CATF Reports Sep. 14, 2016, 9:26am


Since early 2015, when Yemen turned into a new frontier of a proxy war fought by longstanding rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, arms trade in the country has been monitored closely. In general, weapons sales tend suggest political alliances that remain bound by military interests, but are still revealing of a good disposition towards political cooperation. In Yemen especially, the evolving sponsorship of arms trade in the country has been regarded as a crucial indicator of the shifting – and otherwise hardly intelligible – geopolitical balances on the field. Recent developments revealing the increasing involvement of outside actors in the proxy war in Yemen offer little hope of regression in the medium and short term.

On the Houthi side, recent analyses implicate the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in arming the Shiite rebel group with missiles. The Houthi’s use of the Zelzal-3, an Iranian rocket that is classified by some as a short-range ballistic missile, has been recently publicized, exposing a direct trail back to Iran, who has often rejected charges of their military assistance to the group. Such a flagrant display of Iranian rockets by the Houthis serves to strengthen assumptions of Iran’s military guidance in the conflict. Additionally, Iran recently announced its plans to form a Shiite army guided by the commander of the Qud’s force, an elite Special Forces unit of IRGC that is supposed to be deployed in Yemen, among other arenas.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, the UK’s indirect involvement in the Yemen civil war has been under intense scrutiny with respect to its weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. On August 23rd, Oxfam, a major aid agency focused on the alleviation of global poverty, claimed that the UK Government is in “denial and disarray” that its arms sales to Saudi Arabia are being used in Saudi’s proxy war in Yemen against the Iranian backed Shia Houthi rebels. The organization indicated that failure to ban British weapons to Saudi Arabia is in violation of international law due to the resulting civilian casualties from Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen. Most recently, on August 15th, a Doctors Without Borders hospital was hit in a Saudi airstrike, resulting in 15 deaths, 24 injuries, and the removal of its staff from 6 hospitals in northern Yemen. Within that same week, a factory and school was struck in the Saudi-led airstrikes that killed women and children. In March of this year, a separate aerial bombing reached a Yemeni market, killing 78 civilians. A report by Human Rights Watch showed that earlier in Saudi’s bombing campaign factories in Yemen were hit with UK-manufactured weaponry. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), these include a Paveway guided bomb and Hakim cruise missile. A separate UN report released in January discovered that 119 of Saudi’s strikes violated international humanitarian law in its systematic targeting of civilians in Yemen.

Such a direct result of civilian loss from the Saudi attacks have fueled criticisms that the sale of UK’s weapons to the Gulf state is in violation of not only International Humanitarian Law, but also the Arms Trade Treaty, of which it was a signatory. Oxfam said that the UK has gone from being an “enthusiastic backer” of the agreement to “one of the most significant violators”. The aim of this treaty is to regulate international weapons trade and ensure that the export contracts of arms do not violate any embargoes and will not be used for human rights abuses or illegal arms trading. In the last year, the UK has approved the licensing sales of over 4 billion dollars’ worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia including aircraft, helicopters, drones, missiles, bombs, grenades, and tanks. In its legal attempts to fight this issue, CAAT won the right to a judicial review on weather British arms sales to Saudi Arabia are in violation of British and European export laws due to the resulting human rights abuses from the weapons sales. The high court case, where hearings are set to take place in February of 2017, calls for the government to suspend all of its current export licenses to Saudi Arabia, as well as refuse them new licenses while the legality of the sales is reviewed by the business secretary, Sajid Javid.

Although the UK is supplying the most weapons to Saudi Arabia, it is not alone. In a CAAT report, France, Germany, Italy, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK, and the US were said to have contributed to over $25 billion in licenses and sales of weapons in 2015. The United States has also received serious criticisms for informing the American public of the economic benefits of its weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, while neglecting to share where these weapons end up. Most recently, Human Rights Watch reported that U.S. weaponry was used in the Saudi-led coalition on the deadly March 15th market bombing in Yemen. Additionally, the United States has supposedly misrepresented its involvement in Yemen, claiming it was offering $139 million in humanitarian assistance in April, but, as in past aid attempts, the delivery of the aid was intercepted by the Saudi-led coalition.

Only last week, Human Rights Watch has urged both sides to immediately comply with the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty subscribed by Yemen in 1998 and to suspend the use of landmines which have caused several civilian casualties since the beginning of the conflict. Equally concerning, however, is the growing involvement of new actors aligned with either side. Also last week, Reuters reported that the largest weapons manufacturer in Brazil, Forjas Taurus, has arranged several weapons shipments through Djibouti directed to Yemen and mediated by Fares Mohammed Hassan Mana'a, an international arms smuggler on U.S. travel ban for his previous role in fostering unrest in Somalia. The identity of the recipient of the weapons shipments is still unclear at this point in the investigations, but the revelations once again confirm a general disregard for the UN arms embargo for Yemen passed in April 2015.

While the ever increasing outside participation may not come as a shock, what is shocking is the strengthening grip of AQAP’s position and finances in Yemen that have resulted in the conflict’s escalation. With the focus on the country’s capital, Sanaa, in the northern region of the country, neglect to other areas paved the way for AQAP to exploit the situation and establish its control and hardline ideology to the local population.

With such a strong degree of involvement from so many actors both directly and indirectly, the proxy conflict in Yemen continues to escalate with no end in sight. In Yemen, the hypocrisy amongst all these players is evident, and so is the role of the actors involved in abetting war crimes in the country. With this double-faceted characterization of the civil war, dangerous third party actors have not only emerged, but flourished, bringing the conflict full circle.

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