Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Britain's Hidden War

For more than four years the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition, which includes the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, has “targeted civilians … in a widespread and systematic manner”, according to the UN – dropping bombs on hospitals, schools, weddings, funerals and even camps for displaced people fleeing the bombing. And British weapons are doing much of the killing.

Britain does not merely supply weapons for this war: it provides the personnel and expertise required to keep the war going. The British government has deployed RAF personnel to work as engineers, and to train Saudi pilots and targeteers – while an even larger role is played by BAE Systems, Britain’s biggest arms company, which the government has subcontracted to provide weapons, maintenance and engineers inside Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi bosses absolutely depend on BAE Systems,” John Deverell, a former MoD official and defence attache to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, stated. “They couldn’t do it without us.” 

A BAE employee recently put it more plainly to Channel 4’s Dispatches: “If we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”

The British bombs that rain down on Yemen are produced in three towns: Glenrothes in Scotland, and Harlow and Stevenage in south-east England. Bombs roll off production lines owned by Raytheon UK and BAE Systems, firms contracted by the government to manufacture Paveway bombs (£22,000 apiece), Brimstone bombs (£105,000 apiece), and Storm Shadow cruise missiles (£790,000 apiece) for the Saudi Royal Air Force. BAE, under government contract, also assembles the jets that drop these bombs in hangars just outside the village of Warton, Lancashire. It is impossible to say how many bombs the UK has sent to Yemen, because the government in 2013 and 2014 granted BAE three special arms-export licences that permit the sale of an unlimited number of bombs to Saudi Arabia without requiring disclosure of how many have been sold. 

Once these weapons arrive in Saudi Arabia, Britain’s involvement is far from over. The Saudi military lacks the expertise to use these weapons to fight a sustained air war – so BAE, under another contract to the UK government, provides what are known as “in-country” services. In practice, this means that around 6,300 British contractors are stationed at forward operating bases in Saudi Arabia. There, they train Saudi pilots and conduct essential maintenance night and day on planes worn out from flying thousands of miles across the Saudi desert to their targets in Yemen. They also supervise Saudi soldiers to load bombs on to planes and set their fuses for their intended targets. Inside Saudi forward operating bases, there are thousands of British contractors working to keep the war machine moving. British contractors coordinate the distribution of bombs and aircraft parts. They manage climate-controlled armories and work in shifts to ensure bombs are dispatched in a timely manner for fresh raids. Alongside RAF personnel, British contractors train Saudi pilots to conduct hazardous bombing raids in Yemen’s rugged northern mountains and over its cities. They also manage avionics and radar systems to ensure that Saudi planes can get to and from their targets, and conduct the deep aircraft maintenance necessary to keep them circling over Yemen.

Around 80 serving RAF personnel work inside Saudi Arabia. Sometimes they work for BAE to assist in maintaining and preparing aircraft. At other times they work as auditors to ensure that BAE is fulfilling its Ministry of Defence contracts. Additional RAF “liaison officers” work inside the command-and-control centre, from where targets in Yemen are selected.

British military exports to Riyadh multiplied almost 35-fold in one year, from £83m in 2014 to £2.9bn in 2015. Saudi Arabia can afford to buy these weapons, but it has traditionally lacked the skills and manpower to deploy them. British personnel have played a major role in picking up the slack. Government contractors carry out around 95% of the tasks necessary to fight the air war, one former BAE employee told Channel 4’s Dispatches – an estimate confirmed by a former senior British official who worked in Saudi Arabia during the air war.

On 27 March 2015, one day after the first bombs fell on Yemen, foreign secretary Philip Hammond told reporters that Britain would “support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”. This would prove to be an understatement.

Last year Saudi Arabia decided to deploy significant ground forces across the border – and here too, the British have joined the mission. In May 2018, an unknown number of British troops were sent to Yemen to assist Saudi ground forces. Since then, multiple newspapers have published reports of British special forces wounded in gun battles inside Houthi-controlled territory. The presence of British special forces in Yemen has not been officially acknowledged, but has become an open secret in defence circles. A senior British diplomatic source told me that the decision to approve military assistance to Saudi Arabia emerged from a meeting in London between British ministers and Bin Salman during his state visit to the UK in March 2018 – when he signed a memorandum of intent to buy 48 more jets worth £10bn to upgrade his war-ravaged fleet. On 23 May 2018, Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, released a carefully worded statement committing an undisclosed number of UK troops to provide “information, advice and assistance” to “mitigate” the threat to Saudi Arabia from Houthi missiles.

Under British law, it is illegal to licence arms exports if they might be used deliberately or recklessly against civilians – or in legal terms, to violate international humanitarian law. There is overwhelming evidence that the Saudis are flagrantly in violation, and yet when questions are raised in Parliament about Britain’s role in the atrocities occurring in Yemen, Conservative ministers typically limit themselves to three well-worn responses.

First, they claim that Britain operates “one of the most robust arms export regimes in the world”. Second, they say that while Britain may arm Saudi Arabia, it does not pick the targets in Yemen. Third, they say that the Saudi-led coalition already investigates its own alleged violations of international humanitarian law.

These responses have long since been overtaken by the bloody reality of the Yemen war. In fact, as the conflict has continued, the killing of civilians has actually accelerated. According to Larry Lewis, a former US State Department official who was sent to Saudi Arabia in 2015 in an attempt to reduce civilian harm, the proportion of strikes against civilians by Saudi-led forces almost doubled between 2017 and 2018. Last July, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the architect of the air war, issued a royal decree “pardoning all military personnel who have taken part in Operation Restoring Hope of their respective military and disciplinary penalties.”

The Saudi-led coalition investigates itself. This work is done by the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), a body composed of around 20 military officers from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which is charged with investigating reports of civilian deaths in Yemen. Larry Lewis, the US official who urged the Saudis to establish the JIAT, told me that the team does not have researchers on the ground inside Yemen, so it must rely on the Saudi Royal Air Force to provide it with information. “Occasionally they will take trips to Yemen to investigate high-visibility incidents,” he said. Lewis also said the JIAT was “designed to reduce common mistakes” such as hitting targets on the no-strike list – wells, hospitals, schools. Similarly, it was supposed to reduce the chances of Saudi forces “failing to deploy tactical patience” – for instance, bombing Houthi militiamen when they stop at a market, rather than waiting for them to leave to minimise civilian casualties. But Lewis now says the JIAT failed on its own terms, because it was simply ignored by the Saudi defence ministry.

For the British government, however, the JIAT provides a convenient figleaf for the continued licensing of arms exports to Riyadh. Researchers at the open-source investigative agency Bellingcat have accused the coalition of dishonesty in “the vast majority of JIAT assessments”. Rawan Shaif, who heads the group’s Yemen project, said that “the information that the UK has been relying on” is coming from “a partner you have been directly supporting in a conflict, who is lying to you about the majority of strikes”.

In the case of two particularly deadly attacks in May and July 2015 – in which more than 100 people were killed by airstrikes on outdoor markets in the town of Zabid and Fayoush, a suburb of Aden – the JIAT assessment simply insisted that the coalition had not bombed either location, in spite of reports by the UN, the BBC, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, as well as camera-smartphone footage from the sites making it clear that an airstrike had taken place. Elsewhere the JIAT has justified strikes by flatly asserting that the targets were military ones. After reports of civilian deaths in an airstrike in al-Jawf governorate in September 2016, JIAT released a statement claiming that the coalition had hit “Houthi commanders” travelling in a pickup truck. But when the UN and the Yemeni human rights group Mwatana made independent visits to the site, they discovered that the victims were a woman driving with her two sisters-in-law and their 12 children.

UK arms sales buy Britain influence with Saudi Arabia. John Deverell, the former director of defence diplomacy at the MoD, who was defence attache to Saudi Arabia and Yemen between 2001 and 2003, said “We are worried that if we do speak truth to power, we will endanger the commercial relationship.” It is this commercial relationship that is keeping Britain firmly ensnared in the Yemen war. Its foundation is an multi-billion pound, government-to-government arms deal signed in 1985 called al-Yamamah. This guarantees British maintenance, training and rearmament of any British aircraft sold to Saudi Arabia, in war and peacetime. The deal is open-ended, which means that its terms, which in the 1980s applied to Tornado aircraft, now cover the export of BAE’s newer Typhoon jets. The government refuses to disclose the total income from the Al-Yamamah contract but former BAE CEO Mike Turner put it at more than £40bn in 2005. Nick Gilby, a researcher who has written a book on the deal, estimates the current sales figure to be “conservatively, £60bn” based on BAE statements and annual reports. Under the terms of the deal, Saudi Arabia reimburses the British Ministry of Defence for the costs it incurs by paying BAE to arm and maintain the Saudi air force, plus a 2% fee for the time of civil servants administering the procurement. BAE depends on this state contract for its survival, but it also wields enormous sway with the government as the principal executor of this multi-billion dollar deal.

Although al-Yamamah does not generate any income per se for the British treasury, it is the bedrock of a deeper financial relationship between London and Riyadh. The House of Saud uses its oil revenues to buy British stocks, bonds and luxury property; in 2017 it spent £93bn in Britain. David Wearing, a specialist on UK-Saudi relations at Royal Holloway University, estimates that a fifth of the UK current account deficit is financed by Saudi cash, which “stabilises an increasingly vulnerable pound”.

In 2015, Riyadh privately communicated that it would squeeze Britain financially if the government wavered in its military cooperation. “At the outset, the imperative was conveyed that they saw British support of its war as a key test,” the minister recalled. “If you fail, you’re out, as far as commercial opportunities and influence in the future.”

Asked how it was possible that his own department – the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) – had issued blanket approvals for arms exports used in Yemen, an official responded, “I don’t know, it just is. I’m doing what I’m told and doing my job,” then he added, “But I’m uncomfortably aware that Adolf Eichmann said the same thing.”

The head of the ECJU, Edward Bell, has also expressed discomfort with re-arming the Saudi air campaign. “My gut tells me we should suspend exports to Saudi Arabia,” he wrote in a 2016 email to Sajid Javid, who was then the minister responsible for arms licensing. Javid ignored Bell’s advice.

Parliamentary scrutiny of Britain’s compliance with arms export control laws is the responsibility of the Committees for Arms Export Controls (CAEC). This cross-party grouping, which includes 18 MPs, is chaired by Graham Jones, a Labour MP who has criticised the “dishonesty” of NGOs reporting on human-rights violations in Yemen, written in support of Bin Salman and the Saudi-led coalition, and touted BAE’s “vital role” for employment and the economy in his Lancashire constituency.

Dr Anna Stavrianakis, an academic researching arms licensing at the University of Sussex, who has regularly given evidence to CAEC, accused Jones of keeping Yemen off the committee’s agenda. “The government deliberately mobilises doubt and ambiguity when it comes to international humanitarian law violations in Yemen,” she said. “And the chair acts in support of government policy rather than acting impartially to scrutinise it.” In an email to the Guardian, Jones replied that his critics were “far-left Marxists who back a violent, racist, Islamic fascist militia” in Yemen, and said he had been “at the forefront of discussions on Yemeni issues”.

QC Philippe Sands says that ministers should be personally concerned about the prospect of facing criminal charges for their role in arming Saudi Arabia. “If the United Kingdom is supplying weapons that are being used to commit crimes, then the possibility cannot be excluded that a minister who signs off on the sales in that knowledge could in the future be hauled before a court of law, national or international.” British case law is clear that knowingly supplying a weapon that is used to commit a crime can mean that the supplier of the weapon is also liable for that crime. According to Wayne Jordash QC, government officials would face a higher risk of prosecution if Britain is a “party to the conflict”. Under international law, being a party to a conflict means providing military, financial or logistical support that directly degrades the military capacity of another belligerent and weakens their ability to conduct hostilities.

The contortions of the British government to obscure its
involvement in the Yemen war are nothing short of acrobatic. The government has tethered Britain, its military and its economy to the richest nation in the Arab world as it brutalises the poorest. Saudi Arabia is estimated to have spent $60-70bn every year on its failing war, nearly four times the current GDP of Yemen, and enough money to have secured the livelihoods of a generation of Yemenis.

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