The war in the Middle East that no one’s talking about

With events in Iraq and Syria dominating headlines, a brutal 26-month civil war in Yemen rages on – a war with no clear sign of ending and horrific repercussions for all involved. The situation in Yemen reflects geopolitics at it’s worst, all the while civilian bystanders are caught in the crossfire.

The conflict escalated in 2015, when Houthi rebels gained arms and soon turned against the government loyalists, seizing large territories and essentially controlling Yemen. As well as the all too familiar Shi’a-Sunni Muslim divide being evident here, international powers are embroiled in this conflict.

Houthi forces argue that the government discriminated against them, and they are fighting for equal rights for their branch of religion. Yet, the Houthis themselves, allied to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, gained arms from Iran, largely due to the Iranians wanting to gain more strategic influence over the Middle East by establishing a friendly Yemeni government, but also to give them access to the Mediterranean. Iran themselves have become more inclined to exercise their hard power as a result of the 2013 nuclear deal, with the dropping of sanctions now allowing them to grow their military and economy once more. Noticing this, the Sunni government loyalists were soon backed by a coalition of other Middle Eastern countries led by Saudi Arabia, and thus the US and UK, resulting in a bloody shadow war predominantly between Iran and Saudi Arabia being spawned in the Yemen.

And bloody the war has been. Despite conflict initially arising during the Arab spring of 2011, the Saudis have been bombing Yemen since 2015. In August of 2016, a hospital was bombed by Saudi aircraft. Whether deliberate or not, a funeral was bombed soon after, with 140 civilian casualties from this one strike alone. Both sides have been found to have committed atrocious human rights abuses – with Amnesty contesting to the UN that there have been 34 attacks in total which deliberately targeted Yemeni civilians.

What makes this conflict worse is the fact that we in the West are not only failing to stop it, but directly contributing towards it. In March 2015 the US authorised $22 billion of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, most recently the sale of 20 Abrams tanks in 2016; listed by the government as ‘battle damage replacements’. What so many people fail to recognise, however, is that it is not Iraq or Syria where these tanks are being used, it is Yemen instead.

America and Britain say their goal in Yemen is to prevent it from being a safe haven for terrorist organisations to fester, yet I would say this is having the exact opposite effect. I would say every bomb dropped on an innocent civilian, from the West via Saudi Arabia, is exponentially increasing the chance of a Yemeni refugee being radicalised.

The dictionary defines terror as “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”. Said definition appears unerringly close to the actions of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and therefore the West too.

Perhaps recognising this, US State Department documents obtained by Reuters talked about limiting US exposure to LOAC (law of armed conflicts), fearing a 2013 international court decision which stated that if the US or UK provided “practical assistance, encouragement, or moral support” they could be charged with war crimes. Realistically, this is never going to happen, but both powers have continued to meddle in a clear breach of international law. It is for this reason why both the Obama and Trump administration, as well as recent Conservative governments, must be held accountable for their actions in Yemen. Not only are they morally dubious, but international laws have literally been broken.

As a Briton, paper talk is constantly dominated by Brexit, whether there will be another election, and what type of heels Theresa May should wear to the G20 summit. Yet this is fairly trivial when compared to events across the globe. In Yemen alone there are 370,000 malnourished children, 10,000 deaths from the civil war, and 3,000,000 displaced civilians. All as a result of a conflict which the West not only escalated, but are currently perpetrating. Perhaps the most poignant stat of them all is the fact that 10,000 children have died in Yemen since 2015 from preventable diseases. 10,000 lives cut short due to powers which those children will never understand or recognise. Too often we are guilty of thinking only inside of our own bubbles of mindless drivel, and too often crises such as those currently in Yemen remain ignored. 10,000 children dying from preventable disease should be considered a tragedy – a stain on the 21st Century, yet I doubt before reading this you were even aware of the true plight of Yemen.

70% of their population require humanitarian aid to survive. And yet the UK has made 10 times more in arms sales to Saudi Arabia than it has given to aid in Yemen. This warped policy simply makes no sense. What is the point of sending aid to Yemen if you are going to send 10 times more to the power which will simply bring more destruction to an already scarred and impoverished country?

As deputy director of Amnesty International, James Lynch, stated

“The irresponsible and unlawful flow of arms to warring parties in Yemen has directly contributed to civilian suffering on a mass scale”.

To me, this problem simply cannot be ignored, yet it is rarely covered by the mainstream media. To pay attention and hold people accountable to this conflict needn’t come at the expense of portraying the severity of the situations elsewhere in the Middle East, yet currently, the people of Yemen are suffering; no one seems to care.

In some ways, it is understandable. The Middle East appears so chaotic and desolate it is easy to get lost in the numerous and complicated conflicts which plague the region. Indeed, in some ways, it is difficult to ever see a pathway to peace for the region at all. Yet that does not mean we can turn our heads and pretend this isn’t happening. And that does not mean if we wait long enough the problem will go away. A solution must be found.

Although the Shi’a and Sunni Muslim divisions remain paramount in causing many of the issues which we see on a daily basis, perhaps stopping the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia may at least limit the indiscriminate bombing campaign which currently embroils Yemen. Perhaps sending aid to a country, rebuilding the infrastructure and providing economic assistance to those in poverty will stop the Yemen being a safe haven for terrorism, rather than tearing it to the ground until nothing remains. 

Traditional theory about security in international relations suggests the only way to ensure one’s security is to increase one’s power at the expense of other states. In other words, power is a zero-sum game, and to increase your power it must be to the detriment of others. Said theory is currently being practiced with perfection in the Middle East, so new ways of thinking about state and regional security must be tried.

Thus, I believe an inclusive regional agreement must be pursued at all costs to prevent future conflict. Had the Middle East had their version of NATO, the EU, or the Pacific Alliance, I doubt such turmoil would have erupted from the region. A treaty of agreement needn’t even be reached, simply seeing the leaders of countries such as Turkey, Israel, Qatar, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, amongst others together, would provide clear symbolism for the international community and potentially also produce a turning point in the history of the Middle East. 

Although such a notion may appear fanciful now, the EU was only formed one generation after World War Two ended. And although there are several authoritarian leaders who continue to thrive on the suffering of their populations in the Middle East, non-democratic governments are capable of making peace, as shown by the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in the Mohamed Morsi era. If such a ‘summit’ were to commence, it would be of the utmost importance for the US and UK to resist from beginning to meddle, as history has shown us that foreign meddling in regional affairs rarely produces tangible benefits for the very individuals involved. Somewhat soberingly, as the prospect of a major war in the Middle East draws closer,  this could assist in shifting the mental paradigm amongst regional players. The idea of a major war between various states could provide the necessary pressure to force them to commit to serious diplomatic engagement.

Whether possible or not, what remains clear is people must pay attention to the situation in Yemen. Not only does the future of the country hang in a fine balance, but due to Western involvement as well as growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, so too does the future of the Middle East itself.

– Patrick Robbins

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