The relentless conflict in Yemen continues to devastate the lives of civilians, following the breakdown of the latest ceasefire between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition.
The fleeting 48-hour truce ended without extension on the 21st November after both sides accused each other of violating the peace, and failed to reach a diplomatic agreement. This marks the latest in a series of failed UN and US-led attempts to end the violence and destruction that has ravaged the country since early 2015.
The war in Yemen has unleashed a humanitarian crisis of critical proportions, resulting in at least 10,000 deaths and displacing around 3 million people from their homes. Recent conservative estimates suggest at least 21.2 million people, or 82% of Yemen’s total population, are in need of humanitarian aid amid worsening food and water shortages.
According to UNICEF some 1.5 million Yemeni children are suffering acute malnutrition or starvation, and millions of women and children must walk long distances every day to access the little clean water that is available. On top of this, rapidly spreading outbreaks of cholera and measles have put countless more lives in danger.
The humanitarian situation has been compounded by the imposition of an air and naval blockade by Saudi Arabia. This has restricted Yemen’s regular food and fuel imports, and crucially reduced accessibility for the numerous aid agencies attempting to deliver life-saving food, water and medical supplies.
Meanwhile, Saudi-led airstrikes have repeatedly violated international humanitarian law by targeting civilian infrastructure such as hospitals. A recent World Health Organisation survey found that just 45% of Yemen’s health facilities are fully-functional and accessible, while over half have been severely damaged or destroyed as a result of the conflict. Doctors and medical workers have repeatedly been driven out of hospitals due to safety concerns, and there is a desperate shortage of fuel for ambulances. The conflict has crippled Yemen’s health infrastructure and consequently restricted access to basic healthcare for millions of people in need.
As a consequence of these conditions, despite their best efforts, aid agencies and NGOs operating in Yemen – including the International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam and UNICEF – have been significantly hindered in their attempts to alleviate the anguish of Yemeni civilians.
Amidst such terrible suffering, it is vital for both sides of the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians from harm. According to the UNHCR almost 181,000 people have fled war-torn Yemen to seek refuge in neighbouring countries; for those who have no means of escaping the violence, the future looks bleak unless a peaceful diplomatic solution can be reached.
Amy Simon 30/11/16
Damage caused by Saudi airstrikes to a house in Sana’a
Saudi Arabia is gearing up for a massive attack on Yemen. Or so it would seem.
A source close to the Next Century Foundation has informed us that Saudi officials asked for towns on the Saudi-Yemeni border to be evacuated last week, meaning there is possibility for further Saudi intervention in the war-torn country.
Sources in the Saudi armed forces indicate that the Saudi Crown Prince issued a letter to the Saudi High Command (the NCF has seen the letter in question) instructing them to evacuate all villages on the Saudi side of the border with Yemen of their entire population.
Subsequent reports from other NCF sources have indicated that Saudi ground forces are engaged in action, crossing the border into Yemen in the North. There is nothing unusual in this of itself, however this time perhaps we are about to see a more significant action rather than a mere skirmish. It is notable that the Kuwaitis have put a deadline on the peace negotiations between the warring parties (i.e. the Saudis and the Houthis) currently taking place in Kuwait. Presumably this is at the behest of the Saudis who wish to bring peace talks to an end and ramp up their attack on Yemen.
Yemen has been engaged in a civil war since March of 2015. The conflict began between forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and a group known as the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia-led movement loyal to former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis, or Ansar Allah (“supporters of God”), were founded by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. They are seen in the West as a pro-Iranian group, and therefore the conflict is perceived as also being between Shiite Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is currently leading an international coalition against the Houthis.
The US and UK are part of the coalition with Saudi Arabia, but with different motives. While the Saudis are concerned mainly with their own influence in the region, the US and UK are concerned with combating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This group is considered the most dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate, and AQAP has taken control of entire towns and villages in the south and east of Yemen.
The Saudis have intervened in Yemen through extensive bombing campaigns. Saudi-backed government forces successfully recaptured Aden from the Houthis, who seized the presidential palace and named a Revolutionary Committee to take over the powers of the president after Hadi resigned in January 2015. Because of Saudi involvement, President Hadi was able to return in September 2015.
Saudi involvement in Yemen has gone further than reinstatement of the president, however. News of the Saudi evacuation of border towns comes at the same time as the UK government admits it was wrong in saying that Saudi Arabia has not targeted civilians or committed war crimes. In its campaign against the Houthis, Saudi Arabia has blown up hospitals, schools, and weddings. The UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has said that these appear to be war crimes. The UK has been a supporter of Saudi Arabia, supplying billions in weapons, but is hesitant to take responsibility; the admission that Saudi Arabia may have in fact committed war crimes came on the final day of parliament before the summer recess.
Today, the most pressing issue in Yemen is the humanitarian crisis. The people of Yemen are starving. Twenty million Yemenis are in desperate need of food, water, and medical care; this is nearly 80% of the population. The Saudi-led naval blockade is exacerbating the issue by preventing goods from being imported. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has received significantly less media attention in the west than the refugee or Syrian crises, as the Saudi blockade is supported by the UK and US.
A solution in Yemen will not be found until Saudi Arabia changes its role in the country. The Saudis are afraid of losing land, and they see Iran as a security threat although it has no real presence in Yemen today. However, the Saudi view of the Houthis as Iranian-backed has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; if the Saudis offered to allow support to go to the population in the Houthi controlled areas they would easily reduce any Iranian influence, but denying them support only pushes the Houthis towards Iran.
The alleged evacuation of the border towns is evidence that the Saudis have not yet accepted a changed role in Yemen, but are continuing with their violent campaign. Retired Saudi colonel, political strategist and commentator Ibrahim al Marie showed that the war is more about Saudi influence than anything else when he stated that while the war is expensive, “If we stop it without getting Sana’a and disarming the Houthis, it will be a historical and military catastrophe.” He continues that “It would be a problem for the confidence between the government and the people, and the decision makers in the kingdom know this very well.”
There are persistent claims in the media that amount to a picture of a possible combined ‘Sunni’ intervention in the Syrian conflict. It is said that Saudi Arabia is considering an armed incursion. Turkey is frequently tipped to engage and then nothing happens. Lord Howell of Guildford asked a most interesting question in the House of Lords which concluded:
Could she [the Minister responsible] just comment on reports that the British Army is now sending 1,600 troops to Jordan as part of some exercise, while the Egyptian troops are moving to Saudi Arabia to ally with them in preparation for possible moves to Jordan? The Jordan authorities have been urging for a long time that this is where we should open a new front, develop a buffer zone in the north and strike into the heart of ISIL territory. Is the war entering an entirely new phase? Could she just bear that in mind? She may not be able to answer that question at the moment, but we need to be kept up to date if things are changing as rapidly as it seems they really are.
The Minister gave no clear reply. We may note a related question on British engagement in the region in the House of Commons which received the following answer from Penny Mordaunt Minister of State, Minister for the Armed Forces:
We have deployed a small number of military personnel serving as liaison officers in Saudi headquarters to provide insight into Saudi operations. They remain under UK command and control. These liaison officers are not involved in the targeting process – whether it be the selection, decision making or directing. British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process.”
Something is up and Parliament seems unclear precisely what. But British military personnel are already involved in one or more regional conflicts without a very clear mandate. Is mission creep already in danger of setting in? Meanwhile, it is becoming more and more clear that the US is disinclined to intervene directly despite fairly aggressive lobbying from the Syrian Opposition in Washington (which also has strong links to the High Tory element in Parliament and Government).
We can speculate and speculate but anything we say may well result in egg on our faces when the facts are known, Nevertheless, what seems to be happening is two-fold. First, an appreciation that the Russian intervention is not going to result in the fall of Assad at the hands of the rebels and, second, that the drive outwards from Damascus could, if unchecked, destroy the ‘moderate’ Opposition and send waves of refugees into Turkey and thence to Europe and south into Jordan. Jordan is the forgotten nation here and its stability is a major concern of certainly the British.
The solution may be to use armed force to hold enclaves that stop border movements (and retain some bargaining position for the opposition) and also act as barriers to ISIS – but to secure these enclaves may require sovereign nations to invade another sovereign country which may then turn the business into a war of national liberation and pull in the countervailing regional powers, trigger opportunistic revolts amongst minorities within the primary invading powers and lead the superpowers into a confrontation that neither wants. The problem of Ukraine and the Baltic States lies behind this in a world where everything is connected.
It is, of course, an utter mess. The secrecy of the British Executive in relation to its own Parliament under conditions where many Britons have deeply negative feelings towards the two Sunni regional powers is a sign of its political weakness. The Government does not have the historic consensus on foreign policy to rely on – quite the contrary, although divided the Labour Opposition is led by a man who is suspicious of NATO, prefers dialogue to armed intervention under almost all conceivable conditions and is a known critic of the human rights record of just about everyone.
There are a number of things to consider here other than the obvious fact that, despite Kerry’s sterling work, Russia and, more indirectly, Iran hold all the cards in Syria. The ultimate fear in the White House is that the Sunni states intervene, ‘blow it’ and, in responding, Russia triggers a proto-global conflict by ‘accident’ that results in domestic protests in the West that would make Vietnam look like a picnic. Bear in mind that the New Hampshire Primary has now badly frightened the Washington Establishment – we have two lead candidates who oppose the consensus and many of whose supporters would rather vote for the other than for an Establishment alternative within their own Party.
This utter mess could even be presented as the fifteen year history of a reversal – the blundering attempt to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East has resulted in conditions that threaten liberal democracy at home, initially from a security state mentality and now from reactive revolutionary populisms.
Given the hysteria about terrorism and refugees and the rise of the new left-wing and national populist movements, a major destabilising crisis involving overseas armed engagement would actually destabilise Europe and even perhaps (though less certainly) the US and split the Alliance – what a prize for Mr. Putin! Note the reluctance of the UK Government actually to do anything publicly that would be effective in Syria (using its air power) despite winning a vote. The contentious vote that almost split the Opposition now looks as if it was designed only to cause some political mayhem domestically and to re-establish the principle that the Government could do what it willed.
The truth is that the Western public is deeply divided. It is unlikely to go to war willingly to defend Muslim obscurantism no matter how moderate the Islamists (and it will turn on its own Governments if it is pushed too far). Worse for the old elite, the psychological operation to demonise Russia and give NATO the latitude for action are falling rather flat except amongst the High Tory and Atlanticist Labour converted. Social media scrutiny is creating a substantial minority ready to take a resistance view of the matter and the mass of the population simply do not care but know they are not going to die for a bit of East European black earth or Middle Eastern desert. Short of an instant nuclear exchange, Putin holds a lot of the propaganda cards which he can then turn to his benefit in Europe and especially in destabilising both France (where he has been courting the NF) and Germany (where Russia has always had friends in high places).
In terms of the consequences of a civilised settlement in Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may actually be part of the problem for the West, more than Iran and Russia (neither of which actually wants to go to the brink). That is, I believe, understood by policymakers and is a situation that will continue until Obama is replaced (over a year away) but only if his successor is not an outlier like Sanders or Trump, both of whom express some radical new views about America’s interests.
As for Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s attitude to Al-Assad is partly a matter of calculated interest and partly a matter of ‘honour’ that goes back to the assassination of Hariri, their primary agent in the Levant. Killing their regional man requires a remorseless vengeance that cannot end – this is politics but politics that is also personal in a world where the clientage systems of tradition matter. The personal is the political. Honour (no longer an issue in Western rational minds) remains live in Saudi minds.
This is not fully understood by many outside analysts. They dismiss it as ‘irrational’ or something that can be negotiated away but it cannot be so because it has its own inner logic. Saudi networks of allegiance are based on a feudal commitment to service in return for protection. The Saudis failed to protect their man because of ‘treachery’. They must avenge him to show that they will do so in other such cases and that their service providers need not go elsewhere if things get wobbly.
We have also detected a rising Saudi nationalism in the Saudi middle classes – analogous to being British and relating that Britishness to allegiance to the Crown (rather than to the People au Corbyn). A certain degree of militarism and swaggering goes with the territory as it did at the equivalent stage of development in European proto-nationalism. But it is sincere and growing stronger. The primitive view that Saudis are primitives is worse than insulting. It is wrong. It is a highly sophisticated political culture with close links to the British Royal Family and an intimate understanding of power and of how it is held and maintained.
Saudi nationalism rather than simpler reliance on feudal relations is a natural development that is culturally transformative if risky. Many Saudis respond to it. It has also become a political necessity that binds the old tribal interests with the rising middle classes in a common destiny and it helps to explain a strategy of assertive and disruptive intervention across the region. One’s eyes should turn not north but south to Yemen where this is expressing itself most forcibly and where Western claims about ‘right conduct’ are dismissed when necessary.
For example, the Saudis (and Emiratis) need access to Assab Port to maintain their war in Yemen yet Assab Port is held by a pariah government (Eritrea) as far as the West is concerned. Given the criticality of Ethiopia to the anti-Islamist struggle, the West’s instinct is to retain Eritrea as a pariah (while seeking to bring it into the fold on its terms like Burma or Cuba) yet the Saudis have had the Eritrean President to Riyadh twice late last year and have integrated into their anti-terrorist alliance. The riots and killings in Oromia last week cannot be disconnected from Ethiopian fears of Muslim revolt and the Horn of Africa adds another line to the ever-expanding zone of conflict that now stretches to the Arctic.
The West clearly supports Yemen’s Government against the Houthis (as the Minister for Armed Services’ answer testifies) but no one seriously considers this a serious part of the ‘war on terrorism’ as opposed to a regional strategic play between the Saudi and Iranian networks where the Saudis clearly resent the fact that the West, in the person of Obama but also institutionally in Europe, has shifted towards an obvious and collaborative respect for Iranian aspirations.
Saudi concerns about the Iranians are thus so great that they are quite prepared to destabilise Western anti-Sunni Islamist strategies – not only in Syria but in the Horn of Africa. It is as if the Saudis have said to themselves that they will make themselves troublesome so that the West will have to mollify them by agreeing to their demands, perhaps without realising that the big picture does not allow that. But what is this fearsome big picture? It is one in which the Middle East is only one part of a great whole.
The potential danger of all these instabilities is horrendous. Saudi Arabia is a potentially unstable feudal polity moving towards a modernisation strategy that reminds one of the age of Stolypin under the Tsars. It is countering not merely the strategic interests of the West by default but it may be taking on more than it can administratively handle. And yet it feels it has no alternative. The model may not be Russia and revolution (as so many anti-Saudi liberals assume) but the United Kingdom in the Age of Castlereagh.
Even worse, it has perhaps not understood that the depth of resentment against the Kingdom within the West that was mollified in association with Western Governments after 9/11 has recurred with a vengeance under extremely unstable political conditions – the quite weird situation in the US political cycle with Trump and Sanders, deep concerns in Europe about Saudi involvement in mosque-building, human rights and Islamic migration and, above all, growing perception that, if not backing ISIS, the Kingdom may be backing some dark forces of its own in Greater Syria.
So, Saudi actions in this context are critical. If it enters into the Syrian morasse, with or without Turkey, Egyptian and ‘secret’ British support, and things go wrong, these things that go wrong can go wrong all the way down that fissure that leads to the Arctic, through a basket case of a Ukraine to the Balts who treat Russians as second class citizens. For the first time since the era of Nixon, Western peoples will be faced with the possibility of a nuclear exchange (and not just on the terms of the BBC’s ridiculous war games) and may not take it lying down. Senator Kerry, if he was reported correctly in his outburst to a Syrian NGO activist (“‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?”) on Saturday subconsciously revealed the truth of the matter – getting this wrong is an existential question now. The end game could be the immolation of the West if we have many more blunders.