by Eleanor Beevor
- The U.K. and U.S.’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is justified by needing to maintain ties with Saudi Arabia, and strategic leverage against Iran
- But the coalition itself is fragmenting, as the UAE and Saudi agendas dovetail, and the UAE supports southern separatists
- The U.N. Resolution that legitimized the original intervention stipulated the restoration of President Hadi’s authority
- That chance is almost gone, so it is time for a serious re-assessment of international strategy to end the conflict
The tragic truth is that the human cost of the war in Yemen has not been good enough reason for the U.S. and the U.K. to cease enabling the Saudi-led coalition and try and put an end to the war.
The excuses justifying our ongoing intelligence support and increasingly un-transparent arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition have been irritatingly vague.
During Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s ongoing visit to the U.K., Theresa May has fallen back on saying that Saudi intelligence sharing has protected British citizens from terrorist attacks.
That may be. But not only is that a pact trading British lives for Yemeni ones, it means the lessons of Iraq are now the proverbial elephant in the room, being ignored as far as possible. Razing a country to the ground does not get rid of security threats, it creates worse ones to deal with in the not-too-distant future.
The more assertive defense for British support for the Saudi-led coalition is to do with long-term strategy against Iran, and with the fulfilment of goals to protect Yemen’s territorial integrity and restore the authority of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. In April 2015, after pleas from Hadi, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2216.
It demanded that the Houthi rebels withdraw from the territory they held, that the authority of the Hadi government was restored in the capital Sanaa. Whilst the Saudi-led coalition was formed through an Arab League meeting which agreed to contribute most of the forces, the coalition’s actions, and its external support, legally hinges on maintaining the terms of this resolution.
Saudi Coalition forces (AFP 2018/ FAYEZ NURELDINE)
However, increasing divisions within the coalition over the past month should make clear that this can no longer be counted on. The territorial integrity of Yemen was meant to be guaranteed.
However, it seems that the United Arab Emirates is moving away from its Saudi coalition partners’ goals, and towards Yemeni southern separatists. In late January, Southern Transition Council (STC) forces took control of the southern city of Aden, one of Yemen’s largest cities, and where Hadi took refuge after Sanaa fell to Houthi forces. The STC is a movement that supports returning South Yemen to an independent nation after twenty-seven years of Yemeni unity.
The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, entered the war in Yemen in 2015, and even went further than Saudi Arabia in some ways, providing ground troops as well as air support. However, it seems that from the start there was a failure to reconcile Emirati and Saudi disagreements. One of the key ones was to do with the Islah Islamist party, the main opposition party in Yemen, and the likeliest democratic opposition to the Houthis.
Islah have Muslim Brotherhood links, and whilst Saudi Arabia has previously nurtured the party, the UAE view the Brotherhood and its affiliates as terrorists. Islah has purported to support Hadi for now, and this seems to have contributed to an increasing UAE antagonism towards the Hadi government.
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Signs that the UAE’s loyalty to Hadi was souring reared all through 2017. There were several embarrassing moments when key government staff, and on one occasion even Hadi himself, were denied permission to land and disembark in Aden, where the UAE was meant to be maintaining security.
Hadi exploded at one point that the UAE was behaving like an occupying force rather than a coalition partner. In kind, at one point the head official for Dubai’s security tweeted that “Replacing Hadi is a Gulf, Arab and international demand”.
It seems the UAE is barely denying that it has its own agenda for Southern Yemen anymore. Speculation is rife as to what their end-game is. Most analyses suggest that the UAE is trying to entrench its influence in the Bab-el-Mandab straits, one of the busiest shipping routes in the energy sector. The UAE must protect the Bab-el-Mandab to secure its trade through the Red Sea with its ally Egypt. Perhaps it is also calculating that close ties with a Southern Yemeni government will grant it favorable access to Yemeni ports, cementing the UAE’s status as an energy superpower.
Fighters loyal to Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi drive in the area of the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, in the southern Yemeni province of Taez, on Thursday. (AFP-JIJI)
Whatever the UAE’s reasons, the fact is that the Saudi-led coalition is barely a coalition any more, and the aim of securing Hadi’s government and Yemen’s unity that the intervention began with is looking painfully unlikely. Essentially, it is now impossible to defend unconditional support for this fractured coalition on the grounds of strategy. There is no strategy uniting what is left of it.
Concerns around international enabling of the war are emerging across political lines, in the U.K., the US.. and elsewhere. This opposition represents a growing consensus within the international community that, whatever the merits of the aims struck in 2015, the chances of achieving them are long gone. A serious assessment of where this war is going, and an honest conversation about how it will end needs to be had by both supporters and detractors of the intervention.
A change of strategy does not necessarily mean an immediate withdrawal of coalition and international forces, as some commentators have implied is the only option. Rather, it means increasing the pressure on the coalition and other parties to the conflict to find the swiftest possible end, rather than allowing the Gulf coalition leaders to pursue their own agenda until they say it’s over.
After every failed war from Vietnam to Iraq there is a resolution among political circles not to draw out strategy-free conflicts that cannot be won. Once again we are here. The question is whether the international community will find the moral fortitude to steer Yemen off this path.
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