Last month the war in Yemen slipped, unremarked by mainstream media, unnoticed by the oh-so-politically-correct talking heads on television, into its fourth year.If the war was simply a falling out between Yemen's Sunni Muslim government supported by Saudi Arabia and the Shia Muslim Houthi rebels, supported by Iran, there would be s strong case for non intervention, given that western interventions elsewhere in the middle east have only tended to make things worse.
Unfortunately there being no FUKUS axis (France, UK, USA,) forces on the ground in Yemen does not mean the western powers are not involved. While Yemen is being pounded on a daily basis by bombs dropped by Saudi warplanes armed with missiles and weapons supplied by the three FUKUS axis powers, Iran's support of the rebels is of a lower level. After three years of Saudi air attacks the rebels are still fighting, but the suffering inflicted on Yemeni civilians is not far from genocidal.
The country has a huge humanitarian crisis with many people now suffering from malnutrition, disruption of water supplies has led to disease epidemics because there is only contaminated water to drink and with many hospitals and medical centres having been deliberately targeted by Saudi airstrikes there is a chronic shortage of medicines.
Mainstream media likes to present wars as being fought between the good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats:Things are rarely that simple, and certainly not in this case. The Saudi Arabian government is an absolute monarchy that takes as its legal codex the medieval Sharia Law prescribed by the founders of Islam, the fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslim sect of the ruling Saud family exerts great power and the nation's enormous wealth and vast oil reserves grant it immunity from United Nations censure. The nation is also known to have funded Muslim fundamentalist terrorist organisations in the Middle East.
Western leaders say the Saudis are the white hats because of their money and oil and because, when it suits them, they cooperate with NATO, the EU and the USA.
Iran is a theocracy run by Shia religious leaders. It too is under Sharia Law, in much of the nation women and girls are treated as property and punishments are harsh for what can seem to people in the developed nations, relitavely trivial offences. In western media Iran is represented by black hats. In both nations women can be publicly stoned or flogged for disobeying their husbands or fathers and the penalty for adultery is public beheading. Iran too is know to have supported terrorist organisations.
Both sides wear dark grey hats then. But what of the war, is anything being done to mediate between the two sides?
UN Security Council investigators have documented violations of international humanitarian law by all sides with human rights officials claiming the "leading cause" of civilian casualties are airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition, (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates,) which backs Yemen's President Hadi against the rebels, supporters of the more moderate and secular regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Houthi artillery and missile attacks in reponse are morally no different but are delivered with vastly inferior technology and less destructive weapons. The rebel strikes are also less numerous, Iran does not want an all out war with Saudi Arabia and probably cannot match what the Saudis are spending on armaments.
The British involvement in a war the UK government has called the world's largest humanitarian crisis is somewhat greater than government ministers are prepared to admit according to leaked documents.
Throughout the Yemen conflict and long before, Saudi Arabia has been by far the biggest customer of Britain's armaments and military technology industry. Half of all UK exports of weapons and military equipment from 2013 to 2017 went to the Arab kingdom. Most sales were for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), 151 of whose 324 combat aircraft are British-supplied, along with weapons, radar and other ground systems, parts and spares.
Faced with legal and political criticism, the UK government denies any responsibility for - and claims it cannot necessarily control or even know - how UK-supplied weapons are used by overseas buyers, Last July the High Court agreed with that view (though activists are now applying to appeal that decision).
The recent revelations about the UK's relationship with the Saudi military challenges this 'flog and forget' theory of arms trade. Under a sequence of binding agreements between the two nations, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) and its contractors supply not only military 'hardware', but also software and "liveware'' in the form of expert military personnel to train and advise customers armed forces. Around 7000 people - civilian employees, British civil servants and seconded Royal Air Force personnel - are present in Saudi Arabia to advise, train, service and manage British-supplied combat aircraft and other military equipment.
The government has repeatedly assured Parliament that these personnel are strictly hands-off: "there is no British involvement in targeting or weaponizing aircraft to undertake missions in Yemen" one of the leaked documents says. They also insist that neither UK military nor civilian personnel "are involved in the loading of weapons for operational sorties, nor are they involved in the planning of operational sorties".
Over the past eighteen months, investigative reporters working with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, have sought to map these British and British-employed personnel in Saudi Arabia, trying to understand their work and their experiences. The precise numbers and functions have remained obscure, even in liberal, democratic Britain people who reveal such details tend to disappear or become victims of 'bizarre gardening accidents' and such . The UK-Saudi agreements that govern their work are classified 'UK Confidential/RSAF Secret' and are closed from public release until 2027. Even UK ministers say they "do not have full visibility of the prime contractor's manpower footprint in Saudi Arabia.
As these agreements show, the umbrella contract between UK and the Saudis requires that "United Kingdom civilian and military personnel will remain available in Saudi Arabia for preparation, including arming and support, of the [Tornado fighter-bomber] aircraft during an armed conflict" in which Saudi Arabia is involved, though these personnel may not "participate" in the conflict directly. The clause makes no reference to the authorisation by parliament or lawfulness of such a conflict.
British diplomats have always been concerned about the implications of this commitment, and have lobbied both Conservative and Labour governments for the clause to be removed.
"At worst", the Foreign Office's Middle East Department warned the MoD , "this clause could expose HMG (Her Majesty's Government) to accusations that they were involved in an undercover role in unlawful military adventures; at best, it might threaten to compromise British neutrality in armed conflicts between third States." Papers elsewhere in the National Archives show that the commitment was removed from a draft version of the agreement circulated within Whitehall six weeks before signature. It nonetheless seems to have been re-inserted into the final agreement at some stage, thus bypassing they scrutiny of elected representatives.
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