Five dreadful years would not have been possible without the political and military support of the US and British governments

Stephen Bell

On March 26th we mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the Saudi led war on Yemen.  Those five dreadful years would not have been possible without the political and military support of the US and British governments.  The major powers in the belligerent coalition, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are dependent upon these governments for munitions, planes, vehicles, logistics, training, intelligence and trained personnel to sustain their assault upon the people of Yemen.  After five years the coalition has failed to achieve its military goals, but have created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.

Origins of, and excuses, for the war

The origins of the war can be found in the inequalities which the Yemeni state created under the long standing regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.  When the “Arab Spring” erupted in 2011, there were massive mobilisations inside the capital Sana’a, and across the country.  The participants included disadvantaged groups in both the north and south of the country, women, youth, intellectuals and students.

The regime was no longer able to fund its tradition of buying support from competing social groups.  Yemen’s oil revenues reached their peak in 2002, and have declined ever since.  The combination of the international rising, and the domestic crisis shattered the regime to the point of splitting the armed forces.  Concerned about radical developments in its largest neighbour on the peninsula, the Saudi regime intervened to cut short the process.  In conjunction with the US, the Saudi regime drew the Yemeni opposition and regime into a “transition process”.  This was to allow Saleh to step down with immunity, an interim President to be installed in a single candidate election.  A national dialogue including representatives of the street movements, civic organisations and political parties would draw up a new constitution and inclusive government.  This had a distinct time frame, until 2014, when the interim President’s mandate would be exhausted.

Despite the inclusive character of the process, the dialogue failed in 2014.  The forces sponsored by the Saudis had no interest in any sort of radical break in Yemeni governance.  The popular opposition had been strong enough to bring the regime to its end, but not united enough to impose a new solution.  When one of the strongest sections of the opposition, Ansarallah (“the Houthis”), refused to accept continued corruption and impasse it occupied Sana’a.  The Saudis intended to try and extend the remit of interim President Hadi.  Any pretence of dialogue was dropped.

The military action by the Saudi led coalition constituted an invasion of a sovereign country, albeit one in the process of breaking up an old regime.  Backing President Hadi, as the “internationally recognise government”, was an excuse for Saudi Arabia, UAE, US and Britain to intervene against a popular rising, and to try and impose a government compliant to imperialist aims.

Military failure and an absence of diplomacy

The rush to war in March 2015 was endorsed and encouraged by the US and British governments.  The Tory Defence Secretary at the time, Phillip Hammond, said that the British government would support the Saudi led assault “…in every practical way short of engaging in combat”.  US President Obama arranged for the US air force to provide in-flight refuelling for the Saudi bombers, making the aerial campaign possible.

And of course, the business of selling arms to the assailants began.  The Saudi regime has the most disproportionate appetite for military hardware of any government in the world.  According to the SIPRI 2019 yearbook, it was number one arms importer in the world during 2014-18, accounting for 12% of the global arms imports.

It was also number one arms importer in 2019, importing $7.4 billion worth, representing 13.7% of that year’s global imports.  The imbalance becomes vivid when population is taken into account.  The second highest arms importer in 2019 was India, with $4.45 billion.  India has the second largest population in the world, 1.36 billion in 2019.  Saudi Arabia has the 41st highest population in the world, 34.2 million in 2019.

This is arguably the most heavily armed dictatorship in the world, at least in per capita terms.  For the last five years it used that hardware, encouraged and assisted by the US and Britain, to attack the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa.

Unexpectedly, both to the Saudis and their imperialist backers, the military campaign failed.  The alliance of Ansarallah, nationalists, Nasserites, and parts of the national armed forces has endured the worst that the Saudi led coalition has thrown at them.  Perhaps nothing drew attention to this failure as much as when drones from the allies hit Saudi oil installations in September 2019, cutting Saudi Arabia’s oil output in half.  All those expensive weapon and defensive systems, bought at such expense from those obliging, western companies proved unable to defend the Saudi’s most prized assets.

Today the military deadlock for the coalition is complete.  Not only have they gained no substantial territory since the summer of 2015, but also they recently lost the Province of Al Jawf and its capital, Al Hazm, after having lost the Nehm district of the Sana’a governorate.  It is obvious that the morale of the Yemeni allies is far stronger than the foreign led coalition.

Yemen’s population pays the price

If the military campaign is lost then it is the general population of Yemen that is suffering in this defeat for the coalition.  OCHA (UN office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs) gives the overall statistics of this disaster.  24.1 million Yemenis require some kind of humanitarian support.  14.3 million are in acute need of assistance.  20 million are food insecure, with 7.4 million who do not know where there next meal comes from.  4.3 million people have fled their homes, with 3.3 million still displaced.  Food prices have risen by 150% since March 2015.

Of course, the country’s entire social infrastructure has been as wrecked as its material infrastructure.  Only 51% of health centres remain fully functional.  There are ten health workers for every 10,000 people, this represents less than half of the WHO’s minimum benchmark.  Many health workers have not been paid for two years.  2 million children are no longer at school.  Large numbers of teachers have not received salaries for two years.  Across the country 190 of 333 districts are facing emergency conditions (IPC Phase4), which means nearly two-thirds of all the districts are pre-famine.

The country has also suffered successive waves of what has proved to be the largest cholera outbreak in human history.  In 2019 suspected cases increased by 132%, this after a fall by 64% in 2018, following the peak in 2017 when a million cases were registered.  The resurgence has a great deal to do with the limited access to safe water and hygiene facilities.  Yemen in peaceful times has a serious problem of water shortage.  In the book “Why Yemen Matters”, its editor, Helen Lackner states “Although not at the forefront of current debates, Yemen’s water scarcity is arguably the country’s number one problem.”  The estimates that she gives suggest that less than 10% of Yemen’s personal water needs are drawn from renewable sources.  The largest cholera outbreak in history was facilitated by war in a water impoverished country.

Not content with military assault, the coalition has engineered a blockade of the country by land, sea and air.  Not only has this reinforced the humanitarian crisis, to no apparent military effect.  It has also created innumerable distinct hardships and tragedies by cutting off the Yemeni people from the rest of the world.  In September 2019, the world Health Organisation reported that 35,000 cancer patients were deprived of medical care abroad by the blockade.  Twelve per cent of these patients were children.

An end in sight?

The military failure is a great embarrassment to the Saudi regime and its western backers.  This is especially so because the tensions and strains inside the coalition are very public, and have repeatedly been expressed in internal military clashes.  The coalition began with 10 countries, although a number had only token forces involved.  Since 2015, Morocco and Qatar have left.  Sudan had provided a large number of grounds troops.  But the recent rising in Sudan has seen a change of government, and most of the Sudanese troops have now been withdrawn.

The internal military clashes have been very serious.  The UAE has withdrawn most of its forces, but it sponsors various militias, including those associated with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a separatist party.  Clashes between these forces and those of President Hadi led to the expulsion of Hadi’s ministers from Aden.  This extraordinary situation led to the Saudis hosting both sides of the “allies” in peace negotiations in Riyadh, leading to an Agreement in November 2019.  Reports, including from the STC, are that the Riyadh Agreement has largely not been implemented, meaning perhaps that clashes could resume.

If the coalition is falling apart, then unfortunately the broader peace process seems to be stalling.  Negotiations have taken place in Kuwait, but that agreement failed to secure the peace.  The negotiations in Stockholm appear to have been more successful, but have been hardly implemented either.  Some not-so-secret direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Ansarallah have resulted in a significant reduction of conflicts between these two parties since the bombing of Saudi oil installations.  But the partial ceasefires demonstrate that a broad peace process remains elusive.

The contribution we can make

Depressingly, there is no sign of any moves by the US government to secure an end to the war.  On the contrary, the US has recently sent troops to the important Socotra Island, which is currently under UAE control.  These are obvious fears that this could be a precursor to establishing a US base there.  Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are acting to control Yemen’s energy resources, and ports, perhaps for a long period.

Nor can we expect any unprompted peace initiatives from the British government.  At the start of March Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, visited the Gulf, meeting with Saudi Arabia, and with hapless ex-President Hadi.  Raab stated that the aim was to “…seek to re-energise diplomatic efforts to bring peace to Yemen”.  A mighty pinch of salt is needed here.  Whilst perennially chanting “there is no military solution”, the British government is currently appealing to the Supreme Court to overturn last year’s Court of Appeal decision that new UK arms sales to the coalition would be “unlawful”.

Having issued licenses for £5.3 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, since March 2015, the government is clearly anxious to resume licensing new arms sales.  The conventional hypocrisy of the Tories glows in the dark clouds of missile strikes.

On the fourth anniversary of the war’s commencement, on 26th March 2019, the then Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt said: “Our strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates allows us the opportunity to influence their leaders.  We could halt our military exports and sever the ties that British governments of all parties have carefully preserved for decades … But in doing so we would also surrender our influence and make ourselves irrelevant to the course of events in Yemen.”

As things stand, we will hardly expect a different speech from Dominic Raab as the fifth anniversary is marked.  An honest accounting would register a failure as significant, and as destructive to Yemen as the British government’s failures in Iraq and Libya. Members of the British armed forces are still in the Saudi command centre, and several thousand BAE staff are assisting the war effort inside Saudi Arabia.  It is pretence to suggest this is to better influence the leaders rather than better pursue the war.

Now, more than ever, anti-war activists need to argue and organise against British government complicity in continuing a hopeless and ferocious war.

Steve Bell is a Stop the War National Officer.

13 Mar 2020 by Steve Bell

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