The Price of War: Famine in Yemen


Image via UNICEF

Image via UNICEF

“I am seeing the same thing I used to watch on TV when the famine unfolded in Somalia...I never thought I would see this in Yemen.”
— Ashwaq Muharram

Warning: contains Distressing images


"We should be looking at whether or not that targeting is done in the knowledge that those are wholly innocent civilians targets. That is a war crime." stated Boris Johnson assertively on the Andrew Marr Show on 25th September, 2016, "Putin was not only...handing (Syrian President Bashar) Assad the revolver. He is in some instances actually firing the revolver himself." In the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, claimed with somber conviction that "...what Russia is sponsoring and doing (in Syria) is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism." These statements came days after the destruction of an aid convoy in Syria which followed up a series of airstrikes by the American and British airforces against Syrian forces in Deir Ezzor after the establishment of a ceasefire brokered by Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry. 

These observations do not render this article pro-Assad, pro-Russian or anti-American. It is in this author's opinion that Bashar al-Assad's brutal government has committed a series of war crimes in Syria against innocent men, women and children through bombing, torture, militia violence, and grotesque urban warfare. These actions have been supported by the Kremlin and Tehran as they have, with the support of Hizbullah, been determined to prop up the buckling regime after five years of civil war and deter regime change. However, it is difficult not to be cynical about comments made by Johnson accusing Assad of war crimes over the skies of Aleppo and Powers' brazen statements which accused the Russians and its allies of "barbarism" when the situation in Yemen, another Middle Eastern country plauged by revolution, civil war and the threat of man-made famine, is considered. 


Channel 4: Yemen's Forgotten War: The Horrors of Hunger


Mass-starvation is underway in Yemen, catalysed by a maritime and aerial blockade created by the Gulf-coalition and supported by the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Turkey. Spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, the lethal blockade, combined with fifteen years of drone warfare, revolution, chronic food insecurity, civil war and insurgency has pushed the country into the abyss. 

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi-Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February 2015. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces. While these two forces have been at war,  Al-Qa'ida and ISIS have emerged from the ashes of war. The strategy of AQAP, while violent, has gained support from local populations and has allowed the jihādist division to establish an emirate in Yemen. The sub-faction of ISIS in Yemen, led by Abu Bilal al-Harbi who pledged allegiance to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi in November 2014, has sought to exploit Yemen's instability since the revolution of 2011. The competing neo-Salafist and neo-Wahhabist movements, methodologies, and tactics, as it did in Syria and Iraq, have deteriorated into a intra-jihadist conflict as the competing terrorist cells seek to carve out mini-statelets in the disorder produced by civil war. ISIS's injection of ultra-violent sectarian warfare into Yemen and indiscriminate targeting of Muslim civilians included several suicide attacks Sa'nna, Aden and Mukalla.  After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March 2015, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets and protect the loyalists. 

Alongside the monumental shift in Yemeni's political arena and the Saudi intervention, nearly fifteen years of special operations and drone strikes in Yemen have turned its civilians against the United States and the Yemeni government. According to the Drone Papers, leaked documents published by The Intercept'178 drone strikes were carried out between 2011-2015 killing 490 people, strikes which were being carried out at a rate of six strikes a week in 2012.' This was a clear escalation by the Obama administration as when President Barack Obama took office there has been one U.S. drone strike in Yemen. 

These small-print counterterrorism operations have alienated Yemeni civilians and turned many against their state who many condemned as weak or even complicit in the U.S. airstrikes which killed hundreds of innocent people. After an investigation by Vice News it has become apparent that MI6, through systematic collaboration with the CIA and the Pentagon, has been providing military personnel to U.S. operations and drone strikes in Yemen. Downing Street has also tacitly supported the Bush and Obama administrations efforts to fight jihādist groups through the Yemeni government the latter of whom have regularly perpetrated torture and execution of prisoners and conducted extra-judicial killings. MI6 also conducted training programmes for the Yemeni government's Political Security Organisation, the secret police. According to Human Rights Watch, PSO have been accused of perpetrating systematic human rights abuses since the revolution in Change Square in 2011. 


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The fallout of the US and United Kingdom's secret war and black operations in Yemen have not just carried ethnical, moral and philosophical implications associated with drone warfare. Despite being cheap and easy to deploy, the impact on Yemeni civilians has been profound. Anti-Western sentiment has increased and anti-US protests haven take place across several cities in Yemen for a number of years as the death toll of remote-controlled warfare has increased. These targeted killings troubled policymakers in the higher levels of Yemen's government. As Rajeh Badi, an advisor to Yemen's prime minister, told RT in August 2013: 

There is no way the targeted strikes alone could be a viable solution to the problem of terrorism. It does not simply come down to how many deaths have been caused by drones...A successful strategy cannot rely on sheer military force alone, because it is much more than a security threat...The underlying causes of terrorism are in political, social, education, and economic problems of our country...Bloodshed can only lead to more bloodshed."

The familiar story of flawed military blueprints being deployed to contain political problems has created the same outcome in Yemen; a permanent cycle of bloodshed and instability. While drone strikes have been effective in eliminating several high-profile figures of AQAP, including founder Nasir al-Wuhayshi, they have allowed Al-Qa'ida's message to proliferate across Yemen and open up space for them to conduct their military campaigns against domestic Yemeni opposition groups and sell their war against Western states to local populations. This is illustrated by a Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 which found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S involvement in the region justified attacks on U.S citizens everywhere. This was before the expansion of the drone wars by the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen and British military support for Saudi Arabia's military in Yemen. 


Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia


The drone campaigns combined with the Saudi Arabian offensive into Yemen and upheaval caused by revolution have contributed significantly to causing crisis in Yemen, which has in-turn produced mass-starvation. With relative impunity, Saudi airstrikes have targeted hospitals, mass protests, and critical infrastructure including roads, bridges, hospitals and food and water supplies. These actions have obliterated Yemen's economy, the most important one being agriculture. Before these events consistent political, economic and ecological marginalisation and exploitation of rural areas' in Yemen have pushed rural people into poverty and food insecurity as illustrated by Rami Zurayk and Anne Gough: 

"Spurred by the World Bank, the Yemeni government unilaterally cut subsidies for fuel and other basic necessities in 2005, despite the fact that about half the Yemeni populations lives under the poverty line and the majority of the population spends 60 per cent of their income on food. Such a measure avoided any necessary voting or passage of legislation in Parliament. Between 2009 - 2011...the number of food-insecure households doubled and child malnutrition is at almost 50 percent (2014)...75 percent were dependent on tenant farming." (Rami Zurayk and Anne Gough, The New Middle East, 120-121)

Elites profited in Yemen and left their civilians dependent on them for subsidies. The outbreak of revolution highlighted the fallacy of these rash socio-economic policies and the onset of civil war worsened this food crisis while the Saudi-intervention provided the final push needed to assure the mass-starvation of the Yemeni people. 

Thousands of innocent civilians have been indiscriminately killed and wounded by Saudi airstrikes, cluster bombs and lethal explosive devices as the UK, USA, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, according to Amnesty International, reported sales and licenses to Saudi Arabia worth more than $25 billion in 2015. According to Salon, 'between 2010 to 2014, the U.S. sold more than $90 billion in weapons to the Saudi regime. In October 2015, the Obama administration approved over $11 billion more. Less than three days after the November Paris attacks, the U.S. sold another $1.3 billion of bombs to Saudi Arabia.' It has been systematically proven by numerous human rights groups and non-governmental organisations that these weapons have been used against civilians in Yemen. 

Public opinion in the UK and numerous Parliamentary officials have expressed their outrage against these war crimes. Despite this, the Conservative government, in the face of overwhelming evidence of Saudi Arabian war crimes, is still refusing to freeze armaments to the state in question. In a written statement to Parliament on 5th September, Johnson stated: "The key test for our continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia in relation to international humanitarian law is whether those weapons might be used in a commission of a serious breach of international humanitarian law. Having regarded to all the information available to us, we assess this test has not been met."  In these circumstances it is grimly amusing to hear Johnson contradictions accusing Putin of "handing the revolver" to Damascus and "firing the revolver" in Syria when the Western governments have done exactly the same with Riyadh in Yemen with the same abhorrent results for innocent civilians. 

Deceit, hypocrisy, propaganda and lies are not a new phenomenon in the game of power and geo-politics, particularly in the wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Guardian was swift to expose Johnson's sources supporting his statement which argued that Saudi Arabia had not breached international humanitarian law. These sources were provided by a Saudi-led inquiry, the key actor responsible for escalating the civil war in Yemen. It is little wonder that the Kremlin and Damascus sneer at Washington, London and Paris when it accuses Syria and Russia of breaching international humanitarian law when their own drones and the weapons they give to their Saudi allies kill and maim Yemeni civilians, destroy their homes and hospitals, and drive them into the hands of Houthi rebels, AQAP and ISIS. For example on August 20th, 2016, hundreds of thousands gathered in the capital in support of the Houthi leadership who are being targeted by the Saudis. The display of Yemen's national flags across the length and breadth of the mass protest illustrate that it is not a certainty that "sectarian" conflict will occur (that is unless ISIS is allowed to grow in strength and power).

Within the White House and Parliament, many politicians and policymakers will support (and have argued) and justify the consequences of Saudi Arabia's Operation Decisive Storm. According to Adel al-Jubair in March 2015, Saudi ambassador to the US (now Saudi Arabia's foreign minister) was launched "to defend and support the legitimate government of Yemen and prevent the radical Houthi movement from taking over the country." On September 6th 2016, al-Jubair stated: "It is in Britain's interests to help restore Yemen's democratically-elected government and prevent the country becoming a safe haven for terror groups to carry out a new wave of terrorist attack against Britain and other Western countries."  This was the day after Johnson defended Saudi actions in Yemen as al-Jubair was visiting Britain to lobby ministers to continue supporting the Saudi war effort.


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However, it had become clear long before al-Jubair's statement that Yemen had become a haven for insurgent groups such as Al-Qa'ida and Islamic State.  Civil war, revolution and the accumulation of grievances have allowed Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to supplant traditional forms of authority in areas of the country. However, despite AQAP's violence against Western governments (as demonstrated by the first wave of attacks in Paris in February 2015) the organisation is not simply exploiting Yemen's instability. AQAP was being supported by members of Saudi Arabia's coalition and private donors, a situation not dissimilar to the "moderates" the Gulf States support in Syria. According to 'a BBC documentary crew...they filmed jihadists and pro-government militia men fighting rebels near the the southern city of Taiz, supported by UAE soldiers,' members of Saudi Arabia's coalition. 

This support for AQAP, direct and indirect, in conjunction to Yemen's collapse allowed the group to strike significant financial gains equivalent to those ISIS had when they seized Mosul in 2014 and Sirte in 2015. According to Reuters 'AQAP looted Mukalla’s central bank branch, netting an estimated $100 million, according to two senior Yemeni security officials.“That represents their biggest financial gain to date,” one of the officials said. “That’s enough to fund them at the level they had been operating for at least another 10 years."' It is estimated that AQAP's seizure of Yemen's economic centres along the coastline in the form of Mukalla, Shaqra, Zinjibar, Jaar and Ash Shihr produced an estimated at $2 - $5 million in revenue per day through oil smuggling, taxes and tariffs on shipping. 

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While AQAP was driven from Mukalla by UAE forces, its capabilities have not been weakened as it began an renewed insurgency against the Gulf-coalition. Destroying AQAP would not support the Saudi Arabia-led coalition's short-term geo-political interests and ideological battle against the "Shiite Crescent" despite the organisation's long-standing opposition to the al-Saud monarchy. A Yemen destabilised by areas controlled by jihādist proxies, volatile proxies calculated by the Saudis as being a containable threat, is preferable to a stable country led by President Hadi and the Shiite Houthis which who are supported by Iran. Similarly, ensuring that Yemen's democracy is killed in its cradle and its interests are aligned with those of Saudi Arabia is central to the Gulf States' foreign policy agenda. That AQAP was able to quietly establish an emirate along the coast of Yemen under Qasim al-Raymi, in a manner not dissimilar to the successes of ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014 (whose affiliates have also emerged in Yemen in Sana'a, Shabarah, al-Bayda and Hadramawt), is hardly an illustration that Saudi Arabia's war has blunted the threat of "terror" to Yemeni and/or British civilians. Contrary to al-Jubair's statement in September, Saudi intervention has exacerbated and actively encouraged AQAP's rise, has done all it can to kill reform in Yemen, and ensured the Somalianisation of Yemen. 

The drone campaigns in Yemen, while a success through a narrow security agenda in containing AQAP, have largely fomented instability to Yemen. The Saudi-intervention has catalysed the collapse of Yemeni infrastructure and the famine as Saudi authorities have "asked" UN and Red Cross aid workers to stay away from rebel-held areas of the country. Equally, it is clear that the attempts by Saudi, US and British operatives to curb the influences of Salafi-jihadists movements have been spectacular miscalculation.

Like Syria, Yemen has become immensely dangerous for aid workers, journalists, and non-governmental organisations and charities seeking to alleviate and report on the suffering of innocent civilians. According to Amnesty International, all parties to the conflict have committed violations of human rights and broken international humanitarian law. Such conditions has already made the delivery of aid to both urban and rural areas difficult. This delivery may even be rendered impossible beyond official government zones by the resurgence of AQAP and the rise of ISIS in Yemen who have shown no qualms in kidnapping and/or killing foreign aid workers in other countries destroyed by conflict.

The responsibility for the tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands who will die from man-made famine will lie at the doorstep of British Parliament and the White House, complicit as it actively supports Saudi Arabian policies. The death toll could be higher if one considers that 80 percent of Yemen's population (21 million people) have been in grave need water, food and medical aid since the Saudi offensive began. The United Kingdom's historical record on famine is grim. During the tenure of the British Empire, 12-29 million Indians died of starvation under the British Empire, while in 1943 nearly four million Bengalis starved to death when Winston Churchill diverted food to British soldiers fighting in the Second World War. In 2016, decades later, policy failures are being repeated as we divert armaments into the Saudi governments coffers to bomb civilians and critical infrastructure with impunity as 14.4 million Yemeni men, women and children (fifty-eight percent of Yemen's population), according to Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, are poised to starve to death in the name of geo-politics.  The prospects of a population starving to death, as demonstrated by the 1933 famine in Ukraine, are terrifying: 

"The countryside had gone mute. The human beings fled...if they were lucky; more likely they too were dead, or too weak to make noise. Cut off from attention of the world...cut off from official help or sympathy...cut off from the economy by intense poverty and inequitable planning, cut off from the rest of the country...people died alone, families died alone, whole villages died alone...starvation led not to rebellion but to amorality, to crime, to indifference, to madness, to paralysis, and finally to death. Peasants endured months of indescribable pain, but also indescribable because people were too weak, too poor, too young, too illiterate to chronicle what was happening to them...The death was slow, humiliating, ubiquitous, and generic. To die of starvation with some sort of dignity was beyond the reach of almost everyone. The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did...There was little that even the kindest of strangers could do for the orphans. The boys and girls lay about on sheets and blankets, eating their own excrement waiting for death." (Timonthy Synder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 46-51)"

Holodomor, to kill by starvation, man-made famines, food as a weapon of war when deployed is a horrifying prospect. Whether it be in Sudan and Somalia in Africa, the Armenians sent on death marches by Turkish forces (1915-1916), the man-made famine in Lebanon (1915-1918) or Eastern Europe during the darkest days of reigns of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hiter, starvation carries a terrifying power. It is indiscriminate and eviscerates societies. 

In Ukraine, as illustrated by Synder, the Soviet famines painted a gruesome picture of what famines have done to human beings when pushed to their utmost limits and the slow, hopeless, silent, and undignified way in which people can die by starvation. This is not to compare the genocidal policies of Stalin to the current situation in Yemen. The motives and context of the conflict are immensely different. However, the example gives an idea of what starvation will do to the innocent men, women and children in Yemen and what they will experience should they be allowed to starve to death.

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The plight of Yemen is not an accident or natural catastrophe. Such terminology implies there is no one to blame. The conflict in Yemen is man-made, crafted by the "Global of War on Terror", disastrous social, political and economic policies and Saudi-led operations. Therefore, the famine stalking Yemen is man-made and it lies with us to question the UK policymakers, politicians, businessmen, "interests" and "allies" complicit in creating and benefiting from the conflict which created mass-starvation, one of the many atrocities in Yemen's civil war. The United Kingdom's forgotten war in Yemen is a national disgrace. 

Matthew Williams