In the face of the new escalation of the war in Yemen, there needs to be a renewal of activity demands it’s end – Stop the War

“After seven years of war the Yemeni people remain trapped in a humanitarian catastrophe. There has been no improvement, and the only reason that Yemen is no longer the worst humanitarian crisis in the world is that NATO has created an even greater collapse in a few months in Afghanistan.”

By Steve Bell, Stop the War Coalition.

The early weeks of 2022 have seen an escalation of military action inside Yemen. As I write, the internet inside Yemen has ceased to function following the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing of the civilian telecoms headquarters in Hodeidah, killing 6 including 3 children. And the current casualty list stands at 65 dead and 112 injured following the coalition’s missile strikes against the central prison in Saada, yesterday. Yet these acts bring no greater progress to the coalition’s military campaign than the rest of their efforts since March 2015. So what lies behind this new ‘kinetic’ campaign?

Biden Turns on Biden

On January 12th 2022, Hans Grundberg, UN Special Envoy for Yemen, addressed the UN Security Council (UNSC). He said: “The military escalation I described to this Council last month has accelerated as the parties are doubling down on military options”. He reiterated that there was “no sustainable long term solution to be found on the battlefield”, and described the escalation in recent weeks as “among the worst we have seen in Yemen for years”. But by the time he ended his speech with the call for “an inclusive, internationally backed political process that can provide a viable foundation for peace”, his audience were not the wiser as to why the war was intensifying.

The envoy dare not place blame, of course. But the fact is that some of the parties doubling down had representatives in the Council meeting. For the Saudi/United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalition could not escalate, nor even continue, their war without the support of the US government, and its sub-contractor – the British government. Despite coming to power on a platform of ending US support for the war on Yemen, President Biden has spent 2021 evading his own commitment.

In his first major foreign policy speech, last February, he stated “The war in Yemen must end”. This drew an echo from his campaign statement that the Saudi regime was a “pariah”. Biden had already lifted the provision against dealing with Ansarallah (the Houthis) when President Trump had placed them on the schedule of Foreign Terrorist Organisations. And he implied that he would deal directly with the Saudi King Salman, rather than the unpredictable Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman.

Yet the implementation of this commitment never seemed to gain momentum in the administration’s actions. After all, whatever the rhetoric, the Saudi and Emirati regimes are major allies of the US in the region. Ansarallah, defined as “the de facto authorities” in some UN documents, are organising the structures of daily life for a large majority of Yemenis. To end the war early in 2021 would mean to acknowledge the failure of the coalition’s war.

The immediate response of the Saudi regime was to buy time. It offered a ceasefire that involved it maintaining the siege of the country, and continuing air strikes while talking peace.  This empty call became the front for US diplomacy. Biden’s envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, avidly promoted the “ceasefire” proposal while condemning Ansarallah for failing to concede to the Saudi vice-like framework.

Domestically, Biden began to feel some pressure from Democrats keen to use the clout of the US government to get tough with the Saudi regime. Forty-one members of the US Congress wrote, in March, to Biden seeking clarification of which “military, intelligence, logistical or other” aid the US would now be providing in comparison to that provided under President Trump. Stalling, to allow Lenderking to progress, Biden’s team waited until the end of May to respond. The reply offered no new information and failed to distinguish what “offensive” support had been discontinued.

In reality, the high point of Biden’s “pressure” on the Saudi/Emirati coalition had already passed.  By the time of the reply, the Defence department had confirmed that US contractors would be allowed to continue to service Saudi planes, and a $23 billion sale of advanced air hardware to the UAE was endorsed. Nor did the attempt to marginalise the Saudi Crown Prince fare any better. Following surgery, the 85 year old King Salman had entered a retreat in a palace near Neom in the north of the Kingdom on April 12 2020. Since that time he has remained secluded, tended by more than a dozen experts from the Cleveland Clinic. While his health remains a state secret, Business Insider suggested he had pre-dementia at the time of the surgery. Whatever the details, he remains shielded from the public.

Biden Loosens the Saudi Restraints

Throughout the summer of 2021, US policy on Yemen drifted back towards supporting the coalition, without qualification. Only the growing political crisis in Afghanistan obscured this process. In talks with Ansarallah, Lenderking made it clear that there would be no adjustment to the Saudi “ceasefire” proposal. Ansarallah insisted that the siege of the country should be lifted in order to address the humanitarian crisis separately from military and political issues. That humanitarian relief should not be made a hostage to complex political negotiations was surely a reasonable offer. Not so according to the US and Saudi Arabia. Hence talks made no progress, aside from an exchange of 1,056 prisoners, actually previously agreed in the Stockholm 2018 negotiations. Meanwhile, the Saudis received a despatch of Blackhawk helicopters, and THAAD missile batteries from the US.

The pressure on the Saudi regime was absolutely lifted with the failure of the UN to renew the mandate of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Group of Experts on Yemen at the UNHRC meeting in October. These had been selected to monitor the situation in Yemen for breaches of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Their actual direct investigations were hampered by the fact that the coalition supported forces in Yemen, including the ‘internationally recognised government’ of ex-President Hadi, refused them access to territory under their control. Ansarallah had directly cooperated with access. Whatever the limits, the Group had published a number of reports which were of importance.

In general, the Group tended to use a framework that all parties to the conflict were equally responsible for breaches, even when this led to a rather overblown critique of Ansarallah’s actions. However, despite this insistence on ‘equity’, the publication of some of the coalition’s breaches was intolerable for the Saudi regime.

Previously the Saudi regime had successfully lobbied for its removal from the UN’s list of violators of children’s rights – despite the clear evidence of coalition measures disproportionately affecting Yemen’s children. This time, the Saudis spent considerable diplomatic capital, supported by the US, in ensuring the vote of the UN was won to abolish the Group in October.

This was hardly soon enough for the regime, as the Group’s final report to the October meeting states: “In each of its reports, the Group of Eminent Experts has repeatedly reminded the coalition of its obligations to take all feasible measures to protect civilians from the effects of hostilities, and to abide to the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack. The Group remains concerned the coalition is failing to meet these obligations.  Disproportionate attack constitute war crimes under customary international law.” (1)

Attempts to secure an international enquiry from the UN into potential breaches of international humanitarian law by the coalition have been vetoed by the US and UK governments, amongst others. The Saudis set up their own investigative mechanism, the Joint Incident Assessment Team, with the encouragement of the US and UK governments. But the problems of their investigations, limited though they be, was highlighted in the Group’s final report: “The frequency with which the Team finds a “technical error” to be responsible for civilian losses without it leading to apparent changes in coalition procedures itself raises significant concerns as to the coalition’s commitment to meeting the requirements of international humanitarian law.” (2)

Lacking a genuine international and independent review mechanism, the Group, whatever its weaknesses, was the only internationally recognised body examining potential war crimes.  With the dissolution of the Group, the restraints on the Saudis were removed. There has been a steady increase in the number of coalition airstrikes since. According to Yemen Data Project figures, coalition air strikes have increased further each month since September. Given the airstrikes of the past three weeks, January 2022 will likely reach a peak not seen for some years.

A Military Turning Point?

The encouragement given by Biden’s administration is clear. Towards the end of 2021, the US sold $650 million worth of advanced weapons to the Saudis, despite cross-party efforts in Congress to prevent this. The logic of this sale, and the actual stance of the US government has become clear. In an article for The New Republic, Trita Parsi and Annelle Sheline wrote: “Senior Democratic staffers tell us that the administration’s strategy is to provide Saudi Arabia with extensive support now, in the hope that it will give the kingdom momentum in the war in the next few months, at which point MBS {Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman} will agree to end the war without losing face.” (3)

Such optimism is liable to be short lived. The fundamental balance of forces on the ground cannot be changed by air strikes, and the Saudis will not commit their unreliable army. The coalition is unpopular even in the areas under its control – there have been regular popular protests across the south from Aden to Al Mahrah. The coalition is deeply divided, with the Saudis continuing to prop up ex-President Hadi’s government which remains outside the country in Riyadh. This while the UAE continues to promote the Southern Transitional Council, which controls Aden, favours partitioning Yemen,  and claims to be the government of south Yemen. Military clashes between these partners have abated in recent months, but can return anytime as nothing can hide the fundamentally different programmes of the “allies”.

The US government has doubtless taken great comfort from the recent gains secured in the provinces of Shabwah and Al-Bayda. But here it is far from clear an actual breakthrough has occurred. Throughout 2021 the military forces allied to Ansarallah have gained ground in Marib, Shabwah and Al-Bayda provinces. In late autumn, the coalition redeployed its forces. Significant numbers were removed from the west coast and around Hodeidah, including around 10,000 members of the UAE funded “Giants Brigade” (Al Amaliqah). These were redeployed to Shabwah and Al-Bayda, where ground was taken back from the previously advancing Ansarallah forces. Such a return was possible due to additional forces and increased air strikes from the Saudis. There is no sign yet that this will lead to a significant roll back.

But, this is enough to hearten US and Saudi governments. As Parsi and Sheline note: “…Biden appears to maintain the same flawed logic that kept the US mired in Afghanistan for 20 years: that the situation on the ground in Yemen will change with a US thumb on the scales. But the only change is for the worse. More civilians are dying, whether of violence or disease or starvation …Turning Yemen into the next Afghanistan serves the interests of neither the US nor the people of Yemen or Saudi Arabia.” (4)

The War on the Yemeni People

After seven years of war the Yemeni people remain trapped in a humanitarian catastrophe. There has been no improvement, and the only reason that Yemen is no longer the worst humanitarian crisis in the world is that NATO has created an even greater collapse in a few months in Afghanistan. The freezing of Afghan assets abroad, and the ending of international aid has, according to the UN, thrown three-quarters of the population into poverty, with 23 million Afghans without enough to eat.

That said, the conditions inside Yemen remain those of almost unimaginable hardship. In January 2022, the UN World Food Programme announced it was reducing food rations to eight million Yemenis: “from January, families will receive barely half of their minimum daily food needs”.(5) Behind this is the failure of the international community to provide basic aid to Yemen. The UN sought $3.85 billion for the Yemen operation in 2021 – by the end of December it had received only $1.6 billion.

The UN estimates that 377,000 war related deaths will have occurred by the end of 2021. Of these, around 60% will be due to indirect effects arising from the economic and social collapse of the country. The majority of deaths are among children under the age of five, with one dying every nine minutes.

According to the latest UNICEF figures (6), over half of the population, 16.2 million people, face acute hunger. 8.6 million children are in need of protection services. 400,000 children under the age of five have serious acute malnutrition.

The particular crisis facing Yemeni women is highlighted in the OCHA report: “An estimated 5 million women and girls of childbearing age, around 1.7 million pregnant and breastfeeding women, have limited or no access to reproductive health services, including antenatal care, safe deliveries, post-natal care, family planning, and emergency obstetric and newborn care. Over 1 million pregnant and breast-feeding women are acutely malnourished and risk giving birth to newborns with severely stunted growth due to rising food insecurity. One woman dies every two hours during childbirth from almost entirely preventable causes …This is almost five times the average in the Middle East and North African region.” (7)

The impact of the war on the economy is unrelenting. Yemen was already the poorest Arab nation in 2015, and one of the poorest countries in the world. The UN Development Programme estimates that the conflict will have cost Yemen $126 billion in lost production by the end of 2021. To understand this figure it should be considered that Yemen’s Gross Domestic Product for 2020 was $18.8 billion. That means Yemen has lost nearly seven years of national product.

In 2021 food prices have more than doubled across most of the country. A fuel crisis has continued as a result of the coalition’s siege of the country. Only half of the health facilities are functional. And only 2% of the population have been vaccinated for Covid.

Of course, the countries supporting the coalition’s war on Yemen are aware of these facts. In defence they insist that they are providing generous humanitarian aid. The US have given $3.4 billion in humanitarian aid since 2015; but in the same period, the US government has authorised the sale of $64.1 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The UK government has given £1 billion in aid to Yemen between 2015 and 2020; in the same period it has authorised arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE worth an estimated £22 to £26 billion. Apparently really concerned humanitarian action involves profiting twenty times over through sales of weapons of mass destruction.

British Government Complicity and the Silent Opposition

Johnson’s government has doubtless been relieved to see Biden’s slide to uncritical support for the Saudi war. After all, when Biden made his temporary and opaque freeze on arms sales to the coalition, the British government didn’t even pretend to interrupt their arms deliveries. At present, the British government remains an active participant in the war. Arms sales fuel the conflict. Nor does the British government confine itself to providing political and diplomatic support for the coalition. It is training members of all branches of the coalition armed forces – airforce, army and navy. It has members of its own armed forces in the Saudi command centre in Riyadh. It has been providing logistical and intelligence support since the start of the war. Almost certainly it has deployed special forces during the war, although these are not reported on to Parliament, reports suggest a member of the Special Boat Service was injured in northern Yemen.

In February 2020 British forces were deployed inside Saudi Arabia to operate radars focused on Yemen. In July 2021 reports were published in Arab media, and reproduced in the Declassified UK website (8), concerning a detachment of up to 30 British troops in the Al-Ghaydah airport in Mahra province, eastern Yemen. It appears that these are training coalition aligned militias in the area, and providing logistical support. The airport itself became notorious when it emerged from Human Rights Watch that underground cells had been built there, and were used by the UAE to detain and torture protesters in the facility.

Alongside this range of direct involvement in the war, must be added the use of sanctions on Yemen by the British government. Sanctions impact primarily upon the civilian population, continuing the war by other means. The British government justifies their use in Yemen through deep layers of hypocrisy. In the Foreign and Commonwealth and Development Office document “Sanctions Regulations: Report on Annual Review 2021”, we read: “Yemen’s current situation as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis means that the continued imposition of sanctions is reasonable for promoting peace and stability in Yemen. The current crisis in Yemen demonstrates the continuing need to pursue this purpose.” (9)  Yet you will search in vain for any evidence as to how “peace and stability” have been thus furthered.

We learn: “Serious violations of international humanitarian law have been committed, including conflict related sexual violence, using arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and torture and other ill-treatment. Whilst the conflict persists the UK continues to urge all parties to protect civilians and respect international law and support the use of sanctions against perpetrators. We support efforts to hold those responsible for these acts and to prevent them from occurring.” (10)  Which may sound reasonable, until you learn that there are zero sanctions against “individuals” or “entities” in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Sanctions are, the report insists, “carefully targeted”. Carefully avoiding our allies and partners who are breaching international humanitarian law in Yemen.

Or, in the words of an earlier report of the Group of Experts: “All parties continue to commit egregious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians, enforced disappearances and torture.” (11)  Yet only some are sanctioned.

And unless there be any doubts about the revolting depths of British government hypocrisy, there is the joint communique of the Gulf Cooperation Council/UK Foreign Ministers meeting last month. There we learn that “Given the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis” the GCC and UK governments “agreed that maintaining direct humanitarian and development support to the country was essential, including the safety of humanitarian workers.” And that  “ministers strongly condemn Houthis repeated attacks against civilians in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.” (12) This was signed by ministers responsible for reducing humanitarian aid despite Yemen’s catastrophe. The UK reduced its aid from £200 million annually to just £87 million in 2021. Both the Saudis and UAE reduced their aid in tandem with Trump’s reductions of US aid from 2020. According to the UN officials responsible, almost the entire shortfall in the Yemen aid programme was because of reductions by Gulf states.

Equally, the condemnation of attacks against civilians, and across national borders, is entirely appropriate for the actions of the Saudis and UAE. According to monitoring figures most civilian casualties are a result of coalition air strikes. Hypocrisy by the bowl full.

Unfortunately, the Conservative government is under no pressure from the Labour leadership to act differently. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party was pressing the government for a freeze on arms sales, for an independent investigation of alleged war crimes and for the British government to use its diplomatic position as pen-holder for Yemen at the UN. Since Corbyn’s departure, Labour’s leadership has abandoned any campaign to end the war. Silence has allowed it to adjust to the change in Biden’s position without any embarrassment.

The only debate on Yemen in both Houses of Parliament in the past six months was on October 20th. Then, a short debate took place in Westminster Hall, to no great purpose and with James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, defending the governments actions. Six MPs chipped in, none from Labour’s Front Bench. And the government’s caravan moved on.

Stop the War believes that there must be a complete end to British government complicity in the war. The siege of the country must be lifted to allow negotiations. There needs to be a freeze on arms sales to the coalition. All British armed forces should be withdrawn from supporting the coalition’s war efforts. Only an end to foreign intervention will allow the people of Yemen to freely decide upon and make their own future.

To mark the anniversary of the launch of the war, Stop the War will be holding an international event on March 26th. In the face of the new escalation of the war there needs to be a renewal of activity demanding its end. Stop the War remains committed to national and international action to secure this goal.


Notes

(1) UN publications, A/HRC/48/20 – September 2021, P.5

(2)  ibid, P.5

(3)  The New Republic, “Biden’s Shameful Silence on Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen” – 13 January 2022

(4)  ibid

(5)  OCHA Yemen Humanitarian Update, December 2021

(6)  UNICEF Appeal, 2022

(7)  OCHA Yemen Humanitarian Update, December 2021

(8)  Declassified UK, “Revealed: UK troops ‘secretly operating in Yemen’”, 6 July 2021

(9)  FCDO, “Sanctions Regulations: Report on Annual Review 2021”, January 2022, P.177

(10) ibid, P.177

(11)  UNSC – document S/2021/79

(12)  FCDO, “Gulf Cooperation Council – United Kingdom Foreign Ministers Meeting, 20 December 2021; joint communiqe”, 20 December 2021


Featured Image: A neighbourhood in Sana, Yemen, a day after it was hit by a Saudi-led airstrike. Credit Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock. Licensed under 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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