No because it’s not the intention. Our intention is to save the population not to destroy. Go back to the reference of the intervention: it is related to the request of the government of Yemen, it is a legal process. The government of Yemen asked to implement the Arab defence agreement through the league. So legally its legal.The goal is not to attack the population. Why we move to the population? To kill them? No.
We are today standing up in Yemen on behalf of the international community. We are risking our soldiers, our resources; our reputation, our time. Why? Because we want to bring back peace and stability in Yemen. If there is another country who wants to deal with the situation in Yemen, please come. This is why we move in Yemen. Because we don’t want this country to become another Somalia, another Libya, another Lebanon… and those three examples that I gave you, there were international community movements and they withdrew. We don’t have this luxury to withdraw because we are neighbours, and we have very high interest to bring peace and stability to Yemen.”
Anelise Borges Andrade, Euronews: “Again I insist there have been at least 10,000 people, who have been killed in this war and those figures date from 2016, so surely we are at a much higher death toll right now; what’s next for Yemen? What’s next for this conflict?
General Asiri: “I wont argue the number. This number is a false number. This number is not an accurate number.”
Euronews: “Are there more?”
General Asiri :“No there are less. Due to the context… Imagine how these militia work.”
Euronews: “But that is a figure that which the UN has been putting forward.”
General Asiri: “I don’t think this number has been verified well through the UN because there is no UN on the ground. Unfortunately. And this is one of the problems – there is no UN observer in the ground.
And so these kinds of numbers are false numbers repeated by those people who want to keep the situation in Yemen as bad as it is today. There are some parts that have interest in keeping Yemen as a failed state.”
Euronews: “Who is interested in keeping Yemen like that?”
General Asiri: “Those people who support those militia. I can see it clearly. Iran has interest in keeping Yemen as a failed state so they will control of it through the militia. And this is the reality the people don’t see. People hear, go on the internet, see a false number and keep repeating this number. There is no one single report coming from the United Nations that has a relation to (the situation) on the ground. You can name me for me.. I am asking you… if there are any observer on the ground.”
Euronews: “There are activists on the ground…”
General Asiri: “And this gives us a vague picture because activists have their own reasons. There is a government recognised by the international community and people can contact this government. The government have their own people on the ground and there is the Yemeni who work in the country and who can relate to this kind of testimony. So we will not discuss this number because I think this is not the case. We acknowledge there is a crisis in Yemen and we are working, as I mentioned. We allocated 1.5 billion USD… I don’t think another country did that. Instead of criticising the coalition, we ask people to join the efforts. To minimise the suffering of people, instead of keep criticising people in the media
Euronews: “How do you solve this crisis? How do you end this conflict?”
General Asiri: “There are three lines of efforts that we are working [on]. First, we are supporting the UN efforts to have a political settlement. And it is a Yemeni-Yemeni discussion. Yemeni-Yemeni negotiation. To bring back peace and stability. And we push behind, and we push behind the special envoy. And we wish him a very good luck and success in his mission. Secondly, we minimise the suffering that you mentioned.”
Euronews: “You’re minimising the suffering? How?”
General Asiri: “By being on the ground and working with people…”
Euronews: “But if at the same time there are Saudi jets flying over and bombing people…”
General Asiri: “But if you continue to interrupt… we are working first in the area where there is a government, already secure. By giving people their normal life: food, medicine, water, services. This is why we have, what we call this comprehensive plan – 1.5 billion dollars. Secondly, we work with NGOs… and international community organisations, WFP, OCHA, others… to facilitate their work on the ground, this is what we are doing.”
Euronews: “You said it yourself you want a political resolution… you want the Yemeni parties to come to the negotiating table… but if there are planes flying in the sky and bombing people… how can you then go to the negotiating table. The fighting must stop first no?”
General Asiri: “I think you missed the explanation. There is no fighter jets flying and bombing people.
There is a military campaign against the militias, according to international laws of armed conflict and we respect all of this. If you continue the interview repeating the same thing. You have never been to Yemen, you have never seen it, you don’t have witnesses and you try to convey something wrong. And I try to correct this kind of picture for you and for the audience. What we are doing in Yemen. We are working against the militias. It’s the same standard that we worked with the international community in the international coalition against Daesh in Mosul and Raqqa. We have our airplanes working with other airplanes of the coalition against Daesh; the same standards. Why in this area it is normal, and in this area, it is bombing people?
And let me tell you something, you see the way the militias work, they work in hospitals, in the schools, in the residential areas, and make it difficult, but we take this challenge because we have to deliver the Yemeni people from this. We cannot give up. If we give up we end up with Hezbollah in Yemen.”
Anelise Borges Andrade, Euronews: “The third anniversary of this conflict coincided with Mohammed bin Salman’s first official visit to the United States as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. You were there with him. There have been many issues that have been discussed between Saudi Arabia and US officials. Among these issues you talked about bringing stability to Bahrain, to Libya, to the region. How do you plan to do that?”
General Asiri: “Well, we are not planning, we are implementing that now. We have three levels of work in the area. First, we continue to support the stable countries by supporting their budget, their government, and to make sure they stand up and they can work in the area against terrorist activities. Secondly, we minimise this destabilisation of countries and that is what we are doing in the countries you mentioned in Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan, others. We try to minimise the instability and support the government through their economy, through their budget to bring back stability in those countries. Third level, when we have a major crisis like what happened in Yemen – a country hijacked by a coup d’etat, we try to bring peace and stability – this is what we are doing.”
Euronews: “Can peace and stability in the Middle East be achieved without Iran?”
General Asiri: “Look, when a country joins the United Nations, they join an agreement among countries, among states: to implement international law, to respect international law. If a member of this community wants to be a part of this community, but they refuse to respect international law, international agreements and don’t respect the sovereignty of countries, we have a problem here.
Today we have a country in the Middle East; and in their constitution is written that they want to export a revolution to all countries. France has been one of the victims of the Iranian regime. Then it was the UK’s turn with the attack of their embassy. Then they attacked a nightclub in Berlin. So not only the area has suffered from the Iranian regime. And unfortunately those people who were operational in the ground are now ministers who engage in dialogue with different countries. So today what is the discussion with our friends and partners. We need to first re-correct and revise the nuclear deal and to fix it because they did something wrong in it. Secondly, that doesn’t mean that because they signed the deal they have a free hand in the area, destabilising the area. So today we told our friends, today we are in the frontline. Tomorrow will be your turn. So either we work together to minimise and push back this regime to its borders or we will face the consequences. One of the consequences is Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon.”
Euronews: “Saudi Arabia is currently undertaking major reforms… crown prince bin Salman has been leading a major fight against corruption, changing the economy, all the while, internationally trying to play a major role in the region. Isn’t there too much going on at the same time here? Can all this be done at once.”
General Asiri: “We are working as I mentioned in two plans: there is a domestic plan and an international plan and one will support the other. If we still have a prosperous economy, we can help. If we have difficulties, we cannot. At the same time we continue to engage our partners in the area to secure one of the most successful….like I think we succeeded in minimising the insecurity in Egypt, in Bahrain, and we continue to working in this and to do that we need to succeed in our 2030 vision.”
Euronews: “And your 2030 vision includes reforms that involve women, the relationship that Saudi Arabia has with Islam… But what about social rights… because driving is of course important but what about other rights including freedom of expression, freedom of speech…if someone doesn’t agree with the government today can they say so? Will they be able to say so in 2030?”
General Asiri: “As you mentioned there are many things to do… we cannot do everything at the same time. To modernise, to reform a society you need to go gradually. A very quick change will cause a very quick negative sides. We reform all those things that you mentioned and to see what is the reference in the religion and then what is the reaction of society about the changes. Those things you mentioned are small things. But it shows the intention of his majesty the king and his government to change gradually towards an objective. I assure you, we don’t change because we want to satisfy people, we change because we want to live our dreams. We don’t want to spend time running after our dream. We need to live it.”
Euronews: “After the US, crown prince will visit Europe. What will he be looking for? Allies? And, in what areas?”
General Asiri: “I think if you look to the map, the Kingdom is one of the most – in terms of number of allies – we are in the top five. We are friends with all the countries. We never have disputes, and if we have one, we resolve through dialogue, through international law, so we are friends with all the countries. And if we visit countries, [it’s] to reinforce this kind of relationship. France, UK, US, those are our partners since the creation of the Kingdom. So we need to talk to them, exchange ideas, discuss such things that you are posing in your questions. If we work together discussing, exchanging ideas, exchanging intelligence, exchanging expertise, we can succeed together. So this kind of dialogue is the objective of the visit the crown prince is doing today in the US, UK and France.”
Anelise Borges Andrade, Euronews: “General Assiri, thank you very much for speaking to us here on euronews.”
Asiri: “Thank you very much.”