'No one has ever won a war in Yemen,' ex-defense attaché to Saudi tells RT
The civil war in Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest nations, escalated in March 2015 when Houthi rebels seized the capital, Sanaa.
A Saudi-led coalition, using weapons, logistics and training supplied by the West, launched a ferocious air campaign to restore the authority of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
The war, which shows no sign of abating, has blighted the region with famine and cholera. Around 10,000 civilians have been killed and 40,000 injured, according to UN figures.
Critics of the Saudi war say Britain has a moral and historical obligation to stop selling weapons to the Gulf kingdom (£3.8 billion-worth – or US$5.04 billion – since March 2015, according to Save the Children) and to diplomatically isolate Riyadh, forcing it to change course.
Lees, who was also head of British defense intelligence staff in Washington in the 1980s, thinks beyond bolstering the aid effort to Yemen, Britain can do virtually nothing to help resolve the crisis.
“We don’t have the diplomatic clout to do it anymore, I’m afraid. Probably because everyone is so concerned with Brexit that the rest of the world can go hang, as far as the Foreign Office is concerned,” he told RT.
British taxpayers have given generously in aid – £139 million will be spent this year – many times more in fact than the nation makes in tax revenues from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia (around £13 million in 2016). But Lees says without oversight to manage how this money is spent, aid is merely “an Elastoplast solution to a gaping wound.”
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Office incumbent, gets particular blame for Yemen’s neglect.
“I think it’s very difficult to see what the current foreign secretary is interested in, other than himself, to be quite honest,” says Lees.
“I mean, he’s obviously concerned with his food, judging by his figure lately, but other than that, I really don’t think he’s that much bothered. He deals in soundbites, not in judgement.
“I think the Foreign Office has tried desperately to educate the foreign secretary, but the foreign secretary is not prepared to be educated.”
Personalities aside, Lees says successive governments have failed to listen to their own Middle East experts.
“We made a huge mistake going into Iraq and we have compounded it by taking the wrong side in most of the Arab Spring,” he said.
“I think, for instance, we have toyed with Libya – big mistake – because that’s been a disaster. We took the wrong side in Syria, because what’s happened in Syria is it’s just allowed the extreme Salafists to take advantage of the situation.
“We haven’t played our hand at all well in the Middle East, I’m afraid.”
And it’s beginning to look as though the Saudis have overplayed theirs in Yemen, begging the question: can they win?
“I think it’s unlikely, because in my experience no one has ever won a war in Yemen,” said Lees.
“The Romans sent a legion down to the Yemen to try and take control of the incense trail. The legion just disappeared. No one knew where it went to. And if you see the terrain and the people down there, you have a good idea what happened to them.
“We’ve never won a war. The Egyptians failed miserably. The Soviets failed miserably in the south. So I’m afraid it’s just one of those places in the world, a bit like Afghanistan, where no one will succeed.”
If history is destined to repeat itself, and victory is off the cards for the Saudis, how can the crisis be resolved?
“A resolution would be a withdrawal by the Saudi-led coalition. But of course that means losing face. And losing face is never a happy business,” said Lees.
“The ideal thing for the Saudis would have been not to go in in the first place.
“When they decided to go in, they had no exit strategy in Yemen. And that is a big mistake militarily.”
Surely, then, Britain ought to feel ashamed of its involvement? Especially as Saudi Arabia employs British-made weapons, with scant international oversight, to maintain its war effort.
“I don’t think we have anything to be ashamed of,” said Lees.
“Our restrictions on selling arms are very strict, much stricter than almost any other country, as far as I know, much stricter than the French or even the Americans. But there is a limit to how much you can impose restrictions on their use once you’ve sold them the arms.
“If we found they were using them internally to put down, for instance, the Shia population in the east, then there would be a problem.
“But if they’re using it in what they consider a legitimate war, and the war against the Houthis is in their terms legitimate – I mean the Houthis have in the past attacked Saudi Arabia, they have fired missiles into Saudi Arabia – so the Saudis are entitled to do it.
“Whether they’re doing it sensibly is another matter. But that’s beyond our control.”
War Child UK claims the true revenue from dealings with Saudi Arabia, if repairs, maintenance and training contracts are taken into account, is almost double earlier estimates, standing at around £6 billion – a bonanza for arms giants like BAE Systems and Raytheon.
“I have no qualms about what we have sold to the Saudis. I have doubts as to whether the weapons have been used sensibly. But that’s a personal, military criticism, nothing to do with whether or not it’s legal or moral,” said Lees.
“It’s wrong to take a moral judgement on these things.”