This article is based on the notes for an introduction given by Chris on 22 January which, along with the discussion afterwards, can be watched on YouTube: ‘Yemen: Towards the Abyss’
Nothing quite demonstrates the British government’s alleged commitment to containing the growing war in the Levant like slavishly following the United States in bombing Yemen, with a promise to keep doing it until the seas are safe for the replenishing of Israel’s war machine and international trade. How quickly Biden and Sunak acted when profits were under threat, how complicit and silent they are as hundreds die daily under Israeli bombardment.
Between 2015 and 2021 the Saudi-led, but Western armed, coalition against the Houthis managed to reduce large areas of Yemen to choleric rubble with millions struggling to feed themselves. According to the United Nations some 377,000 people have been killed due to the war, 150,000 from direct violence and the rest from disease and privation. Such a loss of life would be in numerical terms like witnessing the population of Coventry, or in proportion to population, Birmingham be bombed and starved to death. That the Saudis, their mercenary army and western backers still managed to essentially lose the war gives us the idea that the Houthi forces will, despite what could be enormous losses from US and British air power, go on, gain more support and continue to threaten shipping. The strikes by the US and Britain have actually made shipping less safe in the region.
The Houthi Menace
The Houthi movement are nationalistic, anti-Saudi and anti-semitic. They are fearful of the aggressive Wahhabism of the Saudi monarchy and the role of the United States in the region. They are seeking to regain the former power held by Shias in northern Yemen and seized the opportunity of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the dictatorial President of Yemen from 1990, to expand their power.
The culmination of the Arab Spring in Yemen, like in many other countries, ended in a bloodbath, hijacked by religious fanatics, military thugs and foreign puppets. The Houthis took the capital of Yemen – Sanaa – in 2014 and much of the west thereafter, leaving the internationally recognised government supported for now by southern separatist militia in control of Aden, the strategically important Bab al-Mandab Strait and the oil fields in Marib and central and eastern Yemen. To complicate matters further the Al Qaeda franchise in the region has set up shop in the Yemeni interior, holding the coastal city of Mukalla in 2015 only to lose it again the year after to forces led by the United Arab Emirates. However, the United States and Saudi have looked the other way and cut deals with Al Qaeda at times, turning them against the Houthis and the Zaydi Shia population of Yemen.
Though the Houthi movement has not reinstated Sharia or the Zaydi Imamate we must be clear that they do not share the interests of the working class in Yemen or elsewhere. Likewise, we must be clear that the attempt to simply paint the Houthis as mere proxies of Iran is about strengthening the case in the West for war against Iran. Whilst allies of Iran out of political convenience, the Houthis are followers of Zayd ibn Ali, who died trying to overthrow the Umayyad Caliphate in 740CE. Unlike Iran’s leaders who follow the dominant Twelver Shi’ism, the Zaydi branch followed by the Houthis and 35% of Yemen’s population differs on Islamic jurisprudence, the ismah – or infallibility – of chosen Imams and which line of Muhammad’s descendents have a rightful claim to the Imamate. The history of these disputes and schisms fill entire libraries, but for us what is important is that whilst Iran and the Houthis are aligned politically against the United States, the Saudi monarchy and Israel, the Houthis are masters of their own military and political actions.
That brings us to the question of why Houthi forces are targeting shipping in the Red Sea and in the Gulf of Aden. UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron swinishly tells us that Houthi missile strikes and commando raids have absolutely nothing to do with the genocidal war in Gaza, echoing the Biden administration. Naturally, Cameron is joined by the very loyal Keir Starmer and the Labour front bench. This is of course a lie, one of many doing the rounds right now.
Abdul Malik al-Houthi and his reactionary movement may have taken the opportunity of the war in Gaza to distract millions of Yemenis from wondering why they are still starving and still without the most basic services, but ultimately the strikes on shipping have a clear goal of halting the ethnic cleansing in the Gaza strip and for the opening of the border to allow medicines and food to enter. The Yemeni people suffering years of bombardment and blockade know too well what the people in Gaza are living through. Yes, there is the stench of anti-semitism from Houthi leaders and slogans and a real alliance with Iran and those within the so-called “Axis of Resistance”, but these truths are not what is galvanising millions behind the Houthis in Yemen and across the region.
Profits over Palestinians
The Houthi action along with the response of the United States and Britain has choked access to the Gulf of Suez seeing Danish shipping giant Maersk and many of the other shipping firms re-routing their ships to go around the Cape of Good Hope. This takes a great deal longer, between 9 to 11 days. The Suez canal is responsible for around 10% of the world’s trade in oil and liquified gas, 15% of its grain, 12% of all global trade, making a total of 30% of all container traffic – worth over $1tn a year. The cost of rerouting ships, interrupted shipments, spoiled food and high energy prices will be passed on to workers around the world. Don’t expect the shipping companies to suffer. Maersk, for example, has seen its shares jump by 20%, with Hapag-Lloy jumping up 17%. They will reap handsome profits because of the bloodshed in the region. Despite shipping companies raking it in, companies such as Tesla and Next have seen their stock and production lines impacted detrimentally by the attacks on shipping. It is clear that the lives of Palestinian and Yemeni Arabs matter far less to the United States and Britain, than profits at home.
War is inevitable under capitalism, the endless competition between capitalists leads to competition between states and international blocs, dragging the world to ever greater confrontations. It is this competition in the twilight of American supremacy that places another great war on the horizon. That is why the wars and destruction inflicted upon the capitalist periphery is now coming ashore in Europe and the Mediterranean. The war on Ukraine, a catastrophe for both the Ukrainian and Russian working classes, and the war in Israel and Gaza, have very real impacts on the world economy, through rising food and energy prices to millions migrating from war and hunger.
Most capitalists and their states will avoid damaging capital invested in other states where possible. You see this with the iron rings the United States have thrown around oil installations across the Levant and the Arabian peninsula. This is what is driving the military action against the Houthis and the Yemeni people: the safeguarding of profits. These profits are directly linked to the economic and political investments within Israel, which acts as a bulwark of US supremacy across the entire region. We only have to listen for the squeals of Western leaders about national sovereignty when Iran or the Houthis strike targets beyond their borders but listen hard for the absolute silence of these creatures whilst the United States and others bomb who they want, when they want. All talks of sovereignty and a ‘rule-based’ world order are hypocritical fictions peddled by the Western powers to cover up military adventurism and bullying.
No War but the Class War
As communists, we know that squeezing profits, disrupting the everyday business of accumulation, is the surest way to make the capitalists bark until their governments get up and act. That lesson is not one that only we have learnt. The Houthis clearly recognise that by disrupting trade and the feeding of weapons to Israel they can have an impact on the length and ferocity of Israel’s assault. What should concern us all is that the action is being carried out by utter reactionaries, whilst the working class in Egypt is politically silent and hobbled by the Sisi dictatorship. One collective breath of the working class in Egypt, one of the most powerful in the world, could halt arms and materiel getting to Israel via the Suez Canal.
The apparent goal of the United States and Britain is allegedly to prevent the conflict in Gaza engulfing the region. Yet the strikes on Yemen, the boarding of Iranian-flagged vessels, drone and airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, are slowly but surely drawing in Iran to openly strike back. The real target here is Iran, an independent military power at the heart of the Middle East, an inconvenience to the Western imperialist powers whose supremacy is built upon dominating the route from Europe to India, China and the Pacific with unhindered access and control of oil and other natural resources in the region.
In Britain and across the West, we are being slowly boiled like frogs by our own ruling class and the media to prepare us for an aggressive strike against Iran, which will no doubt be labelled as “defensive”. Such action would have the most serious consequences throughout the world. It would inevitably lead to attacks against British and US bases across the region as well as retaliatory strikes against oilfields, ports and other Western interests. Such a situation would be a disaster, the Straits of Hormuz, along with the Bab al-Mandab Strait would be practically closed. Shipping in the entire region, including the eastern Mediterranean, would be considered fair game. Petrol prices will jump so quickly that Donald Trump could spend the next nine months playing golf and be confident of victory against Joe Biden. The actions of the imperialists and the strategic gambles of the Iranian ruling class and its allies have created an unstable situation, where one too many drone strikes or missile barrages could see us fall into the abyss of a continental war, which itself would simply be a taste of greater wars to come.
The spiralling war in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula will ensure that the working class and oppressed people will be the chief victims, directly through the slaughter, the mass starvation and disease caused by the genocidal campaign of Netanyahu’s war government, and indirectly in the form of higher prices and collapsing living standards. Tyrants like Syria’s President Assad, himself having the blood of thousands of Palestinians on his hands, like Turkey’s President Erdogan, who is carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Kurdish people, and like the theocratic regime in Tehran, offer no way out and no solution. The anti-war movement must not be suckered into backing these tyrants.
As communists we are for an end to the wars and violence gripping the Middle East. We are against the growing rearming taking place across the West. Not a day seems to go by when some khaki clad thug or Tory toff is in the news calling for more weapons of destruction, more working class lives to be thrown to their deaths in defence of profits. We need more than ever a working-class response. The trade union leaders who can only see as far as their bureaucratic self-interest need to be ripped from the military industrial complex trough. Worker’s lives are far more important than weapons manufacturing. Such skills and industries could and should be radically transformed to produce what we need and want, not machines of death.
There is no solution in the region without the working class. An immediate ceasefire is essential to halt the slaughter and free hostages. But that is not enough. A ceasefire alone would leave the people of Gaza in an open air prison of rubble and the people of the West Bank still being systematically removed from their land. It would simply return things to the unacceptable status quo before 7 October. We need to be clear that Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation are complicit in all of this. Egypt could open the border immediately. Sisi, Assad, Erdogan and the rest of the corrupt rulers of the region want the status quo ante bellum (things as they were before the war) because it is a useful tool to distract workers who are seeing their living standards fall and their freedoms torn away,
In place of endless war, sectarian and ethnic massacres, dictatorships and colonialism, the only real long term solution is socialist revolution, for the oppressed peoples and the working class of the Levant and the wider region to shake off the tyrants and murderers from Ankara to Sanaa, from Tehran to Jerusalem. There is no solution that turns what is being visited upon Palestinian Arabs today upon the Jewish population in Israel tomorrow. The occupation has to end, the likes of Netanyahu have to be cleared away and the voluntary union of all peoples into a socialist federation of the Middle East is the only way out of war and violence. Such a union could not be imposed; the rights and freedoms of the Israeli Hebrew population should be protected.
Here at home our task is to put an end to the war machine.The mass demonstrations alone won’t halt the manufacture and shipment of arms. The pickets and actions against arms manufacturers in Britain and in Australia, the United States and beyond needs to become generalised. Only by shifting the anti-war movement away from its present cross-class campaign towards a real working-class campaign could the pressure on the British state be ratcheted up to a level where the capitalists become truly concerned about their profits being impacted by the anti-war movement.
The military action against Yemen, the support for Israel’s war machine must end immediately.
This mass movement against war has been criminalised and attacked by the British state. Neither accusations of anti-semitism, nor arrests of socialists for supporting a mass movement against the Israeli, nor the vilification of Muslims have managed to quell protests or majority support for an end to the war. These anti-democratic measures are designed to allow the British state to set the limits of public debate or what a person is allowed to think. As communists we stand for unfettered free speech alongside freedom of thought and freedom of assembly. Only then can the working class majority in society come to see what is truly going on and who our enemies are.
Above all, we must overthrow the warmongers here at home. That requires a genuine working-class alternative, a mass communist party that is capable of challenging the narratives of the British state and the capitalist class; that strives to do away with the status quo and replace it with a fully democratic economy, collectively owned and run for the needs and wants of all, not for the profits and military adventures of the capitalists.