'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Seumas Milne - The US isn’t winding down its wars – it’s just running them at arm’s length
So relentless has the violence convulsing the Middle East
become that an attack on yet another Arab country and its descent into
full-scale war barely registers in the rest of the world. That’s how it has
been with the onslaught on impoverished Yemen by western-backed Saudi
Arabia and a string of other Gulf dictatorships.
Barely two weeks into their bombardment from air and sea,
more than 500 have been killed and the Red Cross is warning of a “catastrophe” in the port of Aden.
Where half a century ago Yemenis were tortured and killed by British colonial
troops, Houthi rebels from the north are now fighting Saudi-backed forces loyal
to the ousted President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Up to 40 civilians
sheltering at a UN refugee camp in the poorest country in the Arab world were
killed in a single Saudi air attack last week.
But of course the US and Britain are standing shoulder
to shoulder with the Saudi intervention. Already providing “logistical and
intelligence” support via a “joint planning cell”, the US this week announced
it is stepping up weapons deliveries to the Saudis. Britain’s foreign
secretary, Phillip Hammond, has promised to “support the Saudi operation in every way we can”. The pretext for the Saudi war is that Yemen’s Houthi
fighters are supported by Iran and loyal to a Shia branch of Islam. Hadi, who
was installed after a popular uprising as part of a Saudi-orchestrated deal and
one-man election in 2012, is said to be the legitimate president with every
right to call on international support.
In reality, Iran’s backing for the homegrown Houthis seems
to be modest, and their Zaidi strand of Islam is a sort of halfway house
between Sunni and Shia. Hadi’s term as transitional president expired last
year, and he resigned in January before fleeing the country after the Houthi
takeover of the Yemeni capital Sana’a. Compare Hadi’s treatment with the fully
elected former president of Ukraine, whose flight from Kiev to another part of
the country a year ago was considered by the western powers to have somehow
legitimised his overthrow, and it’s clear how elastic these things can be.
But the clear danger of the Saudi attack on Yemen is that it
will ignite a wider conflagration, intensifying the sectarian schism across the
region and potentially bring Saudi Arabia and
Iran into direct conflict. Already 150,000 troops are massed on the Yemeni
border. Pakistan is under pressure to send troops to do Riyadh’s dirty work for
it. The Egyptian dictator Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has said he will despatch troops
to fight in Yemen “if necessary”.
The Houthi uprising, supported by parts of the army and
Hadi’s predecessor as president, has its roots in poverty and discrimination,
and dates back to the time of the US-British invasion of Iraq more than a
decade ago. But Yemen,
which has a strong al-Qaida presence, has also been the target of hundreds of
murderous US drone attacks in recent years. And the combination of civil war
and external intervention is giving al-Qaida a new lease of life.
The idea that the corrupt tyranny of Saudi Arabia, the
sectarian heart of reaction in the Middle East since colonial times, and its
fellow Gulf autocracies – backed by the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu – are
going to bring stability, let alone freedom, to the people of Yemen is beyond
fantasy. This is the state, after all, that crushed the popular uprising in
Bahrain in 2011, that funded the overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president
in 2013, and has sponsored takfirijihadi movements for years with disastrous
For the Saudis, the war in Yemen is about enforcing their
control of the Arabian peninsula and their leadership of the Sunni world in the
face of Shia and Iranian resurgence. For the western powers that arm them to
the hilt, it’s about money, and the pivotal role that Saudi Arabia plays in
protecting their interests in the oil and gas El Dorado that is the Middle
Since the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US and its
allies are reluctant to risk boots on the ground. But their military
interventions are multiplying. Barack Obama has bombed seven mainly Muslim countries since he became US
president. There are now four full-scale wars raging in the Arab world (Iraq,
Syria, Libya and Yemen), and every one of them has involved US and wider
western military intervention. Saudi Arabia is by far the largest British arms
market; US weapons sales to the Gulf have exceeded those racked up by George
Bush, and last week Obama resumed US military aid to Egypt.
What has changed is that, in true imperial fashion, the
west’s alliances have become more contradictory, playing off one side against
the other. In Yemen, it is supporting the Sunni powers against Iran’s Shia
allies. In Iraq, it is the opposite: the US and its friends are giving air
support to Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting the Sunni takfiri group
Isis. In Syria, they are bombing one part of the armed opposition while arming
and training another.
The nuclear deal with Iran – which the Obama administration
pushed through in the teeth of opposition from Israel and the Gulf states –
needs to be seen in that context. The US isn’t leaving the Middle East, as some
imagine, but looking for a more effective way of controlling it at arm’s length: by
rebalancing the region’s powers, as the former MI6 officer Alastair Crooke puts
it, in an “equilibrium of antagonisms”.
So a tilt towards Iran can be offset with war in Yemen or
Syria. Something similar can be seen in US policy in Latin America. Only a
couple of months after Obama’s historic opening towards Cuba last December, he signed an order
declaring Cuba’s closest ally, Venezuela, “an unusual and extraordinary threat
to US national security” and imposed sanctions over alleged human rights
abuses. Those pale into insignificance next to many carried out by
the US government itself, let alone by some of its staunchest allies such
as Saudi Arabia. There’s no single route to regime change, and the US is
clearly hoping to use the opportunity of Venezuela’s economic problems to
ratchet up its long-standing destabilisation campaign.
But it’s a game that can also go badly wrong. When it comes
to US support for Saudi aggression in Yemen, that risks not only breaking the
country apart but destabilising Saudi Arabia itself. What’s needed is a
UN-backed negotiation to end the Yemeni conflict, not another big power-fuelled
sectarian proxy war. These calamitous interventions have to be brought to an