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The war in Yemen will be fought with Western arms

April 7, 2015 at 9:24 am

Yemen has become a textbook example of how selling Western arms to unstable countries has always been, and will always remain, a thoroughly stupid idea. As the Saudi and UAE air forces attempt to zero in their strikes on Houthi positions, the regional fall guys in Tehran have taken the usual Western media beating for their alleged arming of the Houthi rebels. In this case, the allegation is thoroughly deserved, for there is no doubt that caches of weapons from Tehran have made their way into Yemen in recent years, especially over the past few months.

Yet concentrating on that inflow of weapons distracts neatly from the role of Western arms companies in this appalling mess. The arming of the Houthis also pales in comparison to the billions of dollars in Western military technology at the disposal of the Saudi-led coalition. Cynics might say that there is a big difference between a Western arms company entering into a commercial relationship with a Middle Eastern government, and an Iranian intelligence officer unpacking a lorry full of RPGs and handing them over covertly to a rebel group. The semantics of arms flows, in which perceived enemies (like Iran) “arm” or “support covertly” fighting units, while allies “send military aid” or “sign defence partnerships”, is being demonstrated keenly in the latest debacle.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the effective leaders of the Arab intervention force. As the air war develops, they are using almost exclusively American and British weaponry. Take the seventy-two Eurofighter Typhoons sold to Riyadh by BAE Systems in 2007, worth approximately £4.4 billion. Around two hundred and forty British ministry of defence civil servants and military personnel work on delivering the planes in full working order. The Typhoons are replacing old Tornado jets, which were also provided by BAE Systems; those that aren’t being replaced are being upgraded and serviced under the “Saudi British Defence Co-Operation Programme”. In May 2012, BAE also won a £1.6 billion contract to train the Royal Saudi Air Force. As Houthis (and civilians) sprint for cover, they are dodging British-trained pilots, flying British-made planes maintained by British engineers. Sure, the Houthis almost definitely didn’t pay for the weapons that Iran gave them, whereas the Saudis paid for theirs, but if you’re underneath one of those bombs, do you really care who paid for it?

It’s a similar story in the UAE. The government has a more diverse range of suppliers than Saudi Arabia, and is now developing its own indigenous defence industry. Nevertheless, most of the Emirati aircraft now flying over Yemen have been supplied by American companies, encouraged and signed off by American government officials. Suppliers to the Yemen air war include Lockheed Martin, which provides Hellfire missiles, F16 fighter jets and Hercules transport aircraft; Boeing has built Apache gunships and Chinooks; Sikorsky has provided Blackhawk helicopters; Raytheon’s Patriot missiles are there; and General Atomics have supplied Predator drones. Again, it should perhaps be stressed that there is a difference between Iran “arming the Houthis” and American companies and the Pentagon “supporting our allies in Abu Dhabi”, in that money changes hands in the latter relationship but not in the former. For the families of forty civilians killed in a coalition airstrike last weekend, already housed in a refugee camp, it must make a world of difference to know that Western defence companies profited from their relatives’ deaths, whereas the Houthis are simply the beneficiaries of Iranian largesse.

Even worse, however, is the fact that Western defence companies and governments have been arming the rebels too, albeit inadvertently. This time it wasn’t a carefully structured commercial contract but generosity, stirred laconically with the usual dash of lunacy.

Since 2010, the US has reportedly delivered the following impressive list of munitions, aircraft and other military equipment to Sana’a: well over a million rounds of ammunition; a couple of hundred Glock pistols and M4 rifles; one hundred and sixty Humvees; three hundred sets of night vision goggles; four helicopters; half a dozen small aircraft; and two coastal patrol boats. Semantics are once again crucial. This present list, which is valued at around $500m, isn’t “arming” (that’s what Iranians, Russians or at some future point, the Chinese, do); this is “military aid” sent over as part of a “counter-terrorism fund”. That’s what decent Western governments do.

A pity then that all of this “military aid” has now gone missing. According to a number of reports in the American media, every single US-supplied bullet, rifle and Humvee has now fallen into the hands of either the Houthis or Al-Qaeda, as they overrun and loot Yemeni government arms depots. Earlier this month, an unnamed “legislative aide” told the Washington Post, “We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone.”

In the light of the above, I’d like to propose a new entry test for Pentagon officials in charge of formulating defence policy in the Middle East. They will be presented with a small burning fire and two cans; one will contain water, the other will contain petrol. The candidate will have to choose which one to throw on the fire in order to put it out. I’ll be writing to the American government with my suggestion, and if it has time to respond before signing off on all that “military aid”, I’ll let you know.