A year into the military intervention in Yemen by the Western-backed Saudi army and the war is yet to reach mainstream media headlines. While the dreadful crises of Europe and Syria are afforded great attention (no doubt deservedly), a war of over 3,000 civilian deaths remains largely ignored. Major questions over the western role in perpetuating this humanitarian catastrophe need to be raised. The UK government consciously provides an arms pipeline to the dictatorial Saudi regime. Amnesty International has described some of the facilitated bombing campaigns as “indiscriminate [and]… disproportionate”. Yet the war remains outside mainstream national discourse; hence the tag – ‘silent war’. There is a conversation here that needs to be had.
Five years ago, the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt overspilled into Yemen. Protests came amid a climate of economic depravity and high levels unemployment. The intifada grew strong enough to topple the President of over 30 years – Ali Abdullah Saleh. Multiple human rights groups had voiced frequent concerns about the record of Saleh’s administration. A coalition of major political parties in Yemen, known as the Joint Meeting Parties and representing political views across the spectrum, backed the protests. With the Revolution coming to a head, a National Council for the Forces of the Peaceful Revolution was declared on 17 August 2011.
During the summer months of 2011, Saleh was recovering from a failed assassination attempt and had left Vice-President Hadi in interim control. Hadi expressed a willingness to co-operate with moderate political opposition but rejected calls to seize power permanently. During this period, The Gulf Co-operation Council (a diplomatic and economic union of Middle-Eastern member states) also pressured Saleh to resign on his return from a trip Saudi Arabia. Saleh accepted a brokered deal just two months after his re-instatement as President and receiving immunity as compensation. Hadi was left to stand, unopposed, for the Presidency in 2012. The Revolution had arguably come full circle.
In asserting its diplomatic influence, the Saudi administration was further exercising its already considerable sectarian support in the southern Yemeni regions. This was seen by many representatives of the Northern, ‘Houthi’ sect as diplomatic over-reach inspired by tribal self-interest. Northern spokesmen strongly criticised the GCC’s agreement for, it is claimed, dividing the country into two regions of unequal geopolitical influence.
Through the Siege of Dammaj, the anti-Saudi and anti-Imperalist Houthi rebels made gains in Salafi towns under the Saada Governorate while the Yemeni military were unsuccessful in restoring order around the country. Reconciliation talks were reached, however, between Hadi’s national government and various opposition groups. In a symbolic move, the Yemeni government returned the remains of the Houthi movement’s founder, Hussein Al-Houthi, to his family having possessed them for 9 years. A month later in July 2013, Hadi made diplomatic inroads with the United States. This led to the US lifting a ban on transferring Guantamo Bay detainees from Cuba to Yemen. Alongisde this, however, Saudi Arabia deported around 300,000 to 400,000 migrant workers back to Northern Yemen –the North now faced a further influx of deprivation and homelessness.
As the Houthis took over Sunni strongholds towards the end of 2014, they successfully assumed broad control of Northern Yemen and her capital, Sana’a. Several deals with the national government followed including the resignation of the Prime Minister. A coup seemed to have been achieved when the Houthis and the incumbent administration agreed to form a Unity Government. The Houthis even gained their own choice of Prime Minister. This only lasted a matter of weeks, however, as the Houthis, along with Saleh who was thought to have co-operated with the tribe during the rebellion, resigned their participation in the Unity Government. Saleh and Houthi officials faced sanctions from the UN Security Council and the US Treasury for their boycott. The following months saw the Houthis escalate tensions by shelling and Hadi’s private residence and, consequently, forcing the Prime Minister to resign. The Houthis went on to successfully take Sana’a. On February 6th of 2015 the rebel group announced that they had seized total control of the national government, despite the attempts of the UN to resolve the issue and maintain a Unity Government.
The Houthi regime immediately faced wide condemnation, not just from political factions in the South, but also from the US, UN, the Arab League and the GCC. Ban Ki-Moon called for the reinstatement of Hadi as President and the UN envoy to Yemen announced that talks with the Houthis had determined the House of Representatives would remain, despite the coup declaring it to be dissolved. On the 21st February, Hadi returned to Aden to condemn the Houthi revolution; this paved the way for the most recent Western intervention. ISIL claimed responsibility for attacks on the Shia group but Hadi was unable to stop the rebels from taking Aden. On the 25th March, Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm alongside the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Somalia, Jordan, Senegal, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Qatar. This conglomeration of nation-states initiated the most brutal intervention on the Houthi and Saleh militia, exacerbating the humanitarian disaster in Yemen with deaths at a rate of 25 people per day.
Saudi officials declared the bombing campaign to be over on 21 April – Operation Restoring Hope was said to be a new diplomatic effort to end the war. Even so, Reuters continued to report of airstrikes being launched frequently over the subsequent months. A further ceasefire signed in late May soon unravelled as patches of fighting were sparked across several southern provinces. The war goes on.
Yemen mentioned in PMQs (20/1/16) –
Angus Robertson: World attention on the conflict in the middle east is focused on Syria and Iraq, and much less so on the catastrophe in Yemen, which has caused thousands of people to lose their lives and millions of people to flee their homes. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what the UK Government are doing to support peace in Yemen?
The Prime Minister: We are doing everything we can with all the people taking part in this conflict to encourage them to get round a negotiating table, as they have done recently, in order to bring about what is necessary in Yemen, which is a Government who can represent all of the people. We have got to make sure that both Sunni and Shi’a are properly represented in that country. That is the only way that we will meet our key national interest, which is to back a Government in Yemen who will drive the terrorists, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—AQAP—out of Yemen, because they have been, and are, a direct threat to the citizens of Britain.
Angus Robertson: Thousands of civilians have been killed in Yemen, including a large number by the Saudi air force, who have done that using British-built planes with pilots who are trained by British instructors, and who are dropping British-made bombs and are co-ordinated by the Saudis in the presence of British military advisers. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to admit that Britain is effectively taking part in a war in Yemen that is costing thousands of civilian lives, and that he has not sought parliamentary approval to do that?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman started in a serious place but then seriously wandered off. It is in our interest that we back the legitimate Government of Yemen, and it is right to do that. We have some of the most stringent arms control measures of any country anywhere in the world. Just to be absolutely clear about our role, we are not a member of a 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 are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process; but do we provide training and advice and help in order to make sure that countries actually obey the norms of humanitarian law? Yes, we do.