I have always been of the political Left. My politics drew me to work in humanitarian aid, sometimes in war zones. I hated the low-tech warfare of Rwanda and Burundi, where populations were both born into the hatred of ‘the Other’, culminating in a genocidal attack in Rwanda, where men, women and children were killed by machetes. I hated the high-tech warfare of the Israelis in South Lebanon; I saw the new graves at Qana, where 106 people sheltering in a UN compound were killed, over half of them children. To me, the mother I met in Burundi, whose tiny baby’s head was slashed by a machete, and the mother I met in South Lebanon, whose small son was beheaded in front of her by shrapnel from a bomb, both suffered equally. Nothing justified such killing. Nothing justified war.
In 1998 I was offered a job in Yemen, and since then it has been the country of my soul. I fell in love with the country and its people, but more amazingly, Yemeni people also took me to their heart. I stayed until there 2001, but after this I travelled to Yemen most years for a few weeks or months, the last time in 2014. When I woke on the 25th March this year to hear that a Saudi-led coalition had started an air assault on Yemen to support one side in a civil war, I knew instinctively that Yemen would never be the same again. The next few days were spent trying to contact my friends there to find out what was happening. My best friend lived in Aden and the news was desperate. Eventually she became a refugee; her home damaged by Saudi bombs, she was forced to risk leaving the dangerous area she lived in due to the lack of drinking water, her car shot at by Houthi snipers as she escaped from a brutal war zone. Aden was ravaged by air assaults, a vicious ground war, and a cruel siege; from peace to all-out war in three days. My contacts in other parts of the country were also reporting bombs, food shortages, lack of medicines, fuel scarcity, lack of electricity, and most serious of all, a desperate shortage of water. The suddenness and ferocity of the war stunned me, and for the first few weeks, paralysed me. Most surprisingly of all, this dreadful war was being ignored by the media. Strangely, it also had a low profile in the anti-war movement. As I emerged from my stupor, I knew I would have to do something to publicise this war.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, those on the political Left have viewed the Western powers, particularly USA and its allies, as a major cause of conflict worldwide, but particularly in the Middle East. This accelerated after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, and led to the development of an international anti-war movement, at its peak just before the attacks on Iraq, when millions of people worldwide marched against war. This argument had the USA at its centre, and in UK, the relationship between the leaders of our government and the US president. I was undertaking research in media imagery at that time, and found that journalists and commentators had a position that they rarely changed whatever arguments they encountered, each ‘side’ finding Iraqis to support ‘their’ view. I interviewed Iraqis at that time; virtually all of them told me that the day the war began, the press lost interest in Iraq and they were rarely contacted for an opinion. Whether Western people were for or against the war, however compassionate and humble they were, their main focus was Western power. As the war progressed, it was the actions of Western politicians, Western military and Western arguments such as the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction that dominated the media and conversations about Iraq.
Although the Stop the War movement reached its zenith in 2002/3 prior to the Iraq War, it did not go away. It became smaller but more organised, and the electorate in Western countries became increasingly tired of the wars that their governments were fighting, using up resources, raising taxes and causing death and injuries to soldiers. The countries that had wars inflicted on them remained unstable rather than becoming prosperous democracies as Western leaders had promised, and extremist militia movements increased in number, size and scope. The film “We Are Many” released in 2015 claimed that the anti-war movement had held Western governments to account, but I believe made Western politicians rethink not their policies but their way of conducting war. A new type of war; Yemen was the prototype.
Prior to, and at the beginning of the Yemen war, there was evidence of several meetings between Israel and Saudi governments, despite their lack of official government relations. The attack on Yemen shows many similarities with recent attacks on Gaza. Yemen was, and is, sealed; goods going in checked and restricted, no goods are allowed out, and movement of people is difficult thus reducing refugee flow. Air assaults are dramatic and widespread throughout the West of Yemen (the old North Yemen plus Aden and Lahj). Illegal weapons and experimental weapons are being used. The war on Yemen was obviously prepared for well in advance. From the day of the first bombs, a coalition of Arab and Muslim countries was formed and coordinated, 150 British military advisers were installed in Riyadh, the Saudi navy had warships in place to enforce an embargo with the French navy assisting, and the British and Americans observing. The US were refuelling Saudi warplanes in the air, and helping with rescue of military personnel as needed. Priority was given to the supply of weapons and munitions for the coalition partners. A plan to manage the media was in place. Al Qaeda took over the port of Mukalla; in an interview with Al Jazeera a representative stated that this was at the request of Saudi Arabia who wanted the port secured against Houthi advances. This assault by the Saudi-led coalition may have been a surprise to Yemen and the world, but it was not a surprise to the countries that had obviously been plotting this for a long time, waiting for the right moment to intervene to crush Yemen and its people.
The hostilities began essentially as an internal conflict in the southwest of Yemen, with a complexity of groups involved in ground fighting, including the Houthis, oppressed in their homeland for many years, and the southerners, marginalised since the last 1994 civil war. Families are divided; I was sent a photo of a severely burned Yemeni teenager, put into an oven by her grandfather because of her view on the war. The Yemen army had split; the largest part of the army was from the tribes of the north and therefore aligned with the Houthis and ex-President Saleh. The rest of the Yemen army, mainly the brigades of the religiously conservative Brigadier Ali Muhsin supported President Hadi. Aden had a secessionist militia called Al Hirak (the movement) – inexperienced because after the 1994 civil war thousands of military from the South were forcibly retired. Alongside Al Hirak were the Islah militias (including Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood), Al Qaeda and Da’esh often together described as ‘loyalists’. These extremist Sunni militias have a strong anti-Shia sentiment, which made them fight without mercy when attacking their Zaidi rivals. The Houthis were battle hardened after years of fighting in various arenas, and were equally ruthless. Although the Houthi leaders had put forward an agenda for positive change, their militias on the ground were largely uneducated, unpaid, and fighting for their existence against groups that they knew wanted to eradicate them.
The Saudis aligned themselves with Hadi describing him as the legitimate president, and stating that their aim was to restore him as the democratic leader. As soon as their aerial assaults began, all militias responded by behaving in an extremely brutal and aggressive manner. The ‘loyalists’ were given a sense of optimism and hope that enthused them for warfare; the Houthis respond in an equally fervent manner. Whilst damage in some parts of Aden, Lahj and Taiz was caused by militias brutally attacking each other, the Houthis controlled Crater and Khormiksar in Aden and all of the damage there was caused by Houthis in their attempts to control and intimidate the local population. The Houthi militias entered homes, robbed citizens of food and money, and killed anyone whom they believed to pose a danger to them. From day one the Saudis blocked all ports and airports cutting off Yemen from the outside world; the Houthis responded by adding a siege of Aden, not letting money, food, petrol and medical supplies in or out of the port city. There was ferocious militia fighting on routes leaving the city, trapping the population. Within two weeks, it was announced that people in Aden were already dying of starvation, dehydration, war injuries and illnesses, aggravated by a lack of medical care. Outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever broke out, and many died.
In UK there are many Yemenis who originate from the South because of the longstanding links between Aden and Britain. In the main, they were supportive of the Saudi-led campaign, particularly those with relatives trapped in Aden. Other British Yemenis were equally as strongly against the Saudi action. Realising that this was making it impossible to organise a campaign to bring awareness to the British public, in Liverpool a group of Yemenis tried to start a coordination network, hoping that if Yemenis could unite in UK, they could help spread the message to their countrymen and give a kick start to any peace process. The first meetings that bought the pro- and anti-Saudi camps together were very traumatic, and gradually, the meetings caused such stress that Yemenis stopped attending. The polarising of Yemen meant that many Yemenis believed that their ‘side’ was perfect, and the other ‘side’ was doing all the damage. Moreover, often in conversation polarised Yemenis denied the existence of Yemenis with any other view than their own.
This was a challenge to the anti-war and the Left. The initial response was to organise a demonstration in support of Yemen and against the Saudi interference in the Yemen war. This met with fierce criticism from parts of the Yemeni community, particularly those with relatives in Aden who were able to explain the horrendous circumstances of their relatives’ lives. Lindsey German of the Stop the War Coalition said that Yemen had been different to other conflicts, because others started more slowly and built up, and in the initial stages it was easy to see that Western interests were stoking the conflict. Only when the wars finally engulfed those countries did parties consistently behave brutally and illegally. The problem in Yemen was that within days all sides were behaving with impunity, causing civilian casualties that were hard to justify. Just as the Yemeni community has been divided, this has also caused tensions in the Left and made it more difficult to coordinate publicity about the terrible price of this conflict. Many who knew of the almost incomprehensibly shocking situation in Aden until the end of July, and in Taiz from June until the present, felt they had to speak out about it because the suffering was so extreme, whereas others believed it needed to be hidden as to speak out was to in effect to appear to justify the Saudi’s bombing campaign.
The extensive and horrifying Saudi bombing campaign was indeed the catalyst that had caused the all of the Yemen militias to increase their aggressiveness, and this had rapidly got out of hand. After visiting Yemen, Peter Maurer of the Red Cross stated that in 5 months there was as much damage in Yemen as after 5 years in Syria. The suffering in Yemen was described to the UNSC as ‘almost incomprehensible’. MSF, used to offering medical care in extreme conflicts, stated that the situation in Yemen was worse than in any other country where they had ever operated. HRW has criticised both militias and the Saudi-led coalition for war crimes. UNICEF, WHO, Oxfam and other organisations have stated that tens of thousands of Yemeni children suffer from severe malnutrition, and over a million are at severe risk; they have also warned of t the severe water insecurity as water is normally pumped from deep aquifers and diesel is not available, and that twenty million people are food insecure. ICRC , MSF and others have pointed to the number of medical facilities that have been forced to close down, due to damage, staff shortages, or lack of medical supplies. This is not a ‘normal’ war.
The other issue that complicates the Yemen conflict is the competing presidents. Ex-President Saleh left office in 2012 after demonstrations against him in the Yemeni ‘Arab Spring’ but is now supporting the Houthi coalition. President Hadi was elected as an interim president in 2012 and his term had already expired; he had resigned and then reinstated himself. Hence his legitimacy is disputed; additionally he left Yemen during the war for a safe haven in Riyadh after inviting Saudi Arabia to start bombing at his behest, which caused a further diminution of his popularity. Additionally, the Houthis have their own leader, Abdulmalik Al Houthi, although there are varying accounts of what his leadership ambitions are. All of these leaders have their own baggage and the Houthi association with Saleh makes their case more difficult to support amongst sections of the Yemeni population.
There are those in the anti-war movement in the West who believe that the Houthis are a bulwark against extremist militias such as Al Qaeda and Da’esh; the Houthis have won battles against AQAP in Marib in the past. But it is naïve to believe that using one militia to attack another can survive as a long term peace strategy. For example, in Iraq with a majority Shia population and Iran as its neighbour, the Shiite Mahdi Army could not defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, but instead, reached a stalemate in which Baghdad – and much of the rest of Iraq – was divided on religious lines. In Yemen, the Zaidis are in a minority and Yemen is surrounded by Sunni countries, so their position is more precarious. Militias in Yemen are essentially extensions of tribal networks and both the Houthi militias and Al Qaeda have in various times in their history morphed from tribe to militia and back to tribe; the only permanent solution to stop such wars is to negotiate for peace. The role of the US drone programme has been much criticised by Yemenis because it has been a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda, rather than reducing its capability.
The Western anti-war movements are also concerned with the alignment of power – the Israel/Europe/US axis versus Iran/China/Russia alliances. The links between Iran and the Houthis has been much exaggerated by Saudi Arabia and its allies. When the war started, Iran was at a critical time in its negotiations concerning its nuclear programme, and was heavily involved in the Syrian war. If Iran was interested in the Yemen war, it was only to use Yemen as a bargaining chip in its nuclear negotiations. Most experts agree Iran’s past contacts with the Houthis were limited. However, because of the challenging relationship between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, it is highly likely that had the Houthis controlled Yemen there would have been increased Iranian links and influence.
Meanwhile in Yemen itself, the attitudes of the Yemeni population trapped in a war not of their making have also gone through changes. The Houthis had a following amongst certain sections before the war, particularly the Zaidi tribes (about 30-45% of the population) and supporters of the GPC party, and some who thought they might change the corrupt political system. When the Houthis took over control of Sanaa in September 2014, the militias antagonised sections of the population by themselves acting corruptly, taking over locally owned businesses, jailing opponents, closing down newspapers, and kidnapping journalists. However Sanaanis, used to political manoeuvrings, craved stability and accepted these encroachments without protest. So despite a long standing resentment towards their neighbour Saudi Arabia, many Yemenis initially welcomed the Saudi-led coalition air assaults as their stated aim at that time was to destroy Houthi arsenals. The southwest has largely remained supportive of the Saudi campaign, as trapped in a ground war it seems their only hope of salvation, and those who support conservative political parties such as Islah have also remained fervent supporters. People in the northwest, who have suffered extensive destruction their cities including most civilian homes by the Saudi-led alliance, see the Houthi militias as their only chance of survival; many GPC supporters also support the Houthis. But most other Yemenis now are war-weary and have less or no faith in all warring parties, and see the war as already having reached a stalemate in which all Yemenis are losers. Recent reports have indicated there are tensions arising both in the Saudi-led coalition and within the Houthi camp as their supporters waver. But they all are trapped on the treadmill of war, with the leaders unwilling to concede enough, or anything at all, for Yemen and for peace.
Even if all parties were willing partners in peace negotiations, there are now larger barriers to overcome. South Yemen, an independent country until 1990 and an unwilling partner in a united Yemen since 1994, is unlikely to accept anything but independence; even the hotel which Hadi used as a temporary home whilst visiting Yemen this week flies a South Yemen flag and not the Yemen flag. Extremist Sunni militias have gained strongholds and control in many parts of Yemen. The infrastructure is so damaged that it will take generations before Yemen has recovered even to its previously impoverished state. Hadi is expecting to be reinstated, but the majority of Yemenis do not want him back. The chance of ongoing war in Yemen, in a scenario such as in Afghanistan, is a very frightening possibility.
The ferocity of the war in Yemen has posed challenges to the Left, but it also raises important issues concerning where the future focus of anti-war movements should be.
- There is a tension between persons who are pacifist and against all war, versus those who assign a moral right to one ‘side’ in a conflict and support one side in its military resistance. This tension needs to be resolved as unity is essential if the anti-war movement is not to be weakened.
- Western anti-war movements initially started due to Western adventurism after the fall of the Soviet bloc, particularly in the build-up to the Iraq War. They focussed on Western and American world domination, and breaking that cycle. As the nature of war is changing, does the anti-war story also need to adapt?
- Western anti-war movements have been focussed on stopping particular wars, or intervening at an early stage when it is possible for the target country to recover from war. As each war progresses, this strategy is less useful. As countries are left in chaos, and the latest Yemen war began with such ferocity that is was impossible to stop, does this strategy need to be revised?
- Any ‘side’ that is opposing Western domination will inevitably conduct its own atrocities. This is sometimes ignored, denied or condoned by anti-war groups. How far does this open the anti-war movements to criticism from its detractors, and impact on its effectiveness?
- The citizens of a war torn country inevitably have different views to that of Western anti-war activists. I believe my views represent the opinions of Yemeni people, yet they have been described as ‘naïve’ and I am viewed to be too influenced by Yemeni colleagues. Another example: when I analysed the Iraq War news coverage for 4 months before and during the Iraq War for my PhD, I noted that journalists and activists had a certain view, and then chose an Iraqi at certain points to ‘prove’ his or her viewpoint. My analysis revealed that both pro- and anti-war activists were more interested in being pro- or anti-USA than in Iraq and Iraqis. Is ignoring local opinions the best way for anti-war groups to oppose Western power?
- The war in Yemen shows many characteristics more in line with the Israeli attacks on Gaza. It is a new style of international warfare, characterised by: (1) using another country as a front (2) no warning and sudden onset of a ferocious war (3) cutting of all exports, and only allowing very limited imports (4) Disabling normal business functioning by restrictions of fuel and water (5) media silence (6) coordinated discourses and language by those controlling the war, eg., supporting democracy, legitimate leader, loyalists, rebels (7) the refugee outflow was hindered, thus helping to reduce the visibility of the war. The anti-war movement was not prepared for this new war and it has not been able to respond adequatelyIn a civil war, inevitably there are polarised viewpoints. This also hinders responses by the anti-war lobby, particularly in Yeme
Having worked in war zones, I do not believe there is such a thing as a moral way to conduct war. When people, militias, and armed forces fight, they fight to win at all costs. In my view, those who are pro-war, such as government representatives and people who are persuaded by the government view, tell the story of ‘their’ moral war, but also, those opposing Western adventurism also like to believe that their side is also conducting an ethical resistance. I see a value in anti-war movements moving towards describing the horror of war by all parties from the outset. At the moment, just as some Yemenis on each ‘side’ have turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by their ‘side’ convincing themselves that their ‘side’ is being framed, some on the Left also find it difficult to bring to the world’s attention all the facets of the disgusting nature of today’s wars. Whilst they are opposing the domination of the world by a single super power, and hence their selectiveness in what they highlight, there could be an alternative media strategy of revealing the pathways from Western domination and manipulation, to wars on the ground, the rise of militia activity, the increased extremist attitudes held by whole populations, and population movement. When the national army of Syria carries out illegal and life threatening actions or the Houthis in Yemen are attacking defenceless civilian populations, the Left and anti-war lobby has been largely silent, because of the fear that it will detract from their cause. But could it also be argued that this very silence damages their credibility? This is something that needs fundamental discussion and a media strategy to increase impact and effectiveness.
My own view is that if the anti-war lobby and the Left are to be most effective in these new styles of war, then it needs to move closer to the populations that are caught up in conflict. The research I did for my PhD, and my current experiences with Yemen show that the UK anti-war movement is mostly obsessed with the actions of the USA and UK governments, whereas Yemenis are obsessed with their hope for stability in Yemen. I am influenced by knowledge and my many daily personal contacts with persons of all political persuasions and none. I feel privileged and enabled to be in their confidence and to share conversations. I believe that I contribute to a debate within Yemen that is gradually, so slowly, moving the population towards realising that they can only find peace if they themselves are prepared to make painful compromises. But I can only do so if I am even handed – noting the pain not only of those who have had their house destroyed, their child killed, by a Saudi bomb, but also those who have suffered that same loss, but by the actions of a Houthi warrior, and genuinely seeing both as horrific.
The recent evidence reveals that Western powers leave the countries they target in chaos. The ‘migrant crisis’ may force them rethink that strategy. Even ‘posher’ refugee camps – the current option being discussed – are not going to make Syrians and Yemenis stay in a land where they cannot rely on stability, where they cannot own their home, build their future, and educate their children. If people are to stay put in their homeland, they need hope. If in a small way we can somehow build hope by listening, and by encouraging people at war to talk to their opponent – who after all was not so long ago their friendly neighbour – then is this a better way of opposing Western power and domination? Wars have changed since 2003. The Left needs to change to combat the new challenges; our work is crucial. We need unity, knowledge, local contacts in war zones, and a well thought out media strategy. Otherwise, we are failing all those millions of people whose lives were devastated yesterday, are being devasted today, and will be devastated in the future by the scourge of war.