Notes from the front – of the week 1/4/2015

Yemen: US client kicks off another Middle East war

Yemen has become the latest victim of imperialist inspired chaos in the Middle East, as Saudi air strikes rain down and Islamic State linked militants are infiltrated into the country, in a US-backed attempt to restore ousted President Al-Hadi.

Al-Hadi was ousted on 20 January by the Houthi and their allies, who represent a majority of Yemenis. The Houthi are followers of a particular strand of Shia Islam, but they lead a domestic alliance that includes Sunni and other Shia Muslims and are backed by the previous President Saleh and army units loyal to him.

This Houthi coalition, supported by large parts of the regular army, took control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a last September, over-running the Presidential palace and key government buildings. They objected to what they say is a Saudi-US puppet regime that was introducing Salafist fundamentalist Islam into what has traditionally been a more culturally open and inclusive society.

The Houthi coalition wrung an agreement from Al-Hadi to establish a Yemeni national unity government. But Al-Hadi reneged on this pledge, encouraged by Saudi Arabia and the US, and was planning with them how to seize back the government.

In response Al-Hadi was overthrown on 20 January and the Houthi formed a transitional government. The Houthi-Saleh forces advanced rapidly across the country – often without opposition and with the support of local regular brigades.

The US and Saudi Arabia are attempting to whip up sectarianism to justify their war on Yemen. They claim the Houthi are anti-Sunni sectarians, and that their rapid advance is due to the backing of Iran. While Iran did extend support to the Houthi in the past, including arming them, its involvement in the events of the last year has been minimal. It has called for an end to hostilities and negotiations.

Nonetheless, using these excuses, on 25 March Saudi Arabia – backed by the US – launched air strikes on Yemen with the aim of restoring the government of former President Al-Hadi, who declared he was forming a government-in-exile. Saudi Arabia sees Yemen as a subordinate province where an ‘independent’ regime is only permissible if it is subordinated to Saudi interests.

Chillingly for the future stability of Yemen, Islamic State (IS) militants have been assisted into Yemen to bolster the fight against the transitional government. IS claimed responsibility for two suicide attacks on Shia Mosques in Sana’a on 20 March killing 137 – the worst such attack ever in Yemen.

In coordinated moves the US, France, Turkey, and their Western European allies all closed their embassies and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates all relocated theirs from Sana’a to Aden.

The US withdrew its military personnel from its air base at Al Anad air base, hours before it was overrun by the Houthi.

Yemen is crucial to the US as it controls Bab Al-Mandeb – a strategic maritime chokepoint connecting the Persian Gulf via the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea. It is as important as the Suez Canal for trade between Africa, Asia, and Europe. It also provides Israel with access to the Indian Ocean and allows its submarines to enter the Persian Gulf to threaten Iran.

The US has been involved in all the key decisions about the Saudi offensive. US military planners and US surveillance flight intelligence inform the choice of targets for the air strikes.

While the US has so far stayed in the background offering logistical and intelligence support, even this adds strain to US military budgets, which have been cut by more than one per cent of GDP since 2010 to aid the US economic recovery. The US is determined to avoid large-scale involvement in a new land war. It has to rely on proxies to do the ground fighting across the Middle East.

Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Sudan, Turkey and the five Gulf States also support the Saudi attacks.

While the targets of the Saudi strikes are Yemen’s defence systems, air force and international airport, civilians have also been hit, targets including a refugee camp killing many people.

The Saudi air force has taken control of Yemeni airspace, but an air campaign alone cannot defeat the Houthis, who are still advancing. That would require ground forces and an invasion is under discussion. However, the Saudis themselves are not up to a long battle and fear the destabilising effect if Saudi troops began to be killed in Yemen. This is why discussions are focusing on assembling a large coalition of states to contribute troops. The Arab League on 29 March called for the creation of a joint military force to ‘counter political instability’ across the Middle East.

However Egypt – which is being urged to participate – has had bad experiences in Yemen. Egypt suffered huge losses when it intervened in a Yemeni civil war in the 1960s. In an echo of Vietnam, Egypt was eventually forced into a humiliating withdrawal when it had lost 40 per cent of the 70,000 troops it deployed.

It looks like another long and destructive war in the Middle East should be anticipated.

In Britain the Stop the War Coalition organised at protest outside the Saudi Embassy on 29 March, where Yemenis living in Britain and supporters peace called for an end to the air strikes.

Attempt to bind Syriza completely

There are widespread reports that the international institutions have rejected Syriza’s latest proposals. These are the ‘reforms’ aimed at raising new revenues. Without agreement on the proposals, both the Eurogroup of finance ministers and the European Central Bank are insisting that no payments can made.

The deterioration in government finances has become dire. €1.7bn – of a total outstanding bail-out payment of €7.2bn – is due, and is needed for basic government payments including public sector pay.

The Syriza government has made concessions in order to unlock the funds, including extending the VAT base and acceptance of the previous government’s widely despised property tax.

But it did not include two points the Eurogroup and ECB are insisting on, cuts to state pension entitlements and ‘labour market reforms’. These amount to fundamental labour market deregulation and increased exploitation.

Syriza’s leaders have strongly opposed the prevailing neo-liberal, austerity ideology, which underpins these attacks, and has said it will not implement these measures.

The international institutions are intent on utterly binding Syriza, akin to laying siege to the anti-austerity government in Athens. The aim is to completely crush Syriza in a political sense, to allow it no room for manoeuvre and to defeat it utterly.

The goal is to defeat the entire anti-austerity movement at a political level, not just in Greece but across Europe.

It should be clear that every anti-austerity militant in Europe and beyond has an interest in defending Syriza, and the main demand continues to be to drop the debt.

Scapegoating migrants is wrong and damages Labour support

The Labour Party decision to produce a campaign mug championing its ‘Controls on immigration’ pledge has prompted widespread revulsion.

It is not just that scape-goating is reactionary and merchandising that agenda is reprehensible, but it raises the question: why in this particular General Election battle against the Tories is Labour choosing to make immigration an issue?

The Tories are not campaigning on immigration and have no immigration pledge at all. They are keeping silent on it, as their polling says it just aids UKIP.

Labour is therefore the only main party focusing on an anti-immigration agenda, including it as one of its five key pledges.

Even UKIP itself decided not to include immigration on their latest pledge card – although it is still obviously central to their agenda.

So Labour is largely on its own in pursuing this.

There are big and evident electoral risks to this strategy. Firstly, the party is reliant on ethnic minority voters who disproportionately support Labour but also who most clearly understand that the whole ‘immigration’ debate is a cover for race. Secondly, such pandering to bigotry deters liberal-minded voters who Labour needs to win from the Lib Dems and prevent shifting to the Greens.

Since 2010 Labour has moved its framework on immigration and racism so sharply to the right that it gives credence to UKIP. When the Labour leadership take up UKIP it is not their racism that Labour challenges but their support for Tory policies. The Party’s 2013 Political Broadcast and Sadiq Khan’s letter to UKIP voters apologising for Labour’s previous (more progressive) views are just some initiatives taken to promote this reactionary line.

Diane Abbott captured the mood of many Labour Party members by tweeting ‘This shameful mug is an embarrassment’.

Whoever wins the election, a powerful anti-racist movement will be needed to fight back against this reactionary offensive.

Stop Farage

South Thanet is a crucial battleground for 7 May as it is where UKIP leader Nigel Farage is standing.

It is one of the most well-polled constituencies in the country, with polls at different points reporting Labour, Tories and UKIP in the lead.

Labour held the seat from 1997 to 2010 and then it went Tory. Since UKIP entered the fight it has become a three-way marginal. The 25 February Survation poll placed Labour second to UKIP.

Nationally YouGov polls report UKIP support has fallen three per cent this past three months to around 13 per cent. Over the remaining five weeks it may get further squeezed. Defeating Farage would be a huge blow to the UKIP project.

Anti-racists who can should head out to South Thanet to help stop Farage from winning. A Labour victory there would inflict a highly publicised blow against the politics of racism. Labour’s campaign can be found here. From London South Thanet is just over an hour away by train.