The war in Yemen is far away. But it is never far from significance. A British ally, Saudi Arabia, is leading an Arab coalition engaged in intervening in the country. This intervention is primarily directed against Houthi rebels, who have received material and moral support from Iran. British special forces are in the country; a supply of British arms plays an undeniable role.
Britain’s involvement in the conflict is clear, and it has served as a political stick with which to beat the government. Critics, notably Labour figures, suggest that Britain is an accomplice to war crimes, and fuels the Saudi war machine, which is assumed to be the root case.
This is a caricature, which obscures more than it illuminates. But the war, and Britain’s role in it, have not been sufficiently examined or debated in this country.
An honest analysis would seek to determine exactly what Britain’s moral responsibility is, and what we can do about Yemen’s humanitarian situation. That situation has become deeply troubling. The usual results of war are in evidence. Civil infrastructure across the country has been damaged and supply routes for medical aid cut off.
Yemen is currently home to a serious cholera epidemic. According to the World Health Organisation, 500,000 Yemenis likely have the disease, and over 2,000 have died from its effects.
This crisis is often attributed solely to Saudi intervention. This is not wholly true, but regardless, it must prompt introspection in British politicians. What more can we do to help Yemen, and not just our allies?
It is clear now that the Saudi-led coalition is doing a bad job. Its failures are becoming a distraction. Though it is not the only cause of Yemen’s woes, the coalition has engaged in dubious practices and has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis. Coalition airstrikes have unnecessarily killed civilians and its activities have held up the delivery of medical aid to isolated locations.
At the same time, British and coalition interests in Yemen are similar, if not intersecting. Their objectives are our objectives. The coalition is not simply killing civilians and making life in Yemen harder; it is engaged in a military mission which British policymakers share. We also wish to restrain Iranian influence in the region, which is imperialist in its own right – as can be seen in Syria and Iraq – and dangerously revisionist. We too wish to preserve the integrity of a restored national government in Yemen.
Some actions taken by the coalition are positive and necessary. Earlier this year, its forces overran Mukalla, a port in Yemen’s south which was previously a stronghold of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Many jihadists were killed – if not the 800 of Saudi claims – and the city was freed from the grip of terrorists. This is good work and it should continue.
But the story of the Saudi intervention also contains examples of incompetence and malice, and possible war crimes.
It has stood by as Yemen inches closer to mass starvation. And its forces have also made use of practices most commonly employed by dictatorial regimes clinging to power. This includes the reported use of ‘double-tap’ airstrikes to kill first-responders. Such strikes are not merely immoral; they are criminal, and this tactic must be prohibited and its use punished.
We must be clear, at the same time, that what is happening in Yemen is not the gravest crisis in the world. The Syrian civil war has killed far more and set the country back decades; the fight against ISIS in Iraq is more vital. But what is happening in Yemen is a grave situation, one which demands, in participating nations, examination of the conscience and, afterwards, action.
Britain has a moral responsibility for conflicts in which its soldiers, weapons and allies are involved. Thus it falls to our politicians to make use of the forces, resources and influence under their command to seek to salvage a good situation from a bad one.
The British government cannot abandon our ally in Saudi Arabia. In addition, it cannot merely condemn, in general terms, the actions of the coalition. To do so would mean abandoning diplomacy and foreign policy for the vapid certainties of the protest march. Nor can the British government compel British firms to cease equipping the Saudi armed forces.
Instead, Britain must look seriously at what we have it within our power to do.
Britain must assist the delivery of aid to remote regions in Yemen, helping aid organisations. Rather than covertly seeking to undermine aid agencies in Yemen (as has been alleged), Britain could take up their cause, advocating on their behalf globally and forcefully.
Rather than simply boycotting Saudi Arabia or haughtily denouncing its actions (which might feel good and make Britain look good, but would accomplish next to nothing), our politicians must work with others to moderate the coalition air campaign, and to make it more effective.
Britain and America already have personnel in Yemen, with access to Saudi military infrastructure. By putting pressure on this infrastructure, British involvement could change the character of the Saudi campaign, insisting it pick less contentious targets and engage with international health and aid agencies.
British military peacekeepers should be deployed to assist and protect aid workers and medics, allowing the humanitarian crisis to be combated and civilian casualties lessened.
This would take bravery from the nation’s politicians; and it would not be good enough for those activists who want Britain to be both spotless and powerless. But British action to curb the excesses and errors of the Saudi-led campaign could have a significant difference on a humanitarian disaster in the making.
In the course of this decade, we have seen governments brutalise protestors and dissidents at home, and commit war crimes abroad. Many have done so largely without a word from Britain’s leaders. They have maintained a meaningful silence. But now is the time for action, in both word and deed. British action now would not make up for inaction in the recent past, but it might begin the process of making amends. And that would matter materially and morally to a very wide world.
This piece was originally published in The Telegraph.