US-UK calls for a Yemen ceasefire is a cynical piece of political theatre

Mattis: Trump’s tweet sends message that Iran is “on the ...

The UK appears now to be gearing up towards authoring a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Yemen. For years, the UK has been the official ‘penholder’ on Yemen, meaning that it has been up to the UK to table resolutions. It has consistently used this position not only to refuse to issue any resolutions calling for a ceasefire but also to block anyone else’s attempts to do so. The apparent about-turn is a response to last week’s statements from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis calling for a ceasefire in Yemen within 30 days, to be followed up with UN-facilitated peace talks. The UK dutifully followed suit shortly afterwards, expressing their support for the initiative. This was somewhat ironic given that minister Alistair Burt, obviously not privy to the seeming about-turn, had just spent the day providing MPs with excruciatingly contorted explanations of why calling for a ceasefire was not a good idea in the circumstances. “Passing a ceasefire resolution risks undercutting the UN envoy’s efforts to reach a political deal and undermining the credibility of the Council” he told the House of Commons at midday; yet within 36 hours, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was telling Newsnight that the US call for a ceasefire was “an extremely welcome announcement because we have been working towards a cessation of hostilities in Yemen for a long time.” In the parallel universe of British double-speak, it is of course natural thatunrelenting support for what is fast turning into a war of national annihilation gets recast as “working towards a cessation of hostilities”.

Yet this latest call does appear to be at odds with the hitherto existing strategy; it was only in June, after all, when the US and UK torpedoed a Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in the face of impending famine. Many commentaries (such as this one in the Telegraph, for example), have suggested that the US is now taking advantage of pressure on Saudi Arabia following the murder of Saudi insider-turned-dissident Khashoggi to push the kingdom towards a less belligerent position in the disastrous Yemen war. The ever-more desperate humanitarian situation is giving the war a bad name and – so the story goes – the US are now keen to end it. David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary and now president of the International Rescue Committee, even called the US announcement “the most significant breakthrough in the war in Yemen for four years”.

Unfortunately, it is likely to prove nothing of the sort. The detail of the announcement makes clear that, far from representing some kind of Damascene change of heart, the ‘call for a ceasefire’ is little more than yet another rebranding exercise, a cynical attempt to whitewash escalating carnage with the rhetoric of peace. 

With every passing day, the war in Yemen becomes harder to defend. The airstrike on a bus full of schoolchildren in early August briefly caused international outrage, but it was sadly not exceptional; indeed, at least 55 civilians had been killed during the bombardment of a hospital and fish market just the week before, and the bus itself was but one of over fifty civilian vehiclestargeted by Saudi airstrikes during the first half of this year. For most of the war, around a third of coalition airstrikes have hit civilian sites; but according to the Yemen Data Project, this ratio reached 48% in September.

More grim news emerged on 29th October, when a detailed research project concluded that over five times as many people have met violent deaths in the conflict than previously estimated. For years, the media have consistently claimed a death toll of 10,000, but the true figure is closer to 56,000 since the start of 2016 according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, as the earlier estimate only covered deaths reported to official medical centres. The death toll from the start of the bombing campaign until the end of this year is expected to lie between 70,000 and 80,000.

Yet even this number, horrific as it is, is dwarfed by the deaths from the starvation and disease which have been the coalition’s weapon of choice against the population of Houthi-controlled areas. The bombing of water treatment systems, fishing boats, roads and bridges, the naval blockade of the country’s imports, and the coalition regime’s decision to stop paying salaries to health and sanitation workers in Houthi areas two years ago have combined to create mass starvation and the world’s biggest cholera outbreak since the end of WW2. An average of 130 children die of disease and malnutrition every day (Although “they are not starving”, noted a tweet from the Norwegian Refugee Council, “they are being starved”), with around 150,000 people thought to have died from such causes last year alone. And this aspect of the conflict is set to deteriorate exponentially.

On 15th October, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande warned that Yemen could face the world’s worst famine for one hundred years if the airstrikes are not stopped, with 12 to 13 million at risk of starvation. Nine days later, the agency’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs Mark Lowcock said that the risk was actually worse than they previously predicted with 14 million close to “pre-famine conditions” – half the country’s population. He noted that the UN was currently only able to feed 8 million of these, although these too would be at risk if the country’s main port Hodeidah – responsible for over 70% of imports – is attacked by the coalition.

Earlier this week, just as Mattis and Pompeo delivered their soothing words, 30,000 troops began massing to launch precisely that attack. The problem for the war’s backers in London, Paris and Washington is how to justify the holocaust this is almost certain to unleash on Yemen’s population in the delusional pursuit of reimposing an impotent and discredited quisling.

The ceasefire announcement, then, is about providing cover for the impending attack. Just at the moment the aid agencies have been warning against its devastating consequences, and calling for an immediate end to the bombing, the ‘ceasefire proposal’ gives the Saudis a month’s free pass to conduct their famine-inducing operation on Hodeidah. Rather than demanding the offensive be halted or delayed, the ‘30-day’ call eggs it on. Nor is the 30-day timeframe any kind of limit on the operation. Pompeo stated that“The time is now for the cessation of hostilities, including missile and UAV strikes from Houthi-controlled areas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Subsequently, Coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen”. The term ‘subsequently’ is crucial, implying that the Saudis continued bombardment – including in “populated areas” – would be perfectly justified unless the Houthis had implemented a unilateral ceasefire first. This is little more than a call for unconditional surrender by the Houthis, dressed up as a peace initiative. By the same token, it sets the scene for laying all the blame for any continued fighting at the door of the Houthis

The reality is that the US and UK could end the war tomorrow, simply by threatening to cut off military supplies, intelligence, and training to the Saudis until the airstrikes stop, a point made by Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council to a UK Parliamentary Select Committee earlier this week. Yet the US are precisely NOT calling for an end to the bombing, nor threatening to use their leverage to bring it about. Instead, this so-called initiative is yet another cynical PR exercise designed to justify, rather than to reign in, this brutal war.

This piece originally appeared in Middle East Eye

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Yemen’s media blackout

The shameful lack of coverage given to US-UK backed atrocities in Yemen is but one aspect of western media’s blackout of the truth about the conflict.
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One of the survivors of the US-UK supported bombing of a school bus in Yemen, which killed over 40 children, mostly under 10

 

Even by the depraved standards of the US-UK-Saudi-UAE aggression against Yemen, yesterday’s bombing of a school bus was a new low. The bus had stopped at a market whilst taking the children back to school from a picnic when it was targeted, according to Save the Children. Health officials have informed the world that the strike killed 47 people with 77 more injured, but that that number was likely to rise. Most of those victims, tweeted the Red Cross, were less than ten years old. Following the attack, Frank McManus, Yemen country director for the International Red Cross, whose workers are treated the wounded, pleaded that: “Today should be the day the world wakes up to the atrocities going on in Yemen … a bus full of school children cannot be viewed as mere collateral damage. Even wars have rules, but rules without consequences mean nothing.”

It is hard to see how the world will wake up, however, when western media remains so committed to its refusal to give anything like adequate coverage to the ongoing aggression. You might have thought that the targeted bombing of a bus full of children parked in a market far from any military activity, by forces enjoying full military, diplomatic and strategic support from the UK, would make headlines. Yet this is not the case. Take the Guardian, for example, supposedly a bastion of liberal values and humanitarian concern. Their report on the incident went online shortly before 7pm last night. Yet this morning, it does not feature amongst their 13 headline stories, which include such gripping items as  “the chips are down in Belgium at heatwave hits supply of fries”. Click on the ‘world news’ section, and Yemen is not even amongst the 11 headlines there, bumped by earth-shattering stories such as “New Zealand – Jacinda Ardern says country will ban plastic bags”. Only if you specifically click on the Middle East section would you find the story – fourth of that section’s six headlines, just behind “Mauritian presidential hopeful arrested” and “Looted Iraqi antiquities return home”.

The Independent, now online only and perhaps, you might have thought, less subject to the pressure from advertisers that drives some of the self-censorship of its loss-leading print-edition cousins, is little different. Yemen was among neither its eight ‘top stories’ this morning, which included headlines such as “British campers flee as flash floods batter France”, nor the eight pieces in its ‘more stories’ section, which included items titled “summer not over yet, despite thunderstorms and heavy rain” and “Pochettino blames Brexit for Spurs’ failure to sign any new players”

Of course, in a sense, these outlets are entirely correct not to consider the story as news – for there is nothing really new about yesterday’s atrocity. Indeed, only last week, an airstrike on a market and hospital killed at least 60 people; such slaughter has become routine. Even the killing of children is standard practice: in fact, the 29 children killed in the bus bombing yesterday are but a fraction of the 130 children killed in Yemen every day by the famine and disease which the aggression has brought to the country.

Indeed, alongside the straightforward lack of coverage, the downplaying of the level of killing in Yemen constitutes a second, more subtle, form of media blackout. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that 10,000 was the death toll to be forever associated with the Yemen war, and this number has appeared in virtually every article on the subject for years. In truth, this figure is a massive underestimate, given that at least150,000 are believed to have died from starvation and preventable diseases last year alone, a direct consequence of the aggression on Yemen, the blockade of its ports, and the targeting of its civilian and agricultural infrastructure. Thus the ‘death toll’ endlessly repeated in the media – and shamefully, this often includes alternative media – is in truth but a tiny fraction of the true level of suffering being rained down on that country by the west and its proxies.

Another form of blackout is the presentation of the conflict as a civil war. There was a civil war in Yemen, the endgame of which was reached when the Ansar Allah movement captured the capital city and President Hadi fled the country. Since then, beginning in March 2015, what has been occurring is a foreign aggression against the country. In the words of Professor Isa Blumi, what is ”Strategically left out of the discussion” here “are those outside facilitators of empire whose war has created new opportunities to plunder Yemen’s resources. Rather than seeing the heavy hand of empire, the outsider is expected to believe the media and think tank experts that it is Yemenis’ own pathologies, their social and economic backwardness, that leave them susceptible to violence and thus ‘civil war’. The ‘they are at war with themselves’ trope continuously repeated in various media and academic circles ultimately obfuscates who are guilty, laying blame on eighty percent of a country’s population currently being starved to death”.

Even when foreign aggression is admitted, however, the agency for this is often misrepresented. Thus a fourth form of blackout consists of presenting the war as somehow an independent initiative of the Saudis, which the west are, at best, merely ‘backing’ or ‘going along with’ for the sake of arms sales or oil supplies. This is truly putting the cart before the horse. The truth is thatthis is a US-UK war, planned in the corridors of Whitehall and Washington, but executed by their faithful Gulf proxies. We know now, from emails leaked by Wikileakslast year, that even Crown Prince Salman himself wants out of the war. But he knows that his family’s grip on power is utterly dependent on western support. And the price of that support is that their foreign policy is not their own. The deal, stretching back to the days of the British empire, is that the west provide security to the al-Saud family – but in return, the al-Sauds relinquish their foreign policy to the west. And right now, the west’s order of the day is to destroy Yemen.

Make no mistake, the war on Yemen is a UK-US war, and to present it as anything else is a dangerous misrepresentation of reality which attempts to lay the blame solely at the door of their oriental fall guys. Of course, it plays very well in countries like Britain, still drenched in its colonial and orientalist mentality, to shift the blame for Yemen’s genocide onto crooked and mischievous Arabs. Groups like Stop the War, I am sorry to say, tend to play into this narrative, portraying the recent visit to Britain by Crown Prince Bin Salman, for example, in terms of an otherwise pristine Britain sullying itself by association with a bloody Arab ‘despot’. This is a complete inversion of reality; the truth, of course, is that the Saudis’ greatest crime is their collaboration with the genocidal ruling class in Britain and the USA.

But there is also another form of media blackout on Yemen, one which even the alternative media (and here I would have to include some of my own past writings on the conflict) often succumbs to. This is the presentation of Yemenis as simply passive victims, lacking all agency, the hapless recipients of bombing raids and starvation policies. In fact, Yemen’s struggle is not essentially a story of victimhood, but of resistance. When we lament three years of Yemen’s bombardment, we should not forget that we are also celebrating three years of truly extraordinary and heroic resistance. To have survived these punishing raids for this long should demonstrate beyond all doubt that the Ansar Allah movement, against whom this devastating war is being waged, is a genuinely popular and representative movement – for if it were not, it would have collapsed years ago. The constant media refrain of Houthis being merely Iranian proxies fighting the ‘legitimate government’ turns reality square on its head. Legitimacy does not come from being ordained by the priesthood of global capital, as Hadi was, but from the kind of popular support that alone allows a movement to face down a ten-country coalition supported by the most powerful militaries in the world.
And where does the Ansar Allah movement’s popularity come from? It comes from putting itself at the forefront of resistance to the western project of selling off Yemen, opening up Yemen’s resources to looting by western financial corporations, and turning over Yemen’s political system to Saudi stooges. Indeed, in so doing, Ansar Allah are merely the latest incarnation of a spirit of Yemeni resistance to western capitalism going back over 100 years. It is this spirit which the current bombardment is trying – in an act of the most brutal futility – to crush. It is this spirit that the media desperately want to black out. And it is this spirit that will ultimately see empire, and all its stooges and apologists, crumble into dust.  

A version of this article originally appeared on Middle East Eye 

The $1.5 billion campaign to whitewash genocide in Yemen

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The Saudi-led coalition have intensified airstrikes on Hodeidah in recent months and a new front there is imminent. It will cut off 70% of imports to the country’s starving population. 

“The situation in Yemen – today, right now, to the population of the country,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told Al Jazeera last month, “looks like the apocalypse.”

150,000 people are thought to have starved to death in Yemen last year, with one child dying of starvation or preventable diseases every ten minutes, and another falling into extreme malnutrition every two minutes. The country is undergoing the world’s biggest cholera epidemic since records began with over one million now having contracted the disease, and new a diptheria epidemic “is going to spread like wildfire” according to Lowcock. “Unless the situation changes,” he concluded, “we’re going to have the world’s worst humanitarian disaster for 50 years”.

The cause is well known: the Saudi-led coalition’s bombardment and blockade of the country, with the full support of the US and UK, has destroyed over 50% of the country’s healthcare infrastructure, targeted water desalination plants, decimated transport routes and choked off essential imports, whilst the government all this is supposed to reinstall has blocked salaries of public sector workers across the majority of the country, leaving rubbish to go uncollected and sewage facilities to fall apart, and creating a public health crisis. A further eight million were cut off from clean water when the Saudi-led coalition blocked all fuel imports last November, forcing pumping stations to close. Oxfam’s country director in Yemen, Shane Stevenson, commented at the time that “The people of Yemen are already being starved to submission – unless the blockade is lifted quickly they will have their clean water taken away too. Taking clean water from millions of people in a country that is already suffering the world’s largest cholera outbreak and on the verge of famine would be an act of utmost barbarity.”

Since then, things have been getting worse. As of late January, fuel imports through the country’s main port Hodeidah were still being blocked, with cholera cases continuing to climb as a result. And on 23rd January, the UN reported that there are now 22.2 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance – 3.4 million more than the previous year – with eight million on the brink of famine, an increase of one million since 2017.

This is unsurprising, as both the bombardment and the blockade have intensified in recent months. For almost a month at the end of last year, the coalition blocked all imports into Hodeidah port, through which 70% of the country’s imports would otherwise enter. And since the death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on 4th December, the air campaign has been stepped up, with massacres occurring on a near-daily basis. On 9th February, the UN announced that 85,000 had been displaced in ten weeks due to “surging violence”, particularly on the Red Sea Coast, where the coalition have mounted a new campaign to capture the country’s strategically important Hodeidah port.

With the Hodeidah campaign now entering a new phase, this war on the Yemeni population is set to escalate still further. Since it launched in early December, the coalition and their Yemeni assets have taken several towns and villages on Hodeidah province, and are now poised to take the battle to the city itself. On 20th February, Emirati newspaper The National reported that, in the coming days, “more forces will be committed to Hodeidah as a new front is to be opened in the next few days by Maj Gen Tariq Mohammed Abdullah,” nephew of the deceased former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This attack would put the almost completely-import dependent country’s most essential port out of action for months, leaving millions unable to survive. “If this attack goes ahead”, Oxfam chief executive Mark Goldring told the press when a similar attack was proposed earlier last year, “this will be a deliberate act that will disrupt vital supplies – the Saudi-led coalition will not only breach International Humanitarian Law, they will be complicit in near certain famine.” His colleague Suze Vanmeegan added that “any attack on Hodeidah has the potential to blast an already alarming crisis into a complete horror show – and I’m not using hyperbole.”

There is no doubt the war’s British and American overseers have given their blessing to this escalation. In late 2016, the “Yemen Quartet” was formed by the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to co-ordinate strategy between the the war’s four main aggressors. Throughout 2017, they met sporadically, but since the end of the year their meetings have become more frequent and higher-level. At the end of November, just before the launch of operations in Hodeidah province, Boris Johnson hosted a meeting of the Quartet in London as Theresa May simultaneously met with King Salman in Riyadh, presumably to give the go-ahead to this new round of devastation for Yemen’s beleaguered population. They met again two weeks later, and then too on 23rd January, also at Johnson’s instigation, where the meeting was attended, for the first time, by Rex Tillerson. The “economic quartet” – also attended by officials from the IMF and World Bank – convened on 2nd February in Saudi Arabia, whilst Johnson and Tillerson once again met with their Saudi and Emirati counterparts to discuss Yemen in Bonn on 15th February. Of course, these meetings do not carry out the nitty-gritty of strategic war planning – civil servants in the military and intelligence services do that. The purpose of such high level forums is rather for each side to demonstrate to the others that any  strategic developments carry the blessing of each respective government at the highest level. That the “quartet” met just days before an announcement that the long-planned attack on Hodeidah port was imminent, then, speaks volumes about US-UK complicity in this coming new premeditated war crime.

These military and humanitarian ‘developments’ (if such a word can be applied to the deliberate reversal of a country’s living standards) form the backdrop to the Saudi-led coalition’s unveiling on 22nd January of their new plan to deliver “unprecedented relief to the people of Yemen”. YCHO – “Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations” – is a new ‘aid’ programme with the ostensible aim of “addressing immediate aid shortfalls while simultaneously building capacity for long-term improvement of humanitarian aid and commercial goods imports to Yemen”, primarily through increasing the “capacities of Yemeni ports to receive humanitarian as well as commercial imports” – and all sealed with a whopping $1.5billion in aid contributions. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The problem here is not only that the the funding required to meet the needs created by the Saudi-led coalition is estimated by the UN to be twice that amount. The real problem is that the plan will not, in fact, increase the imports on which Yemen is utterly dependent, but reduce them still further. This is because the much-vaunted ‘improvements in port capacity’ will apply solely to “coalition-controlled ports”, excluding the ports outside their control – Hodeidah and Saleef – which, between them, handle about 80% of Yemen’s imports. For these, absolutely critical, ports, the plan explicitly states that it wants a reduction in the flow of cargo they handle: by around 200 metric tons per month, compared to mid-2017 levels. Yes, you heard correctly: cargo levels in mid-2017 – when 130 children were dying each day from malnutrition and other preventable diseases largely caused by the limits on imports already in place – are now deemed in need of further, major, reductions. This plan is nothing less than a systematisation of the starvation politics of which the Saudis were accused by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen in relation to their closure of Hodeidah and Saleef in November. Back then, noted the panel’s Final Report, all Yemen’s ports had been closed following a Houthi missile attack on Riyadh airport. But whilst coalition-controlled ports were quickly reopened, Hodeidah and Saleef remained closed for weeks. “This had the effect,” said the panel, “of using the threat of starvation as an instrument of war.” Today, the ‘Comprehensive Operations’ plan envisages making permanent the juxtaposition of wilful starvation of Houthi-controlled territory (in which the vast majority of Yemenis live) and ‘generous’ aid deliveries into coalition-controlled territories. These are the same ‘methods of barbarism’ as were employed by the British in the Boer war – when Boer-controlled territories were subjected to scorched earth policies of torching farms and destroying livestock – and then revived for Britain’s colonial wars in Malaya,  Kenya and, indeed, Yemen in the 1950s-60s. Small wonder Britain is so deeply involved today.

But such a strategy will surely be hard to sell in this day and age. Certainly, the Saudis seem to think so; which is presumably why they have employed a plethora of the world’s most notorious PR agencies to help them do so.

An exceptional investigation by the IRIN news agency reported that “the press release journalists received announcing the [YCHO] plan came neither from the coalition itself nor from Saudi aid officials. It came, along with an invitation to visit Yemen, straight from a British PR agency”. That agency was Pagefield Global Counsel, one of the successor companies to disgraced PR giant Bell Pottinger (employing over 20 former Pottinger staff).

The investigation also revealed that the powerpoint presentation used to introduce the YCHO to high level UN officials was authored by Nicholas Nahas, of Booz Allen Hamilton, a US management consultancy with long-established links to the US state – including involvement in the illegal SWIFT and PRISM mass surveillance programmes – and which currently has, says IRIN “35 job listings in Riyadh on its website, including “military planner”, a role that requires the applicant to: “Provide military and planning advice and expertise to support the coordination of Joint counter threat operations executed by coalition member nations and facilitate resourcing to enable operations.””

Another PR company involved in ‘selling’ the YCHO, long on the Saudi payroll, is Qorvis MSLGROUP, who, says IRIN, “booked US revenue of more than $6 million from the Saudi Arabian embassy [in the US] over a 12-month period up to September 2017”.

 

These masters of spin have certainly been busy: their work on the plan has been delivered to “the offices of major INGOs in the UK as well as to members of the UK parliament”, and YCHO accounts has been set up on facebook, twitter, instagram, youtube and gmail. The YCHO twitter account has around 10,000 followers; but, says the investigation, “almost half of YCHO’s followers have less than 10 followers themselves, while some 1,000 followers were accounts created on the same day in 2016 – signs that a significant number of bots or fakes are inflating YCHO’s popularity”.

 

“All of this,” concludes IRIN, “has fed suspicions that rather than a genuine attempt to help the people of Yemen, the plan is really intended more to gloss over the Hodeidah issue and improve Saudi Arabia’s battered image, or at least a bit of both.”

You would think a strategy aimed at starving the world’s most starving population still further would be a hard sell. But, then, money not only talks, it silences.  And $1.5 billion is a lot of money.

The UN’s own ‘Humanitarian Response Plan’ for Yemen, issued just two days before the YCHO, on 20th January, had noted that “Al Hudaydah port, which accounts for 70-80 per cent of commercial imports in Yemen, remains a critical lifeline, despite operating at reduced capacity after being hit by an airstrike in August 2015”, adding that “the extended blockade imposed on Al Hudaydah and Salif ports on 6 November 2017 significantly threatened this lifeline of Yemenis” and that “only a sustained flow of imports of essential basic goods can avert further catastrophe”. Yet the cash-strapped UN, facing dramatic budget cuts from the Trump administration, and presumably nervous of saying anything that might jeopardise Saudi-Emirati money as well, officially welcomed the announcement, despite its clear commitment to essentially tightening the very blockade of Hodeidah and Saleef ports which the UN had denounced just days earlier.

Thankfully, the aid agencies do not seem to have been fooled. A joint statement on the YCHO by a number of international NGOs, including Oxfam and Save the Children, stated that “We remain concerned that the blockade on Red Sea ports has still not been fully lifted and about the insufficient volume of fuel reaching these, which has led to an increase in the price of basic goods across the country. As a result, we are seeing families pushed into preventable disease and starvation because they cannot afford to buy food and clean water. Hodeidah port handles the majority of the country’s imports and cannot be substituted. It is vital that the warring parties commit to keep Hodeidah port fully open and functioning, including unfettered access for both humanitarian and commercial supplies.” Save the Children’s Caroline Anning explained that the plan “is a misconception – in the publicity around this new plan they say the blockade around Hodeida port has been fully lifted but actually what we’re seeing is that fuel is still being blocked coming into that port which is having a really horrendous knock-on effect around the country.” She added that if “they want to try and push the delivery of key important commercial supplies through other ports like Aden, Jazan and Saudi Arabia and cut off the Hodeida port, again that could be really problematic and again it means one of the warring parties in the conflict is controlling access routes for goods coming in…Improved humanitarian access is really important and that’s been a massive challenge – but in reality that’s not going to solve the humanitarian conflict in Yemen. We’ve seen increased violence, air strikes across the country in the last few months, civilians being killed every day, vital infrastructure like health clinics being hit all the time. While that’s happening and while the economy is collapsing and public sector salaries aren’t being paid, the humanitarian crisis is going to continue.”

And the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s scathing response – issued with the title “Yemen: Saudi ‘aid’ plan is war tactic” – is worth quoting at length:

“The Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO), announced on January 22, 2018, is neither comprehensive, nor reflective of clear, shared humanitarian priorities…The YCHO politicizes aid by attempting to consolidate control over access and transit points. Rather than endorsing a parallel plan, which was created without broad input from humanitarian actors, the Saudi Led Coalition (SLC) and its supporters, notably the US and UK, should work to ensure the full implementation of the existing UN humanitarian response plan.

“The name in itself is misleading: it is neither comprehensive, nor particularly humanitarian,” said Amanda Catanzano, senior policy and advocacy director at the International Rescue Committee. “The Saudi-led coalition is offering to fund a response to address the impact of a crisis it helped to create. The acute crisis in Yemen needs more than what appears to be a logistical operations plan, with token gestures of humanitarian aid”. The IRC go on to list a number of ‘red flags’ about the plan, first and foremost, that it does not end the blockade: “If the Saudis were serious about addressing the humanitarian crisis,” they point out,  “the most valuable step they could take would be to lift the blockade, permanently, which they and the international community should do without delay”. Furthermore, they add, the YCHO “severely threatens humanitarian access, endangering the lives of millions more civilians. The plan would move the main hub of the response from Hodeidah port to Aden port and would increase capacity of additional Southern ports of Mokha and Mukalla as additional alternatives. The development of additional Yemeni ports is welcome and laudable, but not at the expense of access to Red Sea ports like Hodeidah and Saleef. The southern ports are neither equipped for, nor well placed to service populations in need: they the lack basic infrastructure and capacity of the northern ports, through which 80% of all imports come into Yemen, and humanitarians would need to go through 70 checkpoints between Sanaa and Aden, complicating delivery and driving up costs”. They also note that it is precisely the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni stooges who have implemented a  policy of cutting off payments to public sector workers, leading to the current public health disaster: “The acute deprivation in Yemen is as much a function of the blockade as it is the absence of basic public services. The SLC is overfunding the war effort at the expense of governance and service delivery. The vague “economic stabilization” clause in the YCHO does not address the restoration of basic public services. These funds should be used to reinstate basic government services and pay government workers.” It concludes:

“A meaningful response to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis requires more access – not less. At best, this plan would shrink access and introduce new inefficiencies that would slow the response and keep aid from the neediest Yemenis, including the over 8 million on the brink of starvation,” said Catanzano. “At worst, it would dangerously politicize humanitarian aid by placing far too much control over the response in the hands of an active party to the conflict.”

Essentially, this is a plan to tighten the blockade whilst monopolising access to aid in the hands of the aggressors, presented as a great humanitarian effort, and unveiled just as the coalition begins an attack on the country’s “vital lifeline” which will lead to “a complete horror show” and “near-certain famine”. In the twisted minds of men like Mohammed bin Salman, Rex Tillerson and Boris Johnson – for whom even the liquidation of an entire people is a apparently a noble cause in the pursuit of containing Iran – this is what passes for humanitarianism today.

An edited version of this article originally appeared in Middle East Eye

“A complete horror show”: the new plan for Yemen

Presenting themselves as shocked bystanders to the growing famine in Yemen, the US and UK are in fact prime movers in a new strategy that will massively escalate it.

Adel Bin Ahmed Al Jubeir, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary, Timothy Linder King, US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Dr. Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in Abu Dhabi on December 10th 2017

The protagonists of the war on Yemen – the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have been beset by problems ever since they launched the operation in March 2015. But these problems seem to have reached breaking point in recent months.

 

First and foremost, is the total lack of military progress in the war. Originally conceived as a kind of blitzkrieg – or “decisive storm” as the initial bombing campaign was named – that would put a rapid end to the Houthi-led Ansarallah movement’s rebellion, almost three years later it has done nothing of the sort. The only significant territory recaptured has been the port city of Aden, and this was only by reliance on a secessionist movement largely hostile to ‘President’ Hadi, whose rule the war is supposedly being fought to restore. All attempts to recapture the capital Sanaa, meanwhile, have been exposed as futile pipe dreams.

 

Secondly, the belligerents have been increasingly at war with themselves. In February of this year, a fierce battle broke out between the Emiratis and Saudi-backed forces for control of Aden’s airport. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the struggle  “prevented an Emirati plan to move north to Taiz,” adding that “the risk of such confrontations remains…Lacking ground forces anywhere in Yemen, the Saudis worry that the UAE could be carving out strategic footholds for itself, undermining Saudi influence in the kingdom’s traditional backyard.” Notes intelligence analysts the Jamestown Foundation, “The fight over Aden’s airport is being played out against a much larger and far more complex fight for Aden and southern Yemen. The fighting between rival factions backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE clearly shows that Yemen’s already complicated civil war is being made more so by what is essentially a war within a war: the fight between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their proxies.” This tension flared up again in October, with Emirati troops arresting 10 members of the Saudi-aligned Islah movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yemeni faction.

 

And finally, the war is undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy. Aid agencies are usually doggedly silent on the political causes of the disasters they are supposed to ameliorate. Yet on the issue of the blockade – and especially since it was made total on November 6th this year – they have been uncharacteristically vocal, placing the blame for the country’s famine – in which more than a quarter of the population are now starving – squarely on the blockade and its supporters. Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, put it starkly: “150,000 will die before the end of the year because of the impact of this blockade” he told ABC news last month. Save the Children had already stated back in March 2017 that “food and aid are being used as a weapon of war”, and called for an end to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, whilst in November 2017, Oxfam’s Shane Stevenson said: “All those with influence over the Saudi-led coalition are complicit in Yemen’s suffering unless they do all they can to push them to lift the blockade.” Paolo Cernuschi, of the International Rescue Committee, added that: “We are far beyond the need to raise an alarm. What is happening now is a complete disgrace.” The governments of Donald Trump and Theresa May were being painted – by the most establishment-aligned of charities – as essentially mass murderers, accomplices to what Alex de Waal has called “the worst famine crime of this decade”. Even the Financial Times carried a headline that Britain “risks complicity in the use of starvation as a weapon of war”. “Is complicit” would be more accurate than “risks complicity”, but nevertheless: still a pretty damning indictment.

 

To confront these problems, a new strategy has clearly emerged. It appears to have been inaugurated by Theresa May and Boris Johnson on November 29th.  On that date, whilst the British Prime Minister met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Riyadh, the Foreign Secretary was hosting a London meeting of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the US under-secretary of state, representing all four of the belligerent powers in Yemen.

 

The first element of this strategy was for Britain and the US to pacify the NGO fraternity by distancing themselves from the blockade, as if it were somehow separate from the war in which they were so deeply involved. This actually came about in the days preceding those meetings, when Theresa May told the press she would “demand” the “immediate” lifting of the blockade during her forthcoming visit to the king. That was disingenuous; after all, had she really wanted the blockade ended, she could have achieved this immediately simply by threatening to cut military support for the Saudis until they ended it. According to War Child UK, arms sales to Saudi Arabia have now topped £6billion, and Britain runs a major training programme for the Saudi military, with 166 personnel deployed within the Saudi military structure. Former US presidential advisor Bruce Riedel is entirely correct when he states that “the Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and  British support. If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia] ‘this war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow.”

 

In fact, the meeting seems to have been more about reassuring the Saudis that her words were but rhetoric for domestic consumption, and not meant to be taken seriously. In the event, far from an “immediate” end, the UK government website reported that May and Salman merely “agreed that steps needed to be taken” and that “they would take forward more detailed discussions on how this could be achieved”. Just to make it absolutely clear that the UK’s support for the war was not in question in any way, the very next line of the statement was “They agreed the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia was strong and would endure”. A deeply complicit press ensured that the actual contents of this meeting was barely reported; the last word on the matter, as far as they were concerned, was May’s pledge to “demand” an end to the blockade. Donald Trump followed suit last week, likewise calling on the Saudis to “completely allow food, fuel, water and medicine to reach the Yemeni people” whilst doing nothing to bring this about. Thus have the UK and US governments attempted to manipulate the media narrative such that the blockade they continue to facilitate no longer reflects badly on them.

 

The next aspect of the strategy became obvious before the Johnson and May meetings had even finished, as fighting broke out between the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh the same day. Saleh had made an alliance with his erstwhile enemies the Houthis in 2015 in a presumed attempt to seize back power from his former deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, to whom he was forced to abdicate power in 2012. But he had never been fully trusted by the Houthis, and their suspicions were to be fully confirmed when on Saturday 2nd December he formally turned on them and offered himself up to the Saudis. Saleh had always been close to the Saudis whilst in power, positioning himself largely as a conduit for their influence; now he was returning to his traditional role. The swiftness and intensity of the Saudi airstrikes supporting his forces against the Houthis following his announcement suggests some degree of foreknowledge and collaboration had preceded it, as does the Saudi’s reported house arrest of their previous favourite Hadi the previous month. This restoration of the Saleh-Saudi alliance represents a victory for the UAE, who had been pushing the Saudis to rebuild its bridges with him for some time. Analyst Neil Partrick, for example, had written just weeks before the move that “The Emiratis are advising the Saudis to go back to the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, believing his growing disputes with the Houthis, his tactical allies, can be encouraged to become a permanent breach.” Thus was the problem of the military stalemate supposed to be solved by splitting the Houthis alliance with Saleh, paving the way for a dramatic rebalancing of forces in favour of the belligerents. The execution of Saleh two days later has only partially scuppered this plan, with many of his forces either openly siding with the invaders or putting up no resistance to them.

 

At the same time as the Saudis have finally been brought round to the UAE’s preference for a reconciliation with Saleh’s forces, the UAE have now, it seems, accepted an alliance with the Saudi-backed Islah party. Despite the Saudi’s usual antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood, it has backed their Yemeni offshoot in this war, a move hitherto firmly opposed by the Emirates. Yet, following earlier meetings between Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Islah leader Abdullah al-Yidoumi, the two men met last Wednesday (13th December) with Emirati crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Maged Al Da’arri, editor of Yemen’s Hadramout newspaper, explained to The National that “the Gulf leaders are trying to combine the different sides in Yemen to work collaboratively in order to be able to liberate the provinces that are still held by the Houthis.”

 

It seems likely that Emirati support for Islah was a quid-pro-quo for Saudi support for Saleh, both moves suggesting perhaps that the two powers’ divisions were to some extent being overcome. But this rapprochement was formalised with the formal announcement of a new military alliance between them on December 5th, the day after Saleh’s death.

 

Thus, within a week of the London and Riyadh meetings, the coalition’s three seemingly intractable problems – the paralysing divisions between UAE and Saudi Arabia, the military stalemate, and the West’s legitimacy crisis over the blockade – had all apparently been turned around. This readjustment was and is intended to pave the way for a decisive new page in the war: an all-out attack on Hodeidah, as a prelude to the recapture of Sanaa itself.

 

This new strategy is now well under way. On December 6th – four days after Saleh switched sides, and one day after the new UAE-Saudi alliance was announced – the invaders’ Yemeni assets mounteda major push…to purge Al Houthis from major coastal posts on the Red Sea including the strategic city of Hodeida.” The Emiratis had been advocating an attack on Hodeidah for at least a year, but, according to the Emirati newspaper The National, President Obama had vetoed it in 2016, whilst in March 2017, the Saudis got cold feet due to fears that the plan was “an indication of [the Emirates’] attempt to carve out strategic footholds in Yemen”. Now, it seems, it is finally under way.

 

The following day, the red sea town of Khokha, in Hodeidah province, was captured by Emirati forces and their Yemeni assets, backed by Saudi airstrikes. Gulf News reported that “Colonel Abdu Basit Al Baher, the deputy spokesperson of the Military Council in Taiz, told Gulf News that the liberation of Khokha would enable government forces and the Saudi-led coalition to circle Hodeida from land and sea”. The day after that, Houthi positions in Al Boqaa, between Khokha and Hodeidah, were taken by Emirati-backed forces.

 

The following Sunday, 10th December, Boris Johnson met with the Emirati crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, where he “underlined the depth of strategic relations between the two countries and his country’s keenness on enhancing bilateral cooperation”, before attending another “Quartet committee” meeting with his Emirati and Saudi counterparts and the US acting secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. The four of them “agreed to hold their meetings periodically, with the next meeting scheduled for the first quarter of 2018.”

 

This intensive activity in the space of just two weeks, bookended by high-level meetings of the ‘quartet’ on either side, is clearly coordinated. But what it heralds is truly horrifying. Presenting themselves as shocked bystanders to the growing famine in Yemen, the US and UK are in fact prime movers in a new strategy that will massively escalate it.

 

When an attack on Hodeidah was being contemplated back in March 2017, aid agencies and security analysts alike were crystal clear about its impact. A press release from Oxfam read: “Reacting to concern that Hodeidah port in Yemen is about to be attacked by the Saudi-led coalition, international aid agency Oxfam warns that this is likely to be the final straw that pushes the country into near certain famine…Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB Chief Executive said: “If this attack goes ahead, a country that is already on the brink of famine will be starved further as yet another food route is destroyed…An estimated 70 percent of Yemen’s food comes into Hodeidah port. If it is attacked, this will be a deliberate act that will disrupt vital supplies – the Saudi-led coalition will not only breach International Humanitarian Law, they will be complicit in near certain famine.” The point was reiterated by the UN’s World Food Programme, whilst the UN International Organisation for Migration warned that 400,000 people would be displaced were Hodeidah to be attacked.

 

“The potential humanitarian impact of a battle at Hodeidah feels unthinkable,” Suze Vanmeegen, protection and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN recently. “We are already using words like ‘catastrophic’ and ‘horrendous’ to describe the crisis in Yemen, but any attack on Hodeidah has the potential to blast an already alarming crisis into a complete horror show – and I’m not using hyperbole.”

 

In the Independent, Peter Salisbury  noted that it is by no means certain that taking Hodeidah will be easy” as the (then) “Houthi-Saleh alliance is well aware of the plan” and preparing accordingly. He added that “While the Saudi-led coalition claims that taking the port would help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the medium term, aid agencies fret that the short-term effect of cutting off access to a major port could be a killing blow to some of Yemen’s starving millions.” The Jamestown foundation were even more wary, writing that the city’s capture would be impossible without major US involvement and that  “Even with U.S. assistance, the invasion will be costly and ineffective. The terrain to the east of Hodeidah is comprised of some of the most forbidding mountainous terrain in the world. The mountains, caves, and deep canyons are ideal for guerrilla warfare that would wear down even the finest and best disciplined military.” Yet the US’s current efforts to argue that Houthis are being supplied with Iranian missiles via Hodeidah may well be aimed at legitimising just such direct US involvement in an attack on the port. After all, continues Jamestown, “the Saudi effort in Yemen hinges on the invasion of Hodeidah. The reasoning behind the invasion is that without Hodeidah and its port — where supplies trickle through — the Houthis and their allies, along with millions of civilians, can be starved into submission.”

 

This, then – the ramping up of the ‘weapon of starvation’ – is the ultimate end of this new phase in the war. Basic humanity demands it be vigorously opposed.

An edited version of this article was originally published by Middle East Eye

 

Yemen: The UK-US-Saudi war enters a new genocidal phase

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Two-and-a-half years of a lethal blockade and non-stop bombardment have produced almost nothing in the way of territorial gains in the West’s Saudi-executed war against the Yemeni nation. The latest tightening of the blockade is an obscene and desperate attempt to postpone its inevitable defeat.

 

The war against Yemen – sponsored by the West and executed by their ever-loyal Saudi fall guys – is going badly. Very badly.

When the Saudis began their bombardment of the Arab world’s poorest country, named ‘Decisive Storm’, in March 2015, they promised a ‘limited’ mission. In reality, it has proved to be seemingly limitless and completely indecisive. A Harvard study estimates the Saudis are spending $200million per day on this war, driving their military budget up to $87billion, the third highest in the world.  But they remain nowhere near achieving their stated goal of defeating the Houthi-led resistance and recapturing the capital, Sanaa. Indeed, Hadi, the ‘President’ the Saudis are supposedly supporting, is still holed up in Riyadh,apparently unable to set foot in his own country, such is the depth of popular animosity towards him.

Meanwhile, the ‘coalition’ which Saudi Arabia purports to lead is falling apart. Qatar – the world’s richest country in terms of per capita income, who were supposed to bankroll a large chunk of the war – pulled out long ago; whilst the Pakistani parliament – whose allotted role was to provide the ground troops – unanimously vetoed the proposal last year. Meanwhile, in the South, the Emiratis are backing forces hostile to the very President the war purports to be defending. Indeed, Hadi’s own troops are now complaining that the Saudis and Emiratis are actually bombing them. Yes, the ‘legitimate government’ of President Hadi – the one the whole operation is supposedly being fought in support of – is now itselfbeing targeted by the aggressors, with Hadi accusing the Emirati crown prince ofacting like an occupier. Tawakkol Karman, a Nobel peace prize-winning activist, even suggested that “ the Saudi-led air strikes have killed more fighters of the national army than Houthis.” Furthermore, the war has massively expanded Al Qaeda’s base in the country, and provided a new one for ISIS. Whilst this is not an immediate problem for Saudi Arabia in itself – after all, the more sectarian forces come to the fore, the less likely Yemen will be able to unite and pose a threat to Al Saud – but is nevertheless a real potential danger for the future, should those forces decide to turn their experience and weaponry on the kingdom itself. The Saudis seem to be, belatedly, recognising this, recently branding as ‘Al Qaeda terrorists’ one of the biggest Salafi groups in the country, the Abu Abbas brigade – after years of arming its men.

Indeed, the war is going so badly that even the Saudis themselves are now privately saying they want out. Leaked emails last August revealed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who as defence minister was responsible for initiating the war in March 2015 – is keen to end the war. Yet still the war continues. London-based Yemeni Safa al-Shami told me that “The Saudis are in trouble; they don’t want [the war] to continue anymore. But they are being told ‘you have to finish the mission to the end’.” By this analysis, far from ‘turning a blind eye’ to a ‘Saudi war’, the West are positively demanding that a reluctant Saudi Arabia continue its futile and murderous campaign.

And this campaign, already characterised by a brutally callous attitude to the Yemeni population, has just reached a new level of terror. Humiliated by the firing of a Houthi missile into Riyadh on November 5th – demonstrating that, despite years of pummelling, the Houthis are now stronger than ever – the Saudis announced that their blockade would henceforth become total, with entry of allgoods to the country – via land, sea or air – completely ended. Medicins san Frontier verified the following week, that all their humanitarian flights into the country had been blocked. The Saudis then announced that some of the minor ports would be reopened, but only those in government-held areas. The country’s biggest port, Hodeidah, on which 80% of the population depend, remains closed, and this week, the Saudis bombed the capital’s airport again, preventing aid delivery.

Even in it’s previous, partial, form, the blockade’s results have been truly sickening. Hodeidah’s capacity has been massively crippled since its four cranes were destroyed by coalition airstrikes in 2015, and the ‘coalition’ has prevented replacements being installed ever since. In addition, ships have been delayed, often for months, or turned back altogether for no explicable reason other than to punish the populations of Houthi-controlled areas. This siege – against a country dependent on imports for over 80% of its food, fuel and medicine – is nothing less than genocidal. Save the Children reported this week that 130 Yemeni children are now dying every day from extreme hunger or disease, with 50,000 killed this year alone. Meanwhile, the cholera epidemic – triggered by a combination of the war’s crippling of water sanitation systems and the Hadi government’s decision to block payments to all waste, sewage and health workers in Houthi-controlled areas – became the biggest in recorded history last month, with almost 900,000 infected by the disease. The previous biggest epidemic, still underway in Haiti, took seven years to reach 800,000 cases. Yemen surpassed that number in just six months.

Yet, with two-thirds of the population – over 18 million people – now dependent on humanitarian aid for their survival, even these shocking figures are set to escalate very quickly. Seven million people are at immediate risk of famine. If this new total ban on humanitarian aid to the country’s biggest air and sea ports is maintained, they will die. These are the depths to which the West is prepared to push Saudi Arabia in its futile drive to permanently destroy the ‘Yemeni threat’.

The UN’s humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, has been very clear. “I have told the [UN Security] Council that unless those measures are lifted … there will be a famine in Yemen. It will not be like the famine that we saw in South Sudan earlier in the year, where tens of thousands of people were affected. It will not be like the famine which cost 250,000 people their lives in Somalia in 2011. It will be the largest famine the world has seen in many decades, with millions of victims.”

Britain and the USA are driving the Saudis to unleash the world’s biggest famine for years against a totally captive population. Yet, as far as Western media is concerned, this is all totally un-newsworthy. The wilful starving to death of 130 children per day for the whole of this year is a footnote, at best, to this week’s rumours about Brexit or Trump’s latest absurd vulgarity. When I met Safa Al-Shami, she asked me, “Where is the media in all of this? How many pictures have we seen from Syria, from Iraq; where is Yemen in all of that? The media should start talking about this!” But she was  also clear that this lack of coverage is no excuse for a lack of action, at least not in Britain. “Look at how the British people marched and demonstrated because Tony Blair declared war against Iraq. The British people need to realise that this war in Yemen is part of the same dirty game. They have to do something. I blame the British people because they are educated and they know. The Americans are ignorant.” The horrors inflicted on Yemen by the British have deep historical precedents – it was 50 years ago this month that British forces finally withdrew from Aden, the Yemeni port they had colonised in 1839. Indeed, the country is embedded enough in the national consciousness to be the subject of a new BBC drama, whitewashing and glorifying the British colonisation of Yemen just as they whitewash the British role there today.

And yet the British still like to think of Boris Johnson as some kind of affable buffoon. The truth is, he and the entire UK cabinet are child murderers on the most monstrous level. They, along with all those parliamentarians who voted to continue this vicious war, must be stopped, held to account and brought to justice.

An edited version of this piece was originally published by RT.

Yemen’s peace talks failed because the aggressors wanted them to fail

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This article was originally published in June 2015 in Middle East Eye.

The Yemen peace talks in Geneva broke down last week before they even got underway – indeed, the delegations never even made it into the same room, let alone reaching an agreement. That this was so came as no great surprise either to observers or participants of the disastrous war in Yemen. But in all the talk of ‘mutual recriminations’ and ‘intransigence on both sides’, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that these talks failed because the aggressors – that is, the Saudi-led and British-US sponsored ‘coalition’ bombing the country – wanted them to fail.

The central fact is that the ceasefire proposed by UN Secretary-general Ban-Ki Moon – a basic condition for peace talks everywhere – was blocked by the Saudis. The Houthis, naturally enough, refused to negotiate whilst the Saudis were still bombing. The Saudis refused to stop bombing until the Houthis withdrew from all the cities they captured during the war. In other words, whilst the Houthis sought a mutual ceasefire, the Saudis demanded nothing less than abject surrender as the precondition for negotiations. Given that the Houthis have suffered very few territorial losses since the Saudis began bombing in March, this was obviously never going to happen.

The Saudis’ Yemeni allies – forces loyal to exiled President Hadi (who came to power in 2012 following an election in which he was the sole candidate) – clearly shared their backers’ bad faith in relation to the talks. As Medhat al-Zahedwrites in Al Ahram Weekly:

“In response to Ki-moon’s appeal for a two-week humanitarian truce on the occasion of the Holy Month of Ramadan, the Yemeni government in exile adopted a far from conciliatory tone. Ramadan was a month for jihad and did not require the fighting to stop, the foreign minister said …Opposition to a truce was stronger still from Ahmed Al-Masiri, the leader of the Southern Resistance forces that are fighting the Houthis and regiments from the Yemeni army loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the ground… He rejected the idea of a humanitarian truce, saying it was “out of the question during Ramadan and after Ramadan”. “Ramadan is a holy month in which jihad is permissible,” he said…The conference got off to a heated start, with the Yemeni delegation brandishing Riyadh-inspired slogans. “We came to speak about implementing the UN Security Council Resolution, not to negotiate,” it said. “The task is to reinstate the government and withdraw the militias.” The rigidity of the Yemeni government and its Saudi backer stems from the fact that they have opposed the negotiations from the outset. They have insisted on the term “consultation” and originally pushed for Riyadh as the venue. “We agreed [to come to Geneva] to please the UN, so that they don’t say we are against peace or that we are stubborn,” Al-Masiri said.”

The anti-Houthi side, in other words, had no intention of either negotiating or accepting a ceasefire themselves, but went to Geneva simply to allow the ongoing war to be spun in such a way that places the blame solely on the Houthis.

In fact, this deliberate scuppering of any chance of a negotiated settlement in favour of continued war and chaos mirrors precisely the start of the Saudi bombing campaign itself. A month after the bombing began, it was revealed that “Operation Decisive Storm” had been initiated just as Yemen’s warring parties were on the verge of signing a power-sharing agreement that could have ended the country’s civil war. As Jamestown Foundation noted: “According to the former UN Special Adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, negotiations between all major stakeholders in Yemen were nearing an interim conclusion on a power sharing agreement when Saudi Arabia and its allies launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 25 (Wall Street Journal, April 26). Despite the Houthis’ push into south Yemen, representatives from the south remained engaged in negotiations. The commencement of aerial strikes by Saudi Arabia and its partners ended the negotiations and led to a dramatic escalation of violence between the Houthis and southern militias, who, with the support of Saudi Arabia, were determined to reverse the gains made in the south by the Houthis and their allies.”

The question, then, is ‘why’? Why would Saudi Arabia gratuitously extend a destabilising war on their own Southern border – and continue to do so even when it had become thoroughly apparent that their ‘Decisive’ Storm was anything but?

The answer is not simply that they want to prevent ‘Shia’ influence in Yemen’s government, as is often claimed – as if it is self-evident that a ‘Sunni’ government would be against a ‘Shia’ one. This analysis is typical of the way in which orientalist Western journalism continues to attempt to ‘naturalise’ and reify religious and ethnic divisions in a way that suggests that sectarian intolerance is somehow in the DNA of non-Europeans. In fact, the ‘Sunni’ Saudi rulers have happily supported a Yemeni ‘Shia’ movement in the past – the forerunners of the Houthis no less – in the 1960s when the Zaydi Shia royalty was under threat from an Egyptian-backed republican movement: a conflict in which the Sunni Saudis and Shia Iran were on the same side. The Saudi involvement in Yemen is not about some kind of age-old sectarian identity – it is about strategy, a specific strategy that is in fact very new, dating back to the middle of the last decade, when the Saudi-Israeli-US-British alliance decided to channel billions of dollars into sectarian death squads that would be unleashed against the growing resistance axis spearheaded by Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. The Houthis, by threatening the regional base of one of the most powerful of these groups – Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula – were a threat to this strategy. The chaos arising from the Saudi intervention, meanwhile, has provided the perfect conditions for its spread.

 

Yemen and Britain’s deep-seated culture of duplicity and lying

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This piece was originally published in August 2017 in Middle East Eye. 

Last Thursday was the last day of the current UK parliamentary session, before its summer recess. This made it the date for a particularly obnoxious new British tradition called ‘take out the trash day’. The UK government is obliged to issue all its public reports before the end of the parliamentary year; but to avoid scrutiny from MPs, the government now regularly withholds any potentially embarrassing reports until the very last day of that session. Then it can release them safe in the knowledge that there will be no time left for MPs to examine them, and no opportunity to question ministers over them.

So having issued very little information over the preceding weeks, once MPs were heading back to their constituencies, the government took the opportunity to releasedozens of reports and ministerial statements detailing everything from cuts to police, to the revolving door between cabinet ministers and private corporations, to the millions in legal fees the government spent attempting to prevent parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit. Buried deep amongst them was a Foreign Office report on the state of human rights in 30 countries deemed to be of ‘priority concern’. What makes the report embarrassing to Britain, however, is that 20 of these countries are major customers of British arms exports; with Saudi Arabia, of course, topping the list. The Saudis, whose mass executions, public lashings and restrictions on women’s rights are all detailed in the report, increased their UK weapons purchases from Britain by 11,000% following the start of their bombing campaign against Yemen in March 2015, and have purchased more than £3.3billion worth since then. Those weapons have played a major role in pushing Yemen to its current catastrophic situation, facing the fastest-growing cholera epidemic since records began, with 7 million people on the verge of famine. No wonder the UK does not want to draw attention to what is being facilitated by its relationship with the Saudis. It is right to be ashamed.

As well as downplaying Saudi atrocities, however, we also learned last Thursday that the UK government has been exaggerating its aid contribution to Yemen. In the most recent Commons debate on Yemen on 5th July, International Development minister Rory Stewart gave a figure he had inflated by 30%; his department used ‘take out the trash day’ to issue a correction to that figure, presumably expecting that no one would notice. In that, they seem to have been correct; I have been unable to find a single press report mentioning it. But perhaps lying to parliament about Yemen no longer qualifies as news – after all, it seems to have become standard practice for ministers.

By early 2016, with atrocities mounting in Yemen – such as airstrikes against three Medicins Sans Frontiers hospitals in as many months – some MPs began challenging the government’s policy, concerned in particular that British weapons were being used to carry out war crimes. Every time he was questioned on the issue, however, then-UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond insisted, in the face of copious evidence, that “we have assessed there has not been a breach of international humanitarian law by the coalition”. This claim, or variations of it, was repeated by ministers to parliament six times. But then, on ‘take out the trash day’ 2016, the Foreign Office effectively admitted that it had been a lie.  What Hammond should have said, said the FCO in the six ‘corrections’ they issued, was that “we have not assessed that there has been a breach of international humanitarian law by the coalition”. And that was because such an assessment – an assessment the government had been claiming all year to have carried out and which exonerated the Saudis – had never been made.

Britain is up to its neck in Yemen: it is the major supplier of the bombs dropped on Yemen, and of the jets used to drop them; it provides diplomatic cover to the Saudis (such as repeatedly blocking an independent investigation into Saudi war crimes); it supports the starvation blockade of the country; it provides training and logistical assistance to the Saudi armed forces; and it has 125 soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia, including six officers based in the Saudi command and control HQ‘assisting with target selection’. Indeed, Britain may well have officers embedded in the Saudi army itself, given 2015’s ‘take out the trash day’ admission that Britain has 177 military personnel embedded within the armed forces of several other, undisclosed, countries. Yet ministers continue to lie to parliament that Britain is ‘not a party’ to the war in Yemen. As Mark Curtis has noted, this line was even repeated on the very day the British government disclosed that the Saudis used five different types of British bombs and missiles on Yemen.

The brazenness of the UK’s lies about its role in Yemen is underpinned by a tight secrecy which it hopes will prevent most of its duplicity ever being discovered.

Britain’s relations with Saudi Arabia have always been kept as obscure as possible, with the government regularly suppressing its own investigations and reports into the matter; the current refusal to release a Home Office report on terrorism funding lest it embarrass the Saudi and British governments has many precedents. In 2006, Tony Blair personally shut down the Serious Fraud Office investigation into a billion-pound bribery case involving British Aerospace and a Saudi prince, on the grounds it could endanger ‘national security’. And in 2014 Theresa May signed a secret ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayaf which the UK has consistently refused to make public. This was just months before the British-Saudi war on Yemen was unleashed.

Secrecy surrounds every aspect of Britain’s Yemen operation. It was the Saudi foreign minister, not the UK, who admitted to the stationing of British officers in his country’s command and control centre. The government has refused to provide details of its export licences to Saudi Arabia. And the government informed neither public nor parliament of its decision to send the Royal Navy’s most advanced warship, HMS Daring, to the coast of Yemen last November, essentially to help shore up the blockade.

When the truth does come out, government ministers see it as their job to try to rubbish it; Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood, for example, responded to a UN report documenting more than 100 coalition airstrikes which violated international law by claiming they had been either “mistakes” by the Saudis or, astoundingly, that they had been “fabricated” by the “media-savvy” Houthis.

But, as Ian Cobain has thoroughly documented in “The History Thieves: Secrets, lies and the shaping of a modern nation”, this culture of secrecy and deception is deeply-rooted in British political life – and nowhere more to than the Foreign Office.

In 2001, a group of elderly Kenyans began the process of taking the British government to court over their treatment. All of them alleged that they had been tortured by the British during the Mau-Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Writes Ian Cobain, “If the old people were telling the truth, hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu, the country’s largest ethnic group, had been incarcerated by the colonial government, abused, tortured, and not infrequently raped… [Jailers] had beaten inmates to death, and even burned men alive”. Yet the official documentation in Kenya seemed to be almost entirely lacking in anything covering the treatment of prisoners – and when the judge in the trial ordered the Foreign Office to disclose all relevants, they claimed they had nothing other than what was already held in the Kenyan archives. This was strange, as the colonial authorities had been meticulous record-keepers. Someone, it seemed, was not telling the truth.

Stories had long circulated of huge wooden crates being removed from the Kenyan archives to be flown to Gatwick nine days before independence. And then, during the trial, Oxford historian David Anderson introduced a 40-year old Foreign Office minute which suggested the Foreign Office were withholding around 1500 files on Kenyan which had never been disclosed. That was when the Foreign Office came clean. They had lied about not holding any relevant files; in fact, they finally admitted, they were indeed holding 1500 files on the last days of British rule in Kenya. Once these were handed over, they immediately corroborated all the Kenyans’ allegations; as Cobain wrote, the files “detailed the way in which suspected insurgents had been beaten to death, burned alive, raped, castrated – like two of the High Court claimants – and kept in manacles for years. Even children had been killed.” The government settled the case and paid £20million compensation to 5,228 claimants.

The case had led to the discovery of an epic cover-up. For it soon emerged that it was not only Kenya from where documents had been secretly removed. Following a instruction issued by the British colonial secretary Iain Macleod on 3rd May 1961, a massive operation of file-destroying and removal had been initiated across the entire British Empire. All files that could potentially embarrass the British government were ordered to be destroyed or removed to London – and almost 9000 such files, the government admitted in 2011, from 37 former colonies, were still being secretly held in Hanslope Park, 40 miles North of London. The government said it would clear the files for declassification and transfer to the national archives, and appointed Cambridge historian Tony Badger to oversee the process. He established that the true number of secret files was in fact more than 20,000. Yet even these ‘purged’ files had clearly themselves been purged. The Yemen files were particularly thin on the ground: Aden, which had seen a four-year long rebellion repressed with vicious brutality immediately prior to independence, had just five boxes. And when these were opened, writes Cobain, “it was found that half the files inside were personnel records of law ranking officials, while most of the remaining papers concerned agriculture”. This was not surprising, given what we now know from British civil servants in Aden, who have described what one called an “orgy of burning”. The files sent to London were, he wrote, “severely weeded”, such that “details of tribal affrays, secret counter-insurgency operations funded out of the coded-worded money bags…and many examples of less sensitive ‘keeni meeni’ are all gone, and are not duplicated elsewhere”. Keeni Meeni is the Swahili term for the ‘slithering of a snake’. It is an apt description for this entire episode of empire white-washing, indeed, for the whole operation of British imperialism, both then and now.
In truth, British foreign policy has always been a matter decided behind closed doors, with public and parliament informed as little as possible, and consulted even less. Cobain explains how Britain’s eleven-year war in Oman, begun in 1965, was not even publicly admitted until 1972, with ministers lying about the situation to parliament almost compulsively, and journalists barred from entering the country at all. He also notes how Britain’s unique system of media self-censorship – enforced by the infamous D notice committee – which covers almost all aspects of war reporting, today results in an estimated 80-90% of all relevant news reports being submitted to the committee before publication. This is an amazing level of government control of information about its wars, covert or otherwise. Moreover, we now know that the 20,000 secret files from ‘Operation Legacy’ were but the tip of the iceberg: the Foreign Office is, it has recently been discovered, actually holding at least 170,000, and possibly up to 1.2 million secret files, dating back to 1662 and taking up 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving. The Foreign Office has clearly never considered itself to be bound by the various Public Records Acts which supposedly make official documents accessible to all. In 1971, former Cabinet minister Richard Crossman claimed that “secretiveness is the real English disease and in particular the chronic ailment of British government” – and that it “ensures that the House of Commons is the worst informed legislature in the world”. Today’s war in Yemen shows he remains dismally right.