By Steve Bell
Since his inauguration, President Biden’s administration has taken a number of steps towards ending the war on Yemen. Initially he announced a review of Trump’s order to designate AnsarAllah (“Houthis”) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). Implementation was to be delayed a month, then on 6th February the administration formally notified Congress that it will remove AnsarAllah from the Government List of FTOs.
On January 27th a freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was imposed. On February 4th Biden appointed Timothy Lenderking as US Special Envoy to Yemen. Biden said “We’re also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen. I’ve asked my Middle East team to ensure our support for the United Nations-led initiative to impose a ceasefire, open humanitarian channels and restore long dormant peace talks… we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales”. On Friday 5th February the Pentagon confirmed that intelligence sharing had ceased with the Saudi/UAE Coalition for operations in Yemen.
Some of these measures are qualified and conditional – the arms ban is temporary, and Saudi “defensive” actions are considered legitimate. But the Coalition’s war, supplied and supported by the US, British, Canadian and French governments, is to be wound down.
Just before its seventh year commences, the imperialist intervention in Yemen is pronounced a failure. Though the war’s actual end may be some way off, or possibly even averted, nothing can hide its’ failure.
The symptoms of failure
Many of the symptoms of this failure are described in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report, 25th January 2021, from the Panel of Experts on Yemen (1). The Panel works to previous UNSC resolutions, particularly Resolution 2216 (2).
This Resolution is absurdly unbalanced against AnsarAllah, and is obviously outdated. AnsarAllah are currently providing governance for around eighty per cent of the population after six years of a foreign siege and war. They will not, as is suggested in Resolution 2216, simply withdraw and allow ex-President Hadi to take control of the country. He has not even been able to unify a government within the part of the country that his supporters control. Presumably, any new peace process must include a new UNSC resolution.
However, the degree of the failure of the intervention is evident in the Panel’s report when compared to the existing terms of Resolution 2216. The broadest terms of that resolution are to restore Hadi’s government and restart a political transition based on the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative. That envisaged “a comprehensive National Dialogue conference, including drafting a new constitution, electoral reform, the holding of a referendum on the draft constitution and timely general elections, to avoid further deterioration of the humanitarian and security situation in Yemen”(3). Hadi’s Presidency had a limited mandate, until 2014, to achieve this. His failure was to be made good by the launch of the Coalition’s siege and war in March 2015. Yet, after the Yemeni people have endured almost unimaginable hardship, the Panel’s report demonstrates that the Hadi ‘government’ is a heavily subsidised, corrupt fiction.
The Panel states, “The lack of a coherent strategy among anti-Houthi forces, demonstrated by in-fighting within them, and disagreements between the regional backers has served to strengthen the Houthis” (page 2). This “in-fighting” is not factional squabbles within ministerial meetings. It involves ground forces using heavy weaponry, and occasional use of air strikes.
Despite considerable diplomatic efforts by the Saudi regime, there is no sign of these clashes lessening. The two major “regional backers”, the UAE and Saudis are arming and supporting opposite sides in this “in-fighting”. According to the Panel, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council are now in breach of Resolution 2216. Their war aims are secession, or systematic autonomy from central government, which directly conflicts with the restoration of the Hadi ‘goverenment’.
Currently, the “anti-Houthi” forces control the larger geographic area but it contains only around twenty per cent of the population. The Panel gives a withering overview of this governance: “In territory controlled by the Government of Yemen, there is a risk of the disintegration of power into a patchwork of competing factions, as observed in Ta’izz. There is opacity in the relationship between non-State armed groups and the Government of Yemen, as demonstrated by the illegal recruitment of fighters… Confrontation in Shabwah between the Government of Yemen, the Southern Transitional Council and affiliated forces continues to pose a threat to stability” (page 2). A Coalition at war with itself is supposed to bring stability to Yemen!
One of the reasons that the AnsarAllah takeover in 2014 of the capital, Sana’a, received popular support was because of its anti-corruption drive. AnsarAllah placed personnel to oversee state functioning and reduce corruption levels. But this corruption has continued, despite the war, in areas controlled by the Coalition forces.
On striking example is given on the issue of arms smuggling. There is an arms embargo on Ansarallah, so they rely on smuggling. There is no embargo on the Coalition, who have received huge supplies from their backers in the US, Britain, France, Canada, Italy, etc. The Panel states, “The lack of capacity of the Yemen Coast Guard and prevailing corruption in areas held by the Government of Yemen are contributing factors that allow smuggling to flourish despite a number of high profile seizures” (page 3).
It might be thought that things cannot be much worse than Hadi’s forces benefitting from smuggling arms to their AnsarAllah opponents. But things can be much worse, Hadi’s forces are benefitting from the starvation of the population. The Panel refer to the deposit of $2billion made by the Saudis into the Central Bank in Aden to provide liquidity for traders bringing in essential goods. The Panel states, “The Government of Yemen is, in some cases, engaging in money-laundering and corruption practices that adversely affect access to adequate food supplies for Yemenis, in violation of the right to food. The Government of Yemen implemented a scheme to divert funds from the Saudi deposit, in which $423 million of public money was illegally transfered to traders” (page 3).
Nor do Hadi’s forces have redeeming features on issues of human rights, political liberties or freedom of expression. Thus we read: “All parties continue to commit egregious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians, enforced disappearances and torture” (page 3). And on the same page: “The Panel documented an alarming pattern of repression of journalists and human rights defenders by the Government of Yemen, the Southern Transitional Council and the Houthis, comprising a blatant violation of the freedom of expression and impeding their capacity to identify and report on violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, which can contribute to the protection of civilians.”
If the legitimacy of the war was based on the credibility of the Hadi “government”, then the Panel has placed the stamp of exhaustion on that exercise.
The cause of failure in Yemen
As has been seen, the Panel is also scathing about AnsarAllah. Certainly all instances of breaches in human rights, international humanitarian law and war crimes should be investigated and condemned. No exceptions should be made, particularly if the party is campaigning for a just solution to Yemen’s catastrophe.
The brutalising effects of war inevitably results in horrific crimes by all sides. The morale of a side fighting for liberating ends, be that against national or social oppression, foreign occupation, etc, will usually severely reduce such incidents. But it will not eradicate them entirely. Only the cessation of organised murder can allow the restoration of a social equilibrium where the integrity and safety of the population is secured.
The war on Yemen is inexplicable if it is simply viewed as a proxy war by Iran. There is no serious Iranian presence inside Yemen, and neither the US State Department nor the Panel suggest this. Nor has anyone demonstrated that AnsarAllah is receiving billion of dollars of armaments from Iran, as the Coalition is from the US, Britain and others. Nor has anyone demonstrated logistical and political support from Iran that is comparable to that provided by the Coalition’s allies.
It has to be registered that the failure of the war has domestic roots. The resistance to the Coalition has been led from within Yemeni society, and in response to what is perceived as an external intervention in Yemen’s affairs. The Saudi and UAE war efforts have been unsuccessful because they are perceived as invaders and occupiers who are destroying Yemen.
This has been expressed by the involvement of the majority of the formerly unified armed forces of Yemen alongside the popular committees and militias of AnsarAllah. The invaders have been held at bay by Yemenis, not Iranians.
Less obviously, it has also been expressed by regular incidents of demonstrations and protests across the provinces of south Yemen where the Coalition forces prevail. These are not reported by pro-Coalition media, and as affirmed in the Panel report, take place in a situation repressive to independent activity by civil society.
Taken together, the organised military resistance of the nascent state led by AnsarAllah, and the civil resistance in the occupied south, account for the military impasse. The better armed and equipped Coalition has been fought to a standstill.
The nascent state led by AnsarAllah
The Panel recognises the existence of this entity. “Over the past five years the Houthis have successfully expanded their territorial and economic footprint in Yemen to the point where they now control a significant portion of the country’s economy. With close to 80% of the Yemeni population living in areas under their control, the Houthis are responsible for the delivery of public services that meet the needs of the citizens, fair and just allocation of revenue, and effective resource mobilisation and allocation – all necessary precursors for a well-performing Public Fund Management (PFM) system” (page 189).
The National Salvation Government in Sana’a, and the state apparatus built by AnsarAllah and its allies, have been built under an ongoing siege, war and foreign occupation. It is not credible to expect the same transparency, accountability and routine efficiency that longer established states demonstrate. That said, it is notable that the evidence of corruption in the Panel’s report is not sustained.
The state budget has apparently “several violations” which are “suspicious in nature”. The “violations” are in conflict with laws which refer to the pre-conflict Republic – inevitably in times of war different methods apply. There are concerns of irregularities that “could be attributed to corruption and mismanagement of resources” (page 190), yet there is no definite demonstration of such practices.
The Panel refers to the diversion of resources from “government coffers” (page 196) – although it is unclear whether this refers to “Hadi’s government” or the National Salvation Government. If the former, then would be natural in the war, if the latter then it could be the Panel is simply refusing to recognise the legitimacy of parts of the nascent state. It is no clearer when it adds, “the Houthis have diverted this amount to fund their operations, and to enrich themselves”. Those “operations” are the actions of the nascent state, very different from personal enrichment, of which no evidence is given.
Throughout there is the assumption of corruption. For example, the Panel is unable to effectively audit the “General Authority on Zakat” (charitable donations) or the authority for humanitarian affairs (SCMCHA) yet we read that the Panel “believe” that the authorities are “potentially diverting a portion of the aid it receives or manages” (page 196). Probably best to withold judgement on people operating under conditions of war, siege, generalised hunger, and insecurity until you have evidence.
Of course, there may be problems of corruption. But these need to be addressed by Yemenis, not by speculation from outside. However one estimates the achievements or failures of the revolutionary state, it has to be recognised as an essential part of an inclusive peace process of the Yemeni people.
The British government endorses failure
If there is one certainty in all this, it is that the Conservative government will be the last to recognise the collapse of a war it enthusiastically endorsed. Despite the steps taken by the Biden administration, the British government, for the moment, is determined to assist the war’s military prosecution to the bitterest of ends.
On Monday 8th February, James Cleverly, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa gave a statement on government policy on Yemen. He made no reference to the Panel report. David Mundell, Conservative MP, drew his attention to the report and suggersted there were “procedural irregularities” in the report’s drafting. The Minister said it was inappropriate to comment until he had seen Mundell’s “points”. He omitted to say that two weeks after the report’s publication he had failed to find anything that helped his government.
Despite the pleas of MPs from the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Scottish National parties, the Minister insisted that it would be wrong to pause arms sales to the Coalition. Obviously, he disagreed with Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, as Lisa Nandy stated “We cannot be both peacemaker and arms dealer in this conflict”. He said that “the government takes its own arms exports responsibilities very seriously”, which must offset their lethality.
Of course, the Minister made much of Iran’s support for AnsarAllah – and thus Iran’s breach of Resolution 2216, through arms exports. Iranian arms lack the peaceful character of British-made munitions.
Equally predictable was the Minister’s lauding of the aid extended to Yemen by the British government, all of £1 billion since 2015. He did not offer any figure for the destruction created by £5.3 billion arms licences granted for arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Nor did he explain that this “aid” does not represent development, merely addressing the immediate effects of the social catastrophe that his government has helped to create.
The Minister spoke very consistently about Saudi Arabia’s need to defend itself. He failed to mention how the siege, that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have enforced for six years upon the Yemeni people, defends Saudi Arabia. Nor did he suggest that the humanitarian effort would be aided once the Coalition lifted that siege.
So, no sign that the British government will use its influence to end the Coalition’s pursuit of a military solution. The responsibility then returns to the anti-war movement, inside and outside Parliament, to organise against a government in denial of an absolute failure. The Stop the War Coalition, CND, CAAT and others are pressing for MPs to hold this government to account. The Yemeni people need us all to be part of that pressure.
1. UNSC – document S/2021/79.
2. UNSC – document S/RES/2216 (2015).
3. Ibid, page 2.