Yemen

Feb 19, 2019 |

The War in Yemen: An Overview

Yemen today is the site of the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. A record 22 million people are in desperate need of aid and sustenance, and the situation may veer into outright famine because of the recent offensive on the vital port of al-Hudaydah. The port allows for the delivery of “70 percent of Yemen’s imports, mostly humanitarian aid,” much of which could be jeopardized as the current UAE-led operation escalates. But why is it that a coalition of Arab armies is battling tooth and nail for the port of one of the Middle East’s most impoverished countries? How has Yemen developed into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world?

The war in Yemen emerged out of the decade-long insurgency between the Western-aligned Sunni government of Yemen and the Shia militia known as the Houthis. The Houthis started their insurrection from the northern province of Sadah in 2004, taking up arms against a government they saw as “aggressive” and “discrimin[atory]”. For years, the Saleh administration, with the watchful support of neighboring Saudi Arabia, was able to constrain the insurgency. Then the Arab Spring swept the region. After a year of bloody protests, Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to resign in February 2012, and a transitional administration to democracy under his Vice President, Abd Mansour al-Hadi, replaced him. However, the Houthis took advantage of the chaos and the weakness of the new Yemeni state and expanded their reach and offensive capabilities.

In September 2014, the crisis escalated considerably. The Houthis exploited popular discontent against the recent cutting of fuel subsidies, and organized mass protests in the capital of Sanaa. Houthi fighters flooded out of their northern strongholds and into the capital, and clashes soon broke out with government forces and their Sunni militia supporters. By September 21st, the Houthis controlled most of the city, besieging major government buildings. The Hadi administration was forced into a political dialogue over the coming months, as the UN attempted to broker the creation of a unity government between the two parties and prevent a further escalation of violence. The Houthis were intent on defending the interests of northern Shias in Yemen, and also sought change in a regime is regarded as too similar to the previous Saleh administration.

However, negotiations were ultimately fruitless. In January 2015, the Houthis seized the presidential palace by force, and Hadi fled for his life. On January 22nd, the entire government resigned, and the Houthis proceeded to form their own government and start writing their own constitution on February 6th. The international community observed these developments with concern, but took no action. Major powers like the United States were sufficiently distracted by the rise of ISIS and the Syrian Civil War to involve themselves in another Middle Eastern conflict, but Yemen’s neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, was not nearly so blasé. Although the Houthis initially controlled only parts of the country, their offensive into southern Yemen, towards the vital port city of Aden where the remnants of the Hadi government relocated, was seen from Riyadh as an intolerable escalation.

As the Houthis came close to capturing Aden, Saudi Arabia shocked the international community by announcing the beginning of a bombing campaign aimed at restoring the Hadi government to power. Saudi Arabia was in the midst of a profound political transition at the time. Its longtime leader, King Abdullah, had died in January, and his successor, Salman, delegated considerable powers to his ambitious son Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MBS. As Minister of Defense, MBS sought to reassert Saudi primacy in a Middle East where Iran’s reach only seemed to be growing stronger. Riyadh saw the “Houthis as an extension of Iranian influence,” and thus MBS cobbled together a coalition of Arab states, most prominently the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, for a military intervention. The operation was initially successful, to some extent. While the coalition lacked a highly effective ground partner to their airstrikes, the UAE’s special operations forces were skilled enough to help recapture Aden in summer 2015.

However, since then, the civil war has been a miserable stalemate. Over three years have passed, and thousands have died under the constant barrage of coalition airstrikes. The Saudis imposed a partial blockade to prevent Iran from resupplying its Houthi allies, but this has also contributed to a grievous humanitarian situation. As many as “50,000 children are believed to have died” of starvation in Yemen in 2017 alone. The worst cholera epidemic in modern history has spread like wildfire due to the collapse of infrastructure and water treatment. Despite these grim conditions, neither the Houthis nor the Saudi-led coalition have been able to negotiate even a respite for the population, let alone a conclusive ceasefire. And for much of the war, neither side seemed capable of overpowering the other militarily.

Yet in late 2017, significant events occurred that suggested the turning point in the long war might be nigh. The Saudis pulled off an impressive diplomatic coup by prying apart the unlikely alliance of the Houthis and militias loyal to former President Saleh. Despite once being the Houthis’ toughest opponent, the ever-opportunistic Saleh had noticed a possible avenue to regaining power by allying with the Houthis after their takeover in 2014. Yet the alliance was always one of convenience, and the Saudis were able to convince him to switch sides in late November 2017. The Houthis, catching wind of this betrayal, responded ruthlessly. A pitched battle for Sanaa ensued, and Saleh’s forces almost ousted the Houthis. Yet the Houthis won out, and Saleh was killed by one of their snipers. What seemed like another setback for the Saudi coalition might ultimately work in their favor. The remnants of Saleh’s loyalists defected to the coalition, and have played an important role in the current offensive on the port of Hudaydah, which started on June 13th. If the coalition succeeds in capturing the city, the Houthis might be forced “to the negotiating table” in a more meaningful way or at the very least find their defense of Sanaa more vulnerable, paving the way for a possible military victory for the Saudi-led coalition. But as the UN warns of hundreds of thousands of possible casualties from the Hudaydah operation, at what cost will the Saudis secure victory? The fate of Yemen hangs in the balance.

Recent History of Yemen (Pre-2014)

As Yemen today plunges further into chaos and despair amidst a brutal 4-year civil war, many observers have pondered how a country that was already the poorest in the Arab world could have deteriorated so much further. Although Yemen’s civil war started very quickly and recently, its roots can be traced decades back in the history of a country that has never achieved much cohesion as a functioning state. In fact, Yemen with its current boundaries did not come to be until 1990, after the unification of two separate countries. The region of Yemen has experienced civil wars, coups, insurgencies, and general instability for decades. Before it slid into war in 2014-15, Yemen was contending with threats from Shia militants, southern separatists, al-Qaeda terrorists, and general discontent with a post-revolutionary government. The Houthi coup only proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Yemen was one of the few regions on the Arabian Peninsula not to be unified under the rule of the Saudi family in the early 20th century. In 1918, the Zaydi Shias, the same sect that the Houthis would belong to, established the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen in the country’s north, creating a theocratic monarchy. Although the ruling imam was assassinated in 1948, the Kingdom maintained its sovereignty and stability until 1962. As the young Crown Prince Muhammad al-Badr acceded to the throne, nationalist military officers trained and inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy in a coup. North Yemen plunged into civil war, as Badr’s royalist supporters, with the aid of Saudi Arabia, resisted the new republican government. Egyptian President Nasser, seeking to spread his vision of pan-Arab nationalism against the reactionary monarchist forces represented by Saudi Arabia, intervened to shore up the new government, known as the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen. The resulting civil was brutal and protracted. As many as 200,000 died by 1970, at which point Egyptian forces had suffered heavy losses, but with the Republic surviving intact, experiencing relative stability in the following decades.

Unlike the North, South Yemen was colonized by the British, who sought to control much of the exterior of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly strategic points like the Persian Gulf and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the latter of which Yemen bordered. In 1937, Britain established the Colony of Aden, centered in the vital port city of the same name. However, by 1963, agitation against British rule, particularly by leftist militants, had escalated such that the British announced a state of emergency. By the end of 1967, the British were forced to retreat from the protectorate, which declared its independence as the People’s Republic of South Yemen. In the following years, communist forces, with support from the Soviet Union, came to dominate the new country’s politics, and South Yemen pursued a Marxist path for the next two decades. This contrasted with the North’s more moderate republicanism, and a brief border war between the two Yemens occurred in 1972.

North and South Yemen had contemplated unification as early as the 1970s, but the differing political systems made this a challenging task. Furthermore, South Yemen struggled with internal instability. In 1980, President Abdul Ismail resigned as his hardline rule became too unpopular. However, dissatisfied with the relative moderation of his successor, Ali Nasir Muhammad, Ismail launched a bloody attempt to regain power in January 1986. The eleven-day civil war that ensued led to as many as 10,000 deaths, and further undermined South Yemen’s stability. It was no surprise that in 1990, at a time when communism was collapsing worldwide and the Soviet Union’s support was no longer assured, South Yemen agreed to unify with the North. However, the unification process was far from seamless. The ruthless northern President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had seized power in 1978, ensured the North dominated in the new federal structure.

Resentment towards the dominance of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party over the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) culminated in civil war in 1994. The former North and South Yemen’s had retained their armies from prior to unification, with the process of military integration having been a major point of dispute. In May, southern forces launched an attack on the capital Sanaa and declared their independence. However, the course of the war quickly shifted in Saleh’s favor, and the northern forces conquered Aden in July. With the YSP essentially dismantled and thousands dead, the GPC’s control of Yemen seemed uncontestable.

However, as the 21st century opened, Saleh’s Yemen experienced increased instability. After the USS Cole bombing of 2000, and particularly the 9/11 attacks the following year, the United States started paying closer attention to the presence of al-Qaeda militants in Yemen. Saleh cooperated with the Bush and Obama administrations in counterterrorism operations, including in controversial drone strikes, and by 2011, Saleh had lost support from much of the impoverished population. Furthermore, southern separatism had reemerged since 2009, still not recognizing the legitimacy of Sanaa. More dangerous for the Saleh government was the growing strength of the Houthi insurgency that started in 2004. The Zaydi Shias of Sadah province had ruled northern Yemen for centuries before the coup of 1962 replaced their rule with a secular regime. The Houthis exploited the sense of economic neglect among Yemen’s Shias to build a strong power base and challenge the Yemeni government. At first, neighboring Saudi Arabia was able to limit Houthi expansion, as in a 2009 cross-border incursion. But the Arab Spring exposed the severe fragility of the Yemeni state.

Democracy protesters, southern separatists, Houthis, and al-Qaeda militants all played a role in the chaos that consumed Yemen in 2011 (1). Saleh was eventually convinced to resign to prevent the disintegration of his country, but his subsequent alliance with the Houthis displayed how even an apparent transition toward democracy could not stop the forces tearing Yemen apart. The Houthis exploited the unpopularity of the Hadi administration to take over Sanaa in 2014, and from there, the country plunged into its current civil war. With the separatists having taken control of Aden from Hadi’s forces earlier this year, and al-Qaeda and ISIS still maintaining a presence in Yemen’s desert regions, insurgencies that have threatened Yemen for decades continue to undermine its stability. Above all, the conflict between the Iran-backed Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition evokes memories of the last proxy war to tear Yemen apart, between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. It is not yet clear whether Yemen can be put back together any more conclusively than after that war.

Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis

The humanitarian toll of the civil war and Saudi intervention in Yemen since 2015 has reduced what was already the poorest country in the Arab world into even direr straits. The Saudi coalition’s bombing of Yemen, as well as bloody urban warfare in cities like Aden, Taiz, and Hodeidah, has crippled an infrastructure that was never strong to begin with. By some measures, tens of thousands have already died due to Yemen’s desperate humanitarian crisis, and as the war continues to escalate, many non-governmental organizations and aid groups fear worse is still to come.

The collapse of Yemen’s economy and healthcare infrastructure has left millions of Yemenis vulnerable to famine and disease. Children have been particularly affected by the humanitarian crisis. International aid group Save the Children reported in November 2017 that at least 130 children were dying of preventable causes every day in Yemen, and that over 50,000 children had died overall in 2017. In late 2017, the humanitarian situation deteriorated even further, due to Saudi Arabia’s brief imposition of a total blockade of Yemen’s ports in retaliation to a Houthi missile attack on Riyadh, preventing the distribution of any humanitarian aid. Even the more limited embargo that has persisted against Yemen throughout the war has made the delivery and distribution of aid more difficult, especially regarding remote, rural areas. Despite the partial lifting of the blockade, the World Food Program warned that an additional 3.2 million people were being pushed into hunger, on top of the 20 million already needing humanitarian assistance, 7 million of which were totally dependent on outside food aid. UN officials warned that as many as 150,000 children could die in the coming months.

Since 2017, conditions have continued to deteriorate, as the Saudi coalition has now targeted the port of Hodeidah, through which a majority of Yemen’s imports were shipped prior to the civil war. UNICEF has warned that the damage to Yemen’s infrastructure is so extensive that even an immediate resolution to the conflict will not stop the lingering effects of malnutrition which have blighted an entire generation of Yemeni children. Yemen has particularly struggled because of how weak its infrastructure and widespread its poverty was prior to the conflict. Before 2015, 16 million people were still dependent on humanitarian assistance in some form, with half the population below the poverty line and social services on the brink of collapse due to years of insurgency and popular unrest. By March 2017, when the UN first started describing famine conditions in the country, 69% of the population was in need of humanitarian assistance, including 10.3 million people who were in “acute need,” with their lives dependent on immediate aid.

Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe has been exacerbated not only by the partial blockade in place since 2015 but the devastating impact of the coalition’s campaign of airstrikes. Saudi-led forces have been criticized for the inaccuracy of their bombs, which have destroyed hospitals, schools, and water treatment plants across the country. By January 2017, 2 million were displaced within Yemen itself, not readily able to claim asylum in neighbouring countries due to Yemen’s isolated geographic location. This uprooted population, fleeing from the most heated conflict zones, is particularly vulnerable to disease and starvation. Yemen’s economy has been reduced to shambles by the war. The country had imported 90% of its staple food prior to the 2015 blockade, and the lack of fuel has created further difficulties in trade and the distribution of aid. The World Bank estimated in 2017 that the poverty rate doubled to 62%, and that commodity prices surged 50% higher, on average.

In addition to famine and starvation, the Yemeni population has had to contend with the most severe cholera epidemic in modern history. By the end of 2017, there were as many as 1 million recorded cases of cholera in Yemen, more than in any other epidemic since recordkeeping began. The World Health Organization reported that a majority of cases were occurring in children, and that 2,000 had died of the disease over the course of just one year. The epidemic emerged by the end of 2016, as Saudi airstrikes devastated Yemen’s sanitation system, and unpaid sanitation workers went on strike. Doctors had not been paid in a year due to the bankruptcy of the Hadi government-in-exile. Garbage and sewage thus accumulated on the streets and dirtied a water supply that was no longer being treated due to the destruction of treatment facilities. There is some hope that the spread and mortality rate of the cholera epidemic will rise less precipitously in 2018, with the latter statistic having already fallen from 1% earlier in 2017 to 0.26% towards the end of the year. However, efforts to relieve the epidemic have been complicated by the current battle of Hodeidah and the difficulty of rural populations to access clean water dispensaries provided by aid organizations.

As the civil war in Yemen rages well into its fourth year, the humanitarian outlook seems to grow darker and darker. With 50,000 children having died in 2017 alone, there’s no telling how large the overall humanitarian death toll has been since March 2015. Despite significant effort by the United Nations and numerous NGOs, conditions on the ground remain murky in the fog of war, and neither the Houthis nor the Saudi coalition has made the distribution of aid and support manageable. Even if the cholera epidemic declines, the devastation of Yemen’s water supply, the bombing of its hospitals, and the collapse of its infrastructure suggest Yemen will be highly vulnerable to disease in the coming years. Other humanitarian catastrophes brought on by war in recent history imply that the situation might only worsen for Yemen. Millions died of starvation or disease due to wars in Biafra, the Congo, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The international community, including the countries that have been financing the combatants in the conflict while paying little heed to the humanitarian dimension, will have to redouble its efforts to save Yemen from even greater calamity.   

The Death of Ali Abdullah Saleh

An unexpected, unsavory alliance between the Houthis and their long-time nemesis, ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, helped the Shiite militia seize control of much of Yemen in late 2014 and early 2015. It was no surprise, then, that the Saudi-led coalition that has sought to defeat the Houthis in combat over the last three years saw opportunity in the strains that came to define the Houthi–Saleh relationship during this period of time. For many months, competing ambitions were kept under control between a militia that sought to promote Shia interests in a country where they had long been marginalized and an ex-dictator eager to regain total power. However, in November 2017, Saleh came to believe he could reach a better arrangement with the Saudis and Emiratis plotting to disrupt the frustrating stalemate the war had ground into. Within only a few days, a dictator once renowned for his cunning and resilience made a fatal miscalculation in his bid for power, and was killed in the process of trying to defect to the anti-Houthi coalition.

Ali Abdullah Saleh’s turbulent rise, fall, and ultimate demise comprise a history in Yemeni politics that first propelled him to power in 1978 when his predecessor as President of North Yemen was assassinated. The republican North Yemen and communist South Yemen were unified in 1990 under Saleh’s administration, but the dictator experienced the first major challenge to his reign in 1994. Southern secessionists attempted to regain their sovereignty in an intense two-month civil war in which thousands were killed, but Saleh prevailed. Over the following two decades, Saleh prided himself on his ability to keep a fractious, tribal country together, like nobody else could, or so he claimed. He positioned himself as a valuable ally of the United States after the War on Terror began in earnest in 2001, and allowed a controversial drone campaign conducted under the Obama administration. However, his government increasingly felt the strain of several insurgencies, by secessionists, al-Qaeda militants, and most prominently the vigorous Shia militia known as the Houthis. The Houthis launched an insurrection against Saleh in 2004, which escalated after the killing of their leader, Hussein al-Houthi.

Saleh, partially through cooperation with his neighbors in larger Saudi Arabia, was able to contain the Houthi threat for years. But in 2011, the Arab Spring swept through the region, and his fragile government crumbled. Yemenis were outraged by his authoritarianism and corruption, which, according to the UN Security Council, had amassed as much as $60bil during his lengthy reign. Saleh attempted to resist the campaign of protests calling for his overthrow. Displaying some of the stubborn tenacity that would characterize his future relationship with the Houthis, Saleh refused to step down ever after an assassination attempt hospitalized him for weeks. However, he eventually agreed to a transitional agreement, ceding power to his Vice President, Abd Mansour al-Hadi. Yet Saleh’s desire for power was not quelled for long. The new Yemeni government was in chaos, and the Houthis were spreading their reach. Saleh saw an opportunity to regain influence in Yemeni politics.

Saleh’s tribal militias supported the Houthis in their bid for power in late 2014, but it wasn’t until April 2015, when the Saudi bombing campaign of Yemen was well under way, that Saleh solidified his alliance with a movement he had once sought to crush. After the Saudis refused to give Saleh safe passage out of an increasingly violent Yemen, Saleh redoubled his support for the Houthis. He had reportedly offered to abandon the Houthis in exchange for political influence in a post-war settlement, displaying a willingness to sell out his allies that would resurface in 2017. Saleh’s cooperation with the Houthis during the civil war was extensive. In 2015, Al-Jazeera received an audio recording in which Saleh was heard coordinating political and military manoeuvres with a leader of the Houthis, and in 2016, his followers endorsed and joined a council established by the Houthis to govern Yemen.

But the alliance between Saleh and the Houthis was never harmonious, and was fraying long before the former dictator officially reached out to the Saudi coalition in November 2017. Back in 2016, he made surprisingly conciliatory language towards the Saudi coalition, claiming to “extend a hand of peace” for “direct talks” with the coalition. Saleh reportedly decided to abandon the Houthis during a meeting in Abu Dhabi earlier in 2017, hoping to end the war and the coalition’s bloody intervention, perhaps with an eye towards regaining power himself. The United Arab Emirates orchestrated this diplomatic initiative, hoping to make use of Saleh’s militias for an eventual offensive on Sanaa, and reflecting a growing exhaustion from both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in further prosecuting a lengthy war.

On November 28th, 2017, Saleh announced the end of his alliance with the Houthis, claiming that the people of Yemen could not “tolerate the recklessness of the Houthis” anymore, inviting “neighboring countries to stop their aggression”. Immediately after, Saleh’s forces clashed with the Houthis for control of the streets of Sanaa. For a brief moment, the Houthis seemed on the verge of defeat. However, they recovered, and the survivors among Saleh’s loyalists fled Sanaa in a panic. Saleh himself was not so fortunate. The Houthis announced on December 4th that Saleh had been killed in a grenade and sniper attack on his vehicle as he attempted to flee the city. Footage of his corpse quickly circulated on the Internet. A dictator whose reign had defined Yemen for several decades was dead at last.

To the Saudis and Emiratis, Saleh’s death and the failed coup in Sanaa appeared to be the latest in many foreign policy setbacks, in Yemen and elsewhere. But Saleh’s unexpected demise could still come to be seen as a turning point. Saleh’s loyalists survived to fight another day, and the UAE installed his son Ahmed, then living in exile in Abu Dhabi, as their new leader. Saleh’s forces participated in important offensives in the following months, specifically to reach the outskirts of the strategic port of Hodeidah. The operation currently unfolding to recapture Hodeidah could result in a crushing defeat for the Houthis. If Saleh’s forces end up marching into Sanaa, Saleh’s death might not seem so embarrassing from the eyes of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The Battle for Hodeidah

On June 13th, 2018, an army of Yemeni militias loyal to the internationally-recognized government of Abd Mansour Hadi, assisted by a coalition of intervening Arab states, launched a major offensive to recapture the vital port city of Hodeidah from the Shiite Houthi militia. The operation is the largest and most ambitious in Yemen’s brutal, three-year civil war, and has been spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates, intent on driving the Houthis to the negotiating table, or perhaps outright military defeat. The stakes are possibly higher than ever. If coalition forces get bogged down in grueling urban combat, not only might the Houthis survive to fight another day, but the humanitarian implications could be catastrophic. Hodeidah supplies “an estimated 80 percent of the country’s food, medicine,” and other aid, and the disruption of this “vital lifeline” could push millions over the brink of famine.

The Emiratis claim they can prevent any humanitarian disaster from ensuing by avoiding a pitched urban battle or the devastation of the city’s port. Furthermore, the UN has frantically sought to broker a ceasefire agreement that might convince the Houthis to surrender the city to UN authority. Such negotiations foundered prior to the beginning of the operation. Furthermore, renewed talks were imperiled on June 28th when President Hadi “reportedly rejected a deal to place” the city under UN jurisdiction. The Houthis supposedly were willing to agree to an arrangement where they would be allowed to remain in the city under UN supervision, putting them at odds with the pro-Hadi coalition’s agenda of ousting the Houthis from all territory they captured during their 2015 rise to power. The UAE, as of July 1st, has maintained a pause in its offensive to allow for “an unconditional Houthi withdrawal from Hodeidah,” but this seems unlikely to come about. Thus, the relative calm that has fallen on the frontlines in recent days is expected to lift.

Thus far, the violence has not spread into the heart of the city itself, allowing some time for denizens to flee or take shelter before the escalation of the airstrikes with which the Saudis and Emiratis have imposed their military dominance on much of Yemen. However, “at least 300 people are believed to have died” since June 13th, with much of the fighting centered on the airport south of the city proper. Control of the airport compound has exchanged hands between the Houthis and coalition forces in the last few weeks, indicative that the Houthis do not intend to give up Hodeidah without a fierce fight.

The Emirati strategy has focused on “controlling al-Hodeidah’s port and airport” and thus forcing the Houthis to sue for peace rather than contest the city streets of Hodeidah itself. However, the Emiratis have yet to launch what would undeniably be a complicated amphibious offensive on the port, mainly due to the heavy presence of Houthi mines in its waters. The United States’ refusal to assist in demining suggests that their support for the Saudi/Emirati intervention in Yemen is not without limit, amidst widespread international opprobrium over the humanitarian toll of airstrikes and, more recently, reports that the UAE “has been overseeing detention centers” in Yemen that involve torture.

If a diplomatic solution were somehow reached, it would be a serious coup for the pro-Hadi coalition, which has waged this controversial, stalemated war against the Houthis for over three years. The negotiations over Hodeidah might breathe new life into the overall peace process, of which “both the Arab coalition and the Houthi leadership have been scornful” in the “two years” since the United Nations sought to mediate an end to the conflict. A Houthi withdrawal from Hodeidah would leave the coalition in control of a strategic port and thus a potential lifeline to the Houthi war effort. The capital Sanaa would be more vulnerable than perhaps at any point since the Houthis marched into its streets in September 2014. A rapid coalition victory in Hodeidah would come at a particularly inconvenient time for the Houthis, still reeling from the defection of their former ally, ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, killed during an abortive coup attempt last December.

However, the costs of a protracted urban battle in Hodeidah cannot be ignored. The Houthis withstood almost a decade of persistent counterinsurgency by the Yemeni government since 2004, when their insurgency started in the rugged mountain terrain of Yemen’s north. The Saudis and Emiratis have already expended considerable blood and money in the pursuit of a military intervention that was expected to have ended years ago. A months-long battle claiming thousands of lives could have serious political costs in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. The humanitarian situation in Hodeidah is dire, and hangs in the balance. A “prolonged siege could leave hundreds of thousands cut off” from the outside world, “many aid groups” having pulled out their staff in anticipation of the coalition offensive. In a country where thousands have already died due to cholera and starvation, the devastation of its primary port could have catastrophic implications.

Yet the pro-Hadi coalition has given every indication they intend to see their intervention through to the finish. Saudi Arabia and the UAE regard the Houthis as a proxy in Iran’s supposed bid to impose a Shiite hegemony over the Middle East. The coalition has “accused the Houthis of using” Hodeidah to “smuggle Iranian weapons” into the country, although UN monitors believe this is unlikely. After many foreign policy setbacks in 2017, including a rift with former Gulf ally Qatar and a diplomatic debacle over the resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, the Saudis and Emiratis have been desperate for success in their struggle against Iran. The demise of the Iran nuclear deal has already been a victory for the coalition in this regard, and the defeat of the Houthis would arguably be a vindication of Saudi heir apparent Mohammad bin Salman’s aggressive foreign policy. Regardless of how the current battle in Hodeidah unfolds, it’s not at all implausible that it will come to be regarded as a turning point in Yemen’s bloody civil war.

Yemen’s Struggling Peace Process

As the Yemeni Civil War that has raged since the fall of Sanaa in September 2014 enters its fifth year, the thankless task of negotiators and diplomats seeking to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict remains as vital as ever. Unfortunately, the escalating brutality characterized in recent developments like the coalition offensive on Hodeidah highlight how difficult resolving such a complicated conflict threatens to be. Despite the growing sense of urgency felt in the international community, Yemen still lacks the sort of regional investment that has produced a peace process of sorts in Syria, albeit one constantly imperiled by Russian offensives. As long as the United States and its allies continue to support Saudi Arabia’s operation in Yemen, the ability of the international community to demand a cessation of hostilities there is weakened. Yet some good can still be accomplished if further escalations are avoided.

As of September 2018, the immediate focus of UN diplomacy has been averting a catastrophic battle for Hodeidah, the port that serves as a lifeline for Yemen’s starving, impoverished population. In this regard, they have been successful since early July, when they convinced the UAE and its affiliates to halt their offensive at the outskirts of the city. However, as UN-brokered negotiations resume in Geneva in early September, expectations are low. The coalition-backed Hadi government and the Houthis refuse to meet face-to-face, and, despite UN hopes of reviving the peace process that collapsed in 2016, discussion will likely go no further than the fate of Hodeidah and a possible prisoner exchange. In July, the Hadi government set the release of all prisoners by the Houthis as a condition for more substantive negotiations on a political settlement to the conflict (1). For their part, the Houthis have expressed frustration with the Hadi government’s refusal to pay salaries, open airports to outside travel, release prisoners, or reduce tensions in certain parts of Yemen. Both sides have faulted each other for failing to make sufficient concessions in the past, contributing to the sense of gloom among UN mediators about the prospects for serious reconciliation.

Even if little comes of September’s round of peace talks, the fact that they are even being hosted is of some significance. There have been no such talks since several months of negotiations held in Kuwait in mid-2016 brought about a temporary calm in the fighting. The UN envoy at the time, Ismail Ould Ahmed, secured a ceasefire in April 2016 and started three months of intensive negotiations towards a political solution to the conflict. While these talks were effective in reducing violence for some time, the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the parties resulted in Ahmed suspending the negotiations that August, and the ceasefire collapsed soon after.

A persistent sticking point in the negotiations then, as now, was the Houthi desire for some political representation in a postwar settlement. The Houthis demanded a comprehensive settlement in which they would receive political and security guarantees. It was partially due to a sense of Shia marginalization in the majority Sunni country that the Houthi insurgency had gathered such strength over the prior decade. However, cognizant of his legitimacy as the internationally recognized President of Yemen, Hadi refused to concede a Houthi role in any transitional government. As a result, in August 2016, the Houthis and their then-ally Ali Abdullah Saleh formed a political council which claimed authority over the entire country, in a not-so-subtle rebuke to Hadi.

With this history of failed negotiation, trust is not high leading into the new round of talks. Mohamed Abdel Salam, spokesman for the Houthis, in an interview with Fox News, criticized the new UN envoy Martin Griffiths and expressed doubt that the talks would succeed. However, he still professed willingness to negotiate a solution to the conflict, so long as the transitional government was inclusive and “accepted by all parties” (implicitly not Hadi). Salam also expressed openness to a temporary ceasefire, although many analysts are suspicious that the Houthis merely seek to play for time and shore up their defenses.

The current round of negotiations will occur amidst other significant developments regarding Yemen, suggesting the conflict may be reaching a turning point. Of most immediate relevance to the peace talks, President Hadi, one of the key players to the entire conflict, was reportedly transferred to the United States for medical treatment. While there was little information to the nature of Hadi’s treatment or condition, uncertainty over the health of the 72-year-old President could factor in the coming negotiations, as the Houthis would delight at the power vacuum that could ensue from Hadi’s death or incapacitation. Other important developments that will likely be considered in the new talks include the rapid collapse of Yemen’s currency (threatening further socioeconomic devastation), increased controversy over coalition airstrikes since last month’s bombing of a school bus, and, above all, the fate of Hodeidah.

The challenges confronting Martin Griffiths and his team of UN negotiators might not be insurmountable, but will certainly make the coming negotiations protracted, contentious, and tasking, if they are to succeed at all. While even a few months’ respite, as in 2016, could be beneficial in averting a humanitarian catastrophe in Hodeidah and the rest of the country, ultimately some sort of political settlement will be necessary to save Yemen from even further bloodshed. While the Saudi-led coalition might have the long-term advantage against in the Houthis, a military victory on such terms would still lead to years of killing and starvation on an unconscionable scale. However, it still remains to be seen if both parties can overcome their differences and negotiate a political settlement in good faith.

Researched and Written by: 

John Collison

Contributing Author

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