GLOBALIST | 9 MARCH, 2019
The Citizen’s Foreign Affairs primer #TCGlobalist examines the Yemen war.
The four year ongoing conflict in Yemen is most recognizable by the photographs of starving children and civilians killed and wounded in aerial attacks. The conflict pits the Iran backed Houthis against a Saudi Arabian-UAE led coalition of Arab states backed logistically and in the intelligence sphere by the USA and its allies. The conflict began after pro-democracy unrest forced the former president, the late Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down in 2012. Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was elected to a two-year term to head a transitional government, but the Houthis drove him into exile, prompting the Saudi led Arab coalition coalition to intervene in Yemen in 2015.
According to UN estimates about 80 percent of Yemen’s population — 24 million people — need humanitarian assistance including nearly 10 million who were said to be just a step away from famine and nearly 240,000 likely to face catastrophic levels of hunger. Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting with tens of thousands killed. The Arab led coalition has used air strikes against weddings, funerals, schools and hospitals, as well as water and electricity plants.
The Houthis, with unstinted support from Iran, have continued to hold on to the capital Sanaa and urban centres, and the most important port of Hodeidah, with the Arab pro- Hadi forces massed on the outskirts. Last year the Arab states failed in two attempts to capture Hodeidah, the country’s main supply route. The anti -Houthi forces were said to have avoided a full-blown assault that could have caused mass starvation.. Diplomats from the Gulf said that a January 10,2019 Houthi drone attack on a Yemeni government military parade, and subsequent by coalition air strikes on Houthi military targets in Sanaa had contributed to the erosion of trust at a time when the UN was deeply engaged in fashioning a truce between the two sides.
The conflict has produced its share of strange bedfellows. The UAE’s key man in the Yemen conflict is said to be Abu al-Abbas whom the Americans had sanctioned for being a “prominent military instructor” and fundraiser for al-Qaeda and for fighting for the Islamic State and financing its forces. But he remains free and reports suggest that sophisticated weapons supplied to the Arab coalition including several MRAP armored vehicles have ended up in his hands. For the UAE, Abbas, who has been fighting the militias allied to Islah- an Islamist party viewed by the UAE as a radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood -remains critical to fulfilling its aspirations in Southern Yemen.
The fighting has had a disastrous effect on Yemen’s economy with the currency losing value significantly against the dollar. The UN has estimated that for 2019 the Humanitarian Response Plan for 2019 would require about $4bn to reach 15 million across the country. At a donor’s meeting in Geneva the UN had managed to raise about $2.6bn with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pledging $500m each.
The United Nations has been engaged in somehow trying to get the parties to agree to a lasting ceasefire; an end to the fighting; and the initiation of a political process that would led to a democratic stable structure. The two sides had met under UN aegis in December 2018 in in the rural village of Rimbo, Sweden. Un Mediator Martin Griffiths had announced a deal to release thousands of prisoners. According to the document produced after the talks called on the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthis to cease its offensive against Hodeidah in exchange for a Houthi withdrawal. The area would then be put under the control of a joint committee and supervised by the United Nations. The document did not propose the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops. Both sides were said to have agreed have agreed to a U.N. role in the port but the Houthis said it should be declared a neutral zone while Yemen’s government stuck to its position that Hodeidah should be under its control.
The Saudi backed Hadi government had also demanded that the Houthi-held airport in the capital Sanaa be opened but on condition that planes were inspected in the airports of Aden or Sayun which were under its control—a demand rejected by the Houthi delegation leader Mohammed Abdusalam. The Houthi position was that the airport should be opened in accordance to international standards, and inspections of planes would not be accepted.
The Houthis had refused to abide by UN Resolution 2216, which called on them to withdraw from areas they seized in 2014 and hand over heavy weapons to the government. They had also rejected initiatives mooted by the GCC and the National Dialogue Conference which had called for Yemen to be divided into six federal regions.
Abdul Malik al-Ajri, a senior Houthi leader, had proposed a new government be established representing all of Yemen to which all parties would hand over their weapons. But he had ruled out any future role for Hadi.
The next round of talks took place in Amman the capital of Jordan. It was preceded by the January Houthi drone attack on a government military parade and retaliation by the Saudi coalition leading to increasing distrust between the two sides. At Amman the two sides discussed the measures to implement the prisoner exchange agreed to in Sweden. the two sides exchanged lists of some 15,000 prisoners for a swap that delegates said would be conducted via the Houthi-held Sanaa airport in north Yemen and the government-held Sayun airport in the south.
The measures also included a plan to withdraw from the contested port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions facing famine, and place it under the control of an interim entity.
Hadi Haig, the head of the Yemen government delegation, said the two sides were verifying the prisoner lists as part of a five-stage process before the swap takes place.
The swap would be overseen by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The operation will require the Saudi-led coalition to guarantee that air space is secure for flights, the ICRC said. They exchanged lists of around 15,000 prisoners for a swap to be conducted via the Houthi-held Sanaa airport in north Yemenand the government-held Sayun airport in the south. The measures included a plan to withdraw from the contested port city of Hodeidah. The Yemeni government delegation to the talks said the two sides were verifying the prisoner lists as part of a five-stage process before the swap finally took place. The process would be overseen by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and require the Saudi-led coalition to guarantee security of air space is space for the flights.
The latest round of talks between the protagonists appeared to have resulted in what could possibly be the beginning of some kind of scaling down of the conflict. UN and Yemeni sources were quoted as saying that the Houthi forces had agreed to draw back from two Yemeni ports while withdrawal from the main Hodeidah port-which should have been undertaken by January 7, 2019 after the Sweden agreement--would occur later alongside a retreat by coalition-backed forces massed outside the city. Houthi forces would withdraw 5 km from the ports of Saleef, used for grain, and Ras Isa, an oil terminal, as a first step. The Houthi withdrawal from Hodeidah port and the pull-back by coalition forces 1 km away from the city’s “Kilo 7” eastern suburb would take place as a second step. The battle for Hodeidah had made it impossible for the World Food Programme to provide 51,000 tonnes of wheat - enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month. Now the World Food Programme has said it had managed to reach the Red Sea Mills for the first time since September 2018.
The changed scenario could possibly have resulted from the strains that the main proxy backers of the two sides were facing. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, his reputation tarnished by the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi , was not even received by the King of Morocco with that country now not taking part in any military interventions or ministerial meetings with the coalition. Rabat was said to have also recalled its ambassador to the kingdom and in an interview with Al Jazeera Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita had said Rabat's decision was based on the developments on the ground in Yemen, especially with regard to the humanitarian situation.
In the United States while President Trump continued to embrace Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince, the U.S. Senate had held Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the October killing of Jamal Khashoggi and also voted to advance a debate on a war powers resolution that would force the Trump administration to withdraw US military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. The Senate was said to have stipulated a time frame of 30 days for the White House to withdraw US troops from Yemen, except those tasked with fighting factions of the Al-Qaeda.
Canada was also said to be looking into ways to cancel a giant 2014 weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, signed by the previous Canadian government, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said it would be difficult as Canada would have to pay penalties.
Iran, under continuing pressure from the Trump administration, and shackled by sanctions with its economy disintegrating, might have signaled to the Houthis to make some concessions. US Secretary of State Pompeo, during his recent visit to the region, had focused primarily on how to defang Iran with almost no mention of the war in Yemen. A U.S.-led attempt to get the Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Iran for the Yemen situation had got nowhere as the Russians refused to back it. Despite Iran’s rhetoric most media reports from the region suggested that the Iranian rial was losing its value and the Iranians were getting increasingly uncomfortable with the growing economic crisis. Iran’s attempts to circumvent the sanctions with the help of the European Nations had not yet fructified to the point where they could offset the damage done by the sanctions.
Would the hazy ray of hope , born of the withdrawal agreement, turn bright? It could if the proxies funding and arming the combatants are shackled. That would mean the US and Russia working together-- not only stemming Iran’s support to the Houthis but also putting the brakes on financial, economic, diplomatic and military support to the Saudis, the UAE and others of the Arab coalition. But when these two major powers are themselves engaged in an escalating war of words at the Presidential level, Yemen is likely to only figure at the fringes of their strategic consciousness despite the efforts of the UN and the suffering of the people portrayed by the world media. Mike Pompeo’s speech in Cairo in January 2019 said as much.