Britain’s Involvement in Yemen: A Silent Role in a Forgotten War

by Heather McRobie

17 May 2016

Revelations that the British military has been directly involved in drone strikes in Yemen underscores the fact that one year on from the start of the conflict, Britain continues to be complicit in the largely-ignored war in the country.

Yemen has been at war for over a year…

War broke out in Yemen in 2015. The events leading up to the outbreak of the conflict are complicated. In the wave of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa region in 2011, Yemen’s sitting president was toppled, after which the sitting vice president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was elected on a single-candidate ballot to act as interim president to oversee a post-revolutionary transition.

As in Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain (not to mention the unparalleled horrors of Syria) this post-2011 ‘transition’ never delivered. The Houthis, a (Shia-identified) group in the north of the country called for a boycott of the elections, and were backed by Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president. In 2015, akin to the events in Libya in the summer of 2014 which saw Libya Dawn take Tripoli, the Houthis took control of Yemen’s capital city Sana’a, leading to the outbreak of a war that quickly spread across the entire country.

The Houthis are also sometimes referred to as the ‘Popular Committees’, as they’re backed by a number of army units as well as armed groups whose allegiance is not to the Yemen state but to the (pre-2011) former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Fighting them are the anti-Houthis, also known as the Popular Resistance Committees, allied with President Hadi – and a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and comprised of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan and the UAE. The US and the UK have also openly supported the Saudi-led ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ by providing it with intelligence and logistics.

In the year since the conflict began, the power vacuum created in the Houthi versus anti-Houthi dynamic has enabled Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become a significant third party in the conflict, particularly in the south. The 10 April ceasefire was repeatedly violated in the last month, and the fragile peace talks are currently disintegrating.

NGOs and human rights groups working in the region have documented human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law all ‘sides’, from the targeting of civilians in the Houthi blockade of the city of Ta’iz, to the anti-Houthi (Saudi-led) airstrikes and ground operations. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both argued that the majority of human right violations and civilian deaths in the conflict have been committed by the Saudi-led, anti-Houthi side – the side receiving support from Britain and the US.

And the conflict is a terrain on which wider regional tensions are enacted.

Although it is important not to oversimplify the conflict, its core political constellations operate in terms of a north-south Yemen tension, a Sunni versus Shia tension, and thus a Saudi Arabia versus Iran tension. The involvement of the US and UK in the conflict operates against this backdrop. The north-south tension in the country is a residual product of the Yemen civil war which ended in 1994. Meanwhile, AQAP has harnessed the continued sense of alienation and neglect in southern Yemen to further its hold on the port city of Mukalla, seizing the power vacuum created by the conflict. There, AQAP’s rhetoric focuses on the fact it is ‘providing’ for southern Yemen where the both the government and the Houthis do not.

In addition to the north-south element, ‘Houthi versus anti-Houthi’ can be (loosely) mapped out as a divide between Sunni and Shia – or, at least, this rhetoric has been used by both ‘sides’ to depict their enemy-group as advancing an ideological agenda, particularly as Houthi members belong to the Zayidism branch of Shia Islam.

Whilst the reality is far more complicated than a ‘Sunni versus Shia’ fight, the salient point is that the idea that it is a ‘Sunni versus Shia’ conflict gives the war its regional dimension, as (Sunni) Saudi Arabia presents its involvement in the war as ‘protecting’ the region from the spread of Shia Islam, and presenting the Houthis as puppets of its arch-rival, (Shia) Iran.

In reality, Iran is only tangentially associated with the conflict itself, and certainly does not ‘mirror’ Saudi Arabia’s direct and primary involvement: Iran actually tried to discourage the Houthis from their attempt at a takeover. The rhetoric of a ‘Shia insurgency’ is an attempt by Saudi Arabia to control the region – as it did in Bahrain after the 2011 Pearl Revolution.

Some have argued that US support for Saudi’s attack on Yemen is a conciliatory gesture towards Riyadh after the US’s recent nuclear deal with Iran – although it is also entirely consistent with wider US (and UK) foreign policy, and there is little to mark it as a departure from business as usual.

The war has created a humanitarian disaster…

By April 2016, over 6,000 people – more than 3,000 of whom were civilians – were estimated to have been killed in the war, and approximately 2.8m people have been displaced. A Unicef report stated that at least six children per day have been killed or maimed since the war broke out last year, and Amnesty International has noted that at least 83% of Yemenis now “rely on some form of humanitarian assistance in order to survive.” The conflict is a humanitarian disaster poised to descend into a country-wide famine.

And yet even the bare minimum standards demanded by international humanitarian law are not being met – in fact, humanitarian provisions themselves have come under attack. Three Medicins Sans Frontiers facilities have been hit in the Saudi-led bombing campaigns, and this week it was announced that a funding shortage may mean the World Food Programme will stop providing food to Yemen by the summer.

Both the Houthis and the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition use ‘blockades’ which entail a kind of collective punishment of the civilian population, in violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Amnesty International has described how the Houthis and their allies have “endangered the lives of thousands of civilians” in Ta’iz by “blocking entry of crucial medical supplies and goods.” Meanwhile, Amnesty claims, the Saudi-led coalition forces imposing aerial and naval blockages on Houthi-controlled areas are “obstructing access to food, water, humanitarian assistance and medical supplies and causing food prices to soar, creating a desperate situation for millions of people.”

And the Saudi-led coalition has only made al-Qaeda stronger.

A report by Reuters in April of this year described the way in which AQAP has taken advantage of the chaos caused by the Houthi versus anti-Houthi fight to make inroads into the country, and significantly enrich the al-Qaeda network after it seized the southeastern port city of Mukalla, home to 500,000 people.

As the Reuters report describes, Mukalla is to AQAP what Raqqa is to Isis: a mini-state now run by a terrorist organisation. The Isis comparison is striking, because AQAP had until recently been seen as declining due to the rise of Isis abroad – yet since 2015 it has returned stronger than ever. Mukalla was left defenceless in March 2015 when the Yemeni army left the city for the west – where the Houthi uprising was concentrated – and a small unit of AQAP fighters were able to seize the city, looting its army bases, taking control of its central bank, and using the port as a hub of fuel smuggling. Seizing the central bank alone enriched AQAP by around $100m. Reuters reports that Yemeni government officials estimate AQAP also “earns up to $2m every day in taxes on goods and fuel coming into the port.”

By the end of 2015, AQAP controlled hundreds of miles of coastline, and even made inroads into Aden, where the Houthis have retreated, demonstrating the way in which Houthi losses are not necessarily pro-Hadi (or pro-Saudi coalition) gains. The group appears to be reconfiguring itself along the lines of Somalia’s al-Shabaab, to become an economic organisation with political control of its own ‘fiefdom’.

AQAP is the stated reason for the US government deploying troops in Yemen in recent months. Yet the resurgence of AQAP after the start of the war being waged by the Saudi-led coalition also demonstrates that the ‘anti-terrorist’ rhetoric deployed to justify ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ is erroneous: terrorist organisations have prospered as a result of the war.

The UK continues to fuel the war – and it is, in reality, a participant in the conflict.

It’s no secret that the UK continues to supply arms to Saudi Arabia as well as supporting the regime – whose track record on human rights needs little introduction – diplomatically. Research by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade found that the UK has licensed £5.6bn in sales of arms to Saudi Arabia since David Cameron came to power in 2010, and that the Riyadh regime has access to twice as many British-made warplanes as the RAF does. The British government also made no secret of its support for ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, nor that it was providing help in terms of intelligence and logistics.

But the British government’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen is more direct than it claims. In January 2016, David Cameron said in response to a question about Britain’s role in supporting the Saudi-led strikes in Yemen: “We’re not a member of the Saudi-led coalition, British military personnel are not directly involved in the Saudi-led coalition’s operations, personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and we’re not involved in the Saudi targeting decision making process.”

However, a Vice News report published in April exposed how British agents were not only training Yemeni intelligence for US drone strikes, but in addition to a (previously acknowledged) British ‘training team’ in Sana’a, British special forces were sent to Yemen for ‘short missions’. Cameron’s January statement in parliament is therefore somewhat suspect, as the report revealed British personnel participate in identifying targets for drone strikes.

This goes beyond the argument that the UK is indirectly involved in the Yemen war through supplying arms to Saudi Arabia and indirectly facilitating with logistics. Earlier this month, the US state department admitted a “very small number” of American military personnel had been working around Mukalla in order to ‘assist’ the Arab coalition fighting AQAP’s grasp on the port city. British military personnel have similarly been directly engaged in the conflict.

Yet the war is rarely mentioned in the British media…

The war in Yemen has received remarkably little coverage in the British media: the conflict in east Ukraine in 2014-15 – with a death toll on a similar scale to the conflict-related deaths in Yemen since 2015 – was frequently headline news. Of course, it could be argued that even the conflict in Syria, where an estimated 470,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 2011, does not receive the coverage it deserves in the western media, and the lack of media coverage and analysis of Yemen is simply part of this broader absence.

But is certainly true that the Yemen port city of Mukalla, controlled by AQAP since 2015, is not known the way that Raqqa is, and nor are stories of refugees from Yemen likely to be featured in reportage about the refugees arriving in Europe. Similarly, the fact that this is a war which the UK is – indirectly and even quite directly – involved in, is barely mentioned.

Britain’s military support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen needs to be situated in the wider context of the UK’s support for the kingdom. For instance, Britain played a crucial lobbying role in securing Saudi Arabia’s seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), which was widely criticised by human rights organisations. A UN investigation into war crimes committed by the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen was subsequently blocked by the Saudis at the UN level. Yet David Cameron has received little criticism in either the media or in parliament for this relationship.

And as it arms and aids one side of a conflict, the UK continues to turn away those fleeing war.

The UK is, to use the language of international humanitarian law, a ‘party’ to the conflict in Yemen – it supports, arms and aids one side, making it far from a neutral bystander. As such, part of the blame for the refugees created by the conflict in Yemen can be placed on the British government.

And yet as Britain continues its alliance with – and direct military ‘aiding’ of – Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, it simultaneously shuts its doors to most of those fleeing wars, including the war in Yemen. Britain has taken far fewer refugees from the Middle East and North Africa region than countries like Germany. And even attempts by activists, NGOs and civil society groups encouraging the UK to take in more refugees rarely mention the conflict in Yemen: instead, the right-wing press has emphasised that ‘not all refugees’ arriving in Europe are Syrian – an attempt to depict these refugees as ‘bogus asylum seekers’ which simply ignores the fact that there are other conflicts creating refugees in other parts of the region.

Meanwhile the British government appears internally conflicted on the subject of Yemeni refugees and the conflict in Yemen, with the Home Office producing an assessment that returning Yemeni refugees to their country of origin may violate human rights, whilst on the same day the Foreign and Commonwealth Office claimed Saudi Arabia was upholding its obligations under international humanitarian law during its military actions in Yemen.

Refugees from Yemen would face an uphill battle to reach safety in Europe and the UK. But the British government is evidently happy to continue supporting the Saudi military actions in Yemen, regardless of the human suffering it has created.

Photo: Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr

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