Abigail Watson is a research officer at the Remote Control Project.
Boris Johnson recently broke from the long-standing tradition of senior MPs’ refusal to criticise Saudi Arabia. He accused the kingdom of “playing proxy wars” in their region and, later expressed “profound concern” for the people of Yemen.
His remarks revealed stark divisions within Parliament. While a number of politicians supported him, others pwere keen to distance themselves from his comments. A Downing Street spokesman said than Johnson did not speak for the Government. This came just months after simmering disagreements between members of Parliament’s committees on Arms Export Control erupted into a public spat, and the publication of two rival reports on the use of UK arms in Yemen.
These divisions have been primarily over the question of suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia in light of alleged war crimes in their bombing campaign over the skies of Yemen, an issue that has incorrectly been presented as a conflict between the head and the heart – between the need to protect Britain’s arms industry and our strategic position in the Gulf on the one hand, against the need to stand up for human rights and protect civilians on the other.
But the dilemma Britain faces isn’t just about the arms trade, and it is as strategic as it is moral. It’s about our new way of engaging in war, fighting conflicts covertly and indirectly using remote warfare methods – such as drones, special forces, intelligence sharing, training and technical assistance, and arms transfers – rather than getting directly involved.
While Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia have caught the attention of the national media and the public, far fewer have commented on Britain’s other remote war methods. The UK has sold more than £3.7 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia since March last year, when the Saudi-led coalition’s conflict in Yemen began. However, British military advisers have also been training the Saudi Arabian armed forces, and UK ‘liaison officers’ are present in the control room from which Saudi airstrikes are directed over Yemen.
In April evidence surfaced that suggested we played a large role in Yemen long before March 2015. This evidence indicated that the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service was playing a “crucial and sustained role” supporting US drone strikes, using its extensive knowledge of the region, and surveillance more generally, to help gather intelligence on potential targets. It also trained the Yemeni National Security Bureau and the Yemen’s Political Security Organization, PSO, (secret police) in intelligence gathering.
Avoiding directly exposing UK personnel has advantages: the human risks are lower, the costs are more controllable, and the government doesn’t have to convince a war-weary public to back military action. In a world where terrorism continues to pose a threat to our security, but where memories of Iraq and Afghanistan loom large, engaging remotely may seem like the only viable option.
However, even remote warfare is not cost or risk free. The Government has been widely criticised for what is seen as collaboration in the Saudi bombing campaign, and is facing legal action over its decision to continue arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. Human rights groups have repeatedly pointed to the danger that, through their close relationships, the UK becomes complicit in some of Saudi Arabia’s more controversial strikes, including bombing schools and hospitals.
It could also lead to us slipping into direct conflict. Many feared this would be the case with the United States, whose own remote war in Yemen led to Houthi rebels targeting a US Navy destroyer – to which the US responded by targeting three radar installations. This demonstrates that the distinction between direct and indirect warfare may not be fully appreciated by those in the firing line.
Britain’s preference for remote warfare also seemed to have prevented it from doing the very thing that would help to alleviate the controversy around the Saudi bombing campaign – having direct input into targeting decisions and compliance with the laws of war. Though they’re in the control room, the Government has said its liaison officers have no input into either. Vince Cable has claimed Ministry of Defence officials told him – in exchange for signing off on arms export licenses – that UK advisers could play such a role, but it does not appear that this has been the case.
Herein lies the real dilemma. If we were to play a more overt role, it might be able to reduce the controversy around the Saudi air campaign and improve standards. But it would have to admit direct involvement in the war, and open its actions up to parliamentary scrutiny. Meanwhile, if the Government decides to stop arms sales and withdraw its assistance, it no longer risks complicity, but it loses arms sales that would likely be covered by less scrupulous sellers, and forfeits all remaining influence over the conduct of the campaign.
There are no perfect solutions. Right now, though, the UK has the worst of both worlds – its level of involvement is sufficient to prompt allegations of complicity, but insufficient to have a real impact on targeting decisions. In short, we have responsibility without power.
Whether the government decides to take the plunge and get directly involved, or to halt arms sales and cooperation, or indeed to continue the imperfect status quo, our experience in Yemen has already debunked the myth that there’s a risk-free half-way house between direct war and no war at all.
Remote warfare is likely here to stay. But as the UK looks to deal with threats and conflicts elsewhere in the world, it would be wise to view Yemen as a cautionary tale that remote warfare can still carry some of the risks of direct involvement without necessarily producing the desired results.