The UN says more talks are urgently needed to set a path towards peace in Yemen. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia, the US and Iran continue to battle it out, compounding the world’s direst humanitarian crisis. Edward Thicknesse and Duncan Bartlett report
The conflict in Yemen has created an acute dilemma for Western countries: do they support Saudi Arabia’s attempts to resolve the crisis, or do they side with Iran?
The position of the Trump administration is abundantly clear. ‘If you truly care about Yemeni lives, you’d support the Saudi-led effort to prevent Yemen from turning into a puppet state of the corrupt, brutish Islamic Republic of Iran,’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a press conference in March.
Mr Pompeo stated that President Trump’s view is that the Saudis are crucial allies of the United States. At the same time, the US carries out its own strikes against groups it believes are associated with al-Qaeda.
Anger at the Saudis
Although it still enjoys American support, Saudi Arabia’s global reputation has been in tatters since the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last year. The killing – whichbore all the signs of being sanctioned by the Saudi state, perhaps even organised by it – has severely shaken the credibility of the country’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In response, some countries, Germany among them, have placed a strict embargo on the sale of arms to the Kingdom. They say that the weapons used by the Saudi-backed forces in Yemen cause massive loss of civilian life. Missiles often hit markets, schools, hospitals and residential areas. It is estimated that 85,000 children have died in the past four years.
The Yemen conflict dates back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when an uprising forced the country’s then president, the authoritarian Ali Abdullah Saleh, to transfer power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. But rather than bringing stability, the transition was marked by a host of problems with which President Hadi struggled to deal, including militant attacks, corruptionand the continuing loyalty of many military officers to Saleh.
In 2014, emboldened by the new leader’s weakness,the Houthi Shia Muslim rebel movement seized control of northern Saada province and neighbouring areas. The Houthis, who had long felt marginalised, went on to take the capital Sana’a, forcing Hadi into exile in 2015.
At the exiled president’s invitation, the Saudi-led coalition was drawn into the battle four years ago. The war escalated when Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states – backed by the US, UK, and France – began air strikes against the Houthis, with the aim of restoring President Hadi to power. Since then, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, the largest in the world, has continued to worsen.
Further fighting is inevitable unless a political settlement can be agreed. This could include guarantees of more autonomy for the Houthis, as well as the exchange and repatriation of prisoners.
There was a ray of hope last year when, following talks in Stockholm, a tentative agreement was reached between the government of President Hadi and the Houthi rebels to hold a ceasefire.
The truce has frequently been breached. Yet the fact that it held for a short period showed that on some occasions, the rival parties can be persuaded to lay down their weapons. There also seems to be acceptance among the combatants that the United Nations should be the body which oversees the peace process.
Britain’s government agrees.‘We have been clear that a political settlement is the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian crisis. We will continue to make every effort to support the UN-led process to get to that solution,’ said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in a joint statement with Britain’s International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt.
The US Ambassador to the Yemen, Matthew Tueller, said: ‘We are willing to work with others in order to try to implement these agreements and see whether the Houthis can demonstrate political maturity and start to serve the interests of Yemen rather than acting on behalf of those who seek to weaken and destroy the country.’
Yemen’s crisis is deepened by the long rivalry between Saudi Arabia, Iran and their allies. The US and Saudi Arabia insist that Iran is backing the Houthis with weapons and logistical support, as it tries to increase the influence of its supporters across the Middle East.
United Nations spokesman Farhan Haq noted: ‘Any progress in getting the parties to agreement is welcome but this is a process that will take a lot of patience.’
The prospect of post-conflict reconstruction is further hindered by the huge economic damage caused by the civil war. Prior to the conflict, Yemen’s Central Bank had reserves of four billion US dollars. These have long since run dry, driving food prices up beyond the reach of millions of people.
Furthermore, the Hadi government has decided not to pay civil servants in Houthi-controlled areas – which account for some 80 per cent of the country – leaving tens of thousands more people in poverty.
The war is not a clear-cut fight between two sides, but rather a multi-polar conflict involving many loose alliances. That makes the negotiations fiendishly complex, with various figures claiming to speak for the parties. Some negotiators come to the table promising to broker peace but hold little or no influence over the fighters.
The head of the rebels’ Supreme Revolutionary Committees, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, has said,‘My message is that there is a big chance for peace despite the terrorism we face. If you decide to go for war, you will find us fierce warriors.’
If the shoots of the ceasefire are to take root, the United Nations must find a way to bring the multiple players into a dialogue with an agreed set of goals and a timetable by which they must be met. Unless that happens, there is every sign that the people of Yemen will experience more suffering, just as they have done during the past four years of war.