Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Britain's Support for Saudi War Effort in Yemen

Amnesty International has condemned the “appalling disregard” for civilian lives by the Saudi-led coalition in a report into 13 air strikes in north-eastern Saada in Yemen during the summer of 2015 in which 100 civilians were killed. The document made it clear that civilian were targeted in what are called war crimes.

“In at least four of the airstrikes investigated … homes attacked were struck more than once, suggesting that they had been the intended targets despite no evidence they were being used for military purposes”. Amnesty demanded that Britain should halt the supply of weapons to the Saudi Arabia.

Yet it is unlikely David Cameron's government is going to stop exporting arms and giving intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia. The reason is geopolitics; Iranian influence through the Houthi militias threatens to potentially extend Tehran's control over the strategic chokepoint of the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

The sea passage is considered a vital one between the Mediterranean US Navy Fifth Fleet and the Sixth Fleet that contains aircraft carriers that protect US interests and can be deployed in launching air strikes and cruise missiles against both Al Qaida in Somalia and Yemen as well as against ISIS. As Norman Schwarzkopf put it,
“The Red Sea, with the Suez Canal in the north and the Bab el-Mandeb in the south, is one of the most vital sea lines of communication and a critical shipping link between our Pacific and European allies … Since a significant part of US CENTCOM’s forces would deploy by sea, ensuring these waterways remain open to free world shipping must be a key objective.”
The US and Britain fear that either Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Houthis could gain control of this area to menace or stop the flow of oil via tankers from the Persian Gulf around the Horn of Africa through to the Red Sea, the SUMED pipeline and the Suez Canal onwards towards the West.

The failure to decisively overthrow Assad in Syria, because it has scuppered the possibility of a Qatar-Turkey pipeline, means that it is feared Iran would be in the position not only of being able to control the flow of oil via the Straits of Hormuz, another major global chokepoint, but also the second just off south Western Yemen.

The question about the use of Western made aircraft and bombs to kill civilians through use of airpower is considered less significant than the strategic imperative of shoring up Saudi control in the region, even though it is apparent that air strikes to tilt the balance away from the Houthis has ended up benefitting Sunni jihadists.

For Britain's support for the Saudi military intervention against the Houthi rebels in Yemen has only helped to make a terrible civil war and regional proxy conflict worse. Even US generals are on record making explicitly clear they thought the Saudi ground troop invasion in August 2015 really was a 'bad idea'.

The entrance of Saudi troops followed the commencing of air strikes in March 2015 that both aim at restoring Hadi to power after he fled in the face of the Houthi insurgency. Hadi was a Saudi client installed to prevent the 2011 'Arab Spring' uprising leading to a democracy and so helped polarise Yemen along sectarian lines.

The collapse of the Yemeni state and Saleh's government, as well as the exclusion of the Houthis, ensured Saudi Arabia and Iran would exploit the vacuum of power to advance their rival geopolitical interests. So ISIS has used suicide attacks and bombings to try to widen and worsen sectarian divisions.

The ISIS suicide attacks on October 6th 2015 , both on the rival Yemeni government of Hadi in Aden and a Houthi Mosque in Sanaa, were intended as part of ratcheting up a strategy of tension. By posing as the real champions of a Sunni Islamic State in the jihad against Shia apostates, ISIS seeks to outdo Saudi zeal in this direction.

By drawing out the Saudi backed government against it and taking on the Houthis, ISIS could take advantage of the chaos to engage two enemies simultaneously who are as much concerned to destroy the other as they are ISIS. This, of course, means it has an opportunity to expand and recruit ready for attacking Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-Yemen War is not the forgotten war; it is the inconvenient war that undermines the Western Powers claim to have any moral high ground in Syria. As Putin is condemned for supporting the 'butcher Assad', the Saudis go forth and slaughter civilians in air strikes with planes or missiles probably supplied by Britain and the US.

The two wars in Syria and Yemen are interconnected on the geopolitical chessboard. Britain objects to Russia striking Sunni jihadists backed by Qatar and the Saudis not because it is the 'wrong strategy' but because it sets back and shows up the absurdity of their own failed efforts to align with the Gulf states in Syria.

While Iran is tacitly supported and embraced as a partner in rolling back ISIS and Sunni jihadists in Iraq, it is to be balanced by support for the Gulf states in Syria and Yemen. Assad's administration is a big obstacle for them as he blocks the way for a gas pipeline between the Persian Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean.

Another problem for Britain is that as Saudi oil revenues plummet due to depressed global oil prices, the costs of war in Yemen and cuts in expenditure, at a time of rising internal discontent, could well destabilise the country. If that happens the question is if Britain and the US would be drawn in militarily.

Given that the Bab al-Mandab Strait was wrested from the Houthis on October 1 2015 by Saudi and UAE troops taking Perim Island, in conjunction with Saudi and Egyptian warships, it remains to be seen whether the US and Britain would put pressure on the Gulf states and Iran to end their proxy war.

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