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None of the many questions about Yemen really matter; the war just needs to end

November 27, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Truth is famously the first casualty of war. Misinformation aimed at discombobulating the enemy, military cover-ups of the cock-ups or cruelties by “friendly” troops and a decent dose of propaganda for the doubting public back home all have a role to play in successful warfare.

Britain is not at war though, or at least not in Yemen. The conflict there rages on, with the violence, wounded and dead increasingly eclipsed by the twin threats of mass starvation and a raging cholera epidemic. The United Kingdom’s role is somewhat ambiguous – a supplier of arms, a troop trainer – but are we fighting? Not really; at least, not officially.

In addition to the Cholera outbreak, at least 3 million children in Yemen suffer from malnutrition as a result of the current conflict [File photo]

In addition to the Cholera outbreak, at least 3 million children in Yemen suffer from malnutrition as a result of the current conflict [File photo]

Like many wars, there are no clear cut answers as to who is in the right in Yemen, and who might be in the wrong. Yemen is to Saudi Arabia what Mexico is to the United States or Ukraine is to Russia. It is perfectly reasonable for a country to take an interest in its neighbours’ affairs, regardless of their respective sizes. The Saudi-led coalition are in Yemen at the grace of the Yemeni government, which is internationally recognised, albeit in exile in Riyadh. While there may be a moral case for the Houthis, irritated at a lack of investment in their region, to rise up, there is no constitutional basis under which they should be running the country. It is also clear that regardless of the dispute over the extent of Iranian arms being delivered, if it was a choice between Riyadh and Tehran, the Houthi family would certainly opt for the Iranians. There is no doubt that the Houthis have also committed war crimes during the conflict.

Read: UNICEF: Over 11 million children vulnerable in Yemen

On the other side, the way in which the Saudi-led coalition has conducted their war is also appalling. Civilian casualties appear to have mounted, often as a result of strikes on obviously non-military targets, including mosques, schools, markets and hospitals. Credible human rights organisations with researchers on the ground have attested to what appear to be war crimes.

Having signed up to the general premise of the war, Britain is involved intimately in the way that it is being fought, or the way that the Saudis have chosen to fight it. This, perhaps, explains the reticence of Her Majesty’s Government in Whitehall to tell the full truth about our involvement.

The latest such lie to be told has now been revealed by the Mail on Sunday. British soldiers have been photographed training Saudi troops on their way into Yemen, in what one former senior minister, Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, has called a “dirty war.” In addition, British advisers are in the coalition headquarters, where air strikes are planned, and so the attacks on mosques and schools are being done with Britain’s knowledge, if not actual complicity.

This is not the first time that the truth has been absent from the British government narrative on the Yemen war. In July 2016, a mortifying series of retractions had to be made to the House of Commons after it became clear that the Foreign Office was not certain whether war crimes were being committed. Six ministerial statements, an extraordinary number, were corrected.

In February, the then Foreign Secretary and now Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, had said, “We have assessed that there has not been a breach of international humanitarian law by the coalition … However, these should have stated … ‘we have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition’.”

Read more: UK complicit in ‘promoting famine’ in Yemen, says ex-minister

The British government’s economy with the truth doesn’t matter much when it comes to winning votes. In an incredible failure of the media, more than half of the British public are unaware that Britain is helping to fight the war in Yemen. There is such little political capital in opposing the war that even the anti-war candidate and Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn MP, has been relatively mute on the issue.

Is Britain playing the part in Yemen that Putin has in Syria, as I have argued previously? In retrospect, I have considered briefly that my statement went a touch too far, but looking at the ancillary effects of the war in Yemen, the moral case for withdrawing British support completely is growing. It is not just about civilian casualties from air strikes, it is also about cholera.

Saudi quagmire in Yemen - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Saudi quagmire in Yemen – Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Cholera is a horrific bacterial disease that can kill a healthy person in hours, much like someone severely injured from an air strike. It does this by draining the body of fluids, through severe diarrhoea. Needless to say, it is not a pleasant way to die. You can lose approximately ten per cent of your body weight in your final hours. You will go into shock, experience severe muscle cramps, and possibly lose so much blood pressure you just die. Children can suffer seizures or go straight into a coma.

Read: The siege of Yemen is at the behest of Saudi Arabia with Arab and international collusion

The cholera outbreak in Yemen is the largest in history. Last month, the millionth case was diagnosed. That is a death toll that both the Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition and Britain now need to take into account, as they consider whether to continue this essentially pointless war. There is not even a popularity boon for Mohammad Bin Salman in continuing the fighting, because the Saudi press has largely fallen silent on developments in Yemen. This is in stark contrast to how the war was reported at the beginning, which felt like a patriotic Hollywood movie, starring “MBS” lunching with the troops.

Truth may well be the first casualty of war, but what happens when nobody knows that the war is being fought? That appears to be the case in both Saudi Arabia and Britain. What happens when there is no declaration of war between the nations on the ground, if complex coalitions are formed instead and their enemies are sub-state actors?

So many questions are demanding answers, but if you have cholera, none of them matter. All that you know is that the war needs to end. Now.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.