In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is prosecuting a sustained campaign of bombardment and blockade in the hope of defeating the Houthi rebels, a Shia-led, Iranian-backed insurgency which threatens to take over the whole country.
The Houthis – proud owners of the charming slogan “God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam” – have now escalated to firing missiles into Saudi territory, including some aimed at Riyadh itself.
Regardless of the origins of the conflict (both sides, inevitably, have their own version of events, each a mixture of truth and lies) what started out as a relatively obscure rebellion in the Yemeni mountains has become one of the most hellish scenes of the ongoing proxy war between the Saudis and the Iranian mullahs.
It’s no coincidence that, with its rocket-firing tactic, the development of the Houthi insurgency has begun to mimic Hezbollah. The Saudis are not keen to follow Israel in having an Iranian-backed militia state on their doorstep, ready to lob missiles whenever convenient or commanded to.
But the way in which they have chosen to respond, including through the bombing and deliberate starvation of vast numbers of civilians, is visibly monstrous – a war crime, in fact, as Penny Mordaunt suggested earlier this week. The decision on Wednesday to lift the blockade on the port of Hodeidah in order to allow some aid into the country is positive, but comes too late for many Yemenis – and it is unclear how long the window will stay open.
So Britain finds itself supporting a regime that stands accused of committing awful crimes against civilians. We have chosen to do so in part out of simply continuing an existing alliance, in part out of direct economic self-interest, and in part out of a strategic judgement about the wider geopolitical conflict.
The reasoning goes that the Saudis are “our bastards”, that their money and oil is valuable, and that we wish them to win their wider war against Iran, or at least we do not wish Iran to win its war against them. With the rise of the Crown Prince, Britain has apparently decided that the possible benefits of his continued rule, including internal reform, are worth the price of his belligerence abroad. And yet the cost of that decision in Yemen is large-scale slaughter, which itself brings a much greater bill in lost reputation.
We have been here before. A brutal war raging into its third year. The original dispute between a rag-tag militia and a formal state has become subsumed in the politics and paranoia of a larger geo-political conflict. Great powers use the war as a proxy for their own ideological and military conflict. Amid that high drama, on the ground people are dying. Modern weaponry combines with the usual viciousness of civil war, all backed by a blockade intended to cut off food supplies.
Thousands of combatants have been killed and tens of thousands more wounded. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are dead, by bombs and bullets or by the creep of starvation, and millions of others are at risk. Britain has chosen a side, opting to back its local ally, a major oil-producer, including selling them weapons – though internationally and at home outcry is growing over the impact of such assistance on the civilian population.
That’s Yemen in 2017. But it also describes Biafra at the end of the 1960s.
The Biafrans made an attempt, from 1967-70, to break away from Nigeria and set up their own state. Following Nigerian independence in 1960, religious, ethnic and political divisions and even pogroms drove a wedge between the Southern region that would call itself Biafra and the rest of the country. When the split eventually came, the Nigerian Federal Government responded through a tight blockade, including on food and aid, and a sustained assault. Biafra, which began outgunned and outnumbered, held out for far longer than most expected, and the war raged on.
The militaries of both sides committed atrocities, and most famously the Biafran civilian population starved in the full view of the world’s media. Up to two million Biafrans starved to death – a policy which the Nigerian Federal Government pursued quite openly, with one representative saying: “Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war, and we have every intention of using it”. Long before the charity appeals of the 1980s, it was the war in Biafra which first brought the image of starving African children, bellies distended, to the newspapers and TV bulletins of the West.
As in Yemen, Britain chose a side. And just as in Yemen, Britain sold weapons to its pre-existing ally: Nigeria. We wanted the continued supply of Nigerian oil, we wanted Nigerian markets for our exports, and most of all we wanted Nigeria and the wider region not to fall into the hands of the Soviets.
Unusually for a Cold War proxy conflict, the USSR was not on the other side this time; it, too, was backing the Nigerian Federal Government. One of the UK’s fears was that if London withdrew its support for Nigeria, the Soviets would step into the gap and potentially turn West Africa into a hotbed of communism. Also in the back of Whitehall’s mind was the ongoing tussle over Rhodesia – the UK did not want the recognition of breakaway republics to become a trend.
As the photographs and footage of starving people flooded out of the conflict zone, the pressure grew on Harold Wilson. Students protested, and questions were asked in Parliament. Frederick Forsyth, then a war correspondent, not yet an author of bestsellers, quit his job at the BBC in protest at the Corporation’s decision not to cover what he viewed as a “particularly British cock-up”, and went to report direct from Biafra (his first book was The Biafra Story, an account of the conflict). The Sun campaigned to save Biafran civilians, while the Foreign Office accused Fleet Street of “sensational reporting”. In The Spectator, Auberon Waugh wrote that this was “the most hideous crime against humanity in which England has ever been involved”, and amounted to “mass murder committed in our name”.
What was the outcome, and are there lessons that might be learned for Britain’s policy towards Yemen?
In the short-term, the UK just about got what it wanted. The Soviets didn’t take over Nigeria. The oil continued to flow. No precedent on breakaway republics was established. The cost, however, was huge – millions of innocents died, and many millions more watched on as the UK bluntly ignored its moral obligations. That was a gross bargain, but one which the Wilson government persisted in pursuing and from which Britain did arguably receive some dividend, albeit meagre.
The case for making such a bloody bargain with the Saudis over Yemen is normally the same as the justification given for complicity in their other atrocities: that we would very much like their business, and that we would very much not like their position to be supplanted by Iran or by someone else worse than the current rulers of either Tehran or Riyadh.
Others make a more resigned case that, having backed Ibn Saud in the 1920s and continued to back his descendants since, we have come so far that we are stuck with the Saudis for good or ill.
This is Macbeth’s case for persisting even when wrong: “I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” But while Wilson might plausibly have seen the far bank that he was wading to in Biafra – the defeat of the Biafrans, and the end of the war – there is no realistic sign of any end to Saudi’s conflict in Yemen or anywhere else.
We have spent almost a century wading through blood in our partnership with the House of Saud, and there still seems little prospect that we will reach dry land any time soon. Our supposed ally promotes extremism, which directly endangers the UK, and aiding Saudi’s murderous and torturous work in Yemen is directly harmful to our reputation and our interests.
The claim is put forward that only by supporting the Saudis can we gain the influence required to mitigate their behaviour. Look at the opening of the port this week – would that have happened without our entreaties being heard? The answer is: probably, yes. After all, no less a figure than the President of the United States had also called for the blockade to be lifted.
But more importantly, can securing a small glimmer of belated mercy really be worth supporting the Saudis through the previous 1,000 days of bombarding and starving civilians? If the behaviour we have seen from Saudi Arabia in recent years is supposedly the product of moderating efforts by her Western allies, then those efforts have not been very successful.
A student of realpolitik, comparing Biafra and Yemen, has one final argument to draw on. Yes, it was dreadful. Yes, we did much harm in return for little good. Yes, we are doing the same thing all over again in Yemen. But don’t exaggerate how much it really matters: 40 years later, who now remembers Biafra or the suffering of the Biafrans? That this is the strongest argument for aiding war crimes is the true illustration of the weakness of their case.