Article published in The Times, 9 February 2016. © Richard Kemp
Following a leaked UN report alleging war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition against civilians in Yemen, there have been calls, including by Jeremy Corbyn, for Britain to cease supplying military equipment and to withdraw our military advisers.
The Saudis are not fighting this war as we would. That is true also of the Afghan, Iraqi, Libyan, Malian and Nigerian forces that we have trained, armed, funded, advised and fought alongside. I knew an Iraqi military unit whose immediate action under attack was to form the “death bloom”, spraying rapid fire in every direction at anything that moved.
In fighting the global war on terrorism, our preferred policy is to support and advise the indigenous forces of countries where violent jihad is taking a hold in a way that threatens our interests and those of our allies. This is preferable to deploying our own combat forces to deal directly with the problem, especially in the wake of long and costly campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Such support, sometimes including military trainers and advisers in headquarters or at the front, not only helps to defeat the threat but also buys vital political influence.
We do all that we can to induce the local forces to fight according to the laws of armed conflict. But we cannot always dictate to them and if we were to make our support for them conditional on them fighting exactly as we do, then this policy would cease to exist and we would either have to accept the growing threats against us or send in our own troops. Of course we do have red lines, and our forces cannot actively participate in operations that breach the laws of armed conflict.
It is vital to Britain and the West that the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency against Yemen’s legitimate government is defeated. Yemen is of major global strategic importance, including for the stability of the Gulf and the security of oil supplies. We saw the rise there, due to instability, of one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, responsible for many of the most devastating attacks in the region as well as in the US and Europe. Islamic State (Isis) also has a growing presence in Yemen.
Iran’s active involvement in the country has been overstated. But Houthi success would provide the ayatollahs with strategic opportunities to boost their imperial aggression in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, which represents an increasing danger that must be contained.
The Saudi-led coalition cannot hope to bring stability to Yemen without the military intervention it has been carrying out. But do their actions cross our red lines? Despite the UN’s accusations it is unlikely that Saudi operations have involved deliberate, systematic targeting of the civilian population. I have worked extensively with Saudi military and intelligence forces spanning many years. I believe they are currently making as much effort as they can to minimise civilian casualties while striking effectively at the rebels. I have seen credible third-party imagery analysis, and held discussions with serving military officials involved with Saudi operations, which also strongly contradict the UN’s view.
Aside from moral considerations and the need to keep their western allies on board, the Saudis know they have to live forever alongside the Shia population of northern Yemen. They have no interest in deliberately massacring them and making that coexistence even more difficult. Nevertheless innocents have died in their thousands, many killed by coalition air strikes. Tragic though this is, and contrary to an increasingly prevalent view in the West, every civilian death in a battle zone is not a war crime.
The Saudis have cutting-edge attack planes and the latest precision guided munitions. But they lack the extensive combat experience of RAF pilots that enables them to use these systems to devastating effect while minimising civilian casualties to an unprecedented degree, a high bar that few other nations can reach.
Nor do they have anything like the level of sophistication in surveillance, intelligence collection, processing and targeting that we and the US have. There is a far higher probability that their intelligence will be wrong or imagery incorrectly analysed, leading to frequent mistakes and innocent deaths.
Many of the coalition’s shortcomings that are leading to civilian casualties fall into areas that we can advise on, including intelligence, surveillance, targeting, authorisation procedures, post-strike assessments and investigations. It would therefore be ill-judged to withdraw our military advisers. If anything, to help reduce civilian deaths we should increase their numbers. The same is true over supply of precision weapons and munitions. Perhaps Mr Corbyn would prefer that the Saudis rely on stocks of unguided weapons that are far more likely to lead to collateral damage.
The Saudis are fighting a legal war in Yemen. If they are doing all they can to avoid killing civilians, inadequate military capability and experience does not make their action criminal. In any case the UN cannot judge whether Saudi attacks are war crimes – as they baldly assert – without understanding the full context and basis of decision-making by commanders and pilots prosecuting the campaign. It is not possible to discern whether specific actions were compliant with the laws of war on the basis of imagery or hearsay, which the UN rely on.
Like so many terrorist groups around the world, including the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Isis, Hezbollah and Hamas, the Houthis use human shields to maximise civilian deaths caused by coalition strikes with the aim of bringing international pressure to force restraint on their opponents. As we saw with Hamas in the 2014 Gaza conflict, there is evidence that the Houthis have been falsifying imagery and distorting casualty statistics to mislead the UN, human rights groups and the media. Like their jihadist bedfellows everywhere, they have been killing civilians deliberately and without restraint.
The UN’s unsubstantiated accusations of war crimes plays into the hands of the Houthi insurgents and encourages their continued violence, including use of human shields. This flawed report is part of a growing trend of politically motivated activism that makes it more difficult for western nations, sensitive to allegations of collusion in war crimes, to act effectively in this type of conflict. It contributes to a new form of asymmetry in warfare, tilted in favour of the terrorists, who seek to exploit their opponents’ adherence to the laws of war while themselves totally ignoring them.