Four years after the outbreak of war in Yemen, there is still no sign of a political solution or concrete steps toward peace. The warring parties – the official government headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which is in exile and backed by a Saudi-led coalition, the Houthi rebel movement, which is only recognized by Iran and Hezbollah, and diverse groups and militias such the southern separatist movement have yet to negotiate a lasting ceasefire.
The complexity of the war is the main obstacle to the peace process. What started as the failure of a political transition supposed to bring stability following an Arab Spring uprising turned into a civil war in which the Houthi rebels, Zaidi Shia minority and other rebels including Sunnis attempted to seize power.
A Saudi-led coalition, made up of nine other mostly Sunni Arab states supported by the United States (US), the United Kingdom and France, launched an air campaign aimed at restoring Hadi’s government, so far without success. Separatists seeking independence for south Yemen, which was a separate country before unification with the north in 1990, formed an uneasy alliance with troops loyal to Hadi in 2015 to stop the Houthis capturing the port city of Aden. But in January 2018, the separatist movement accused the Hadi government of corruption and mismanagement and demanded the removal of the prime minister.
The conflict is also seen as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, with the Gulf Arab states backing Hadi and accusing Iran of supporting the Houthis financially and militarily. Iran denies the accusation. Yemen is also strategically important because it sits on a strait linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass. The increased activity of radical factions makes the situation highly unstable.
The United Nations (UN) says at least 7,025 civilians have been killed and 11,140 injured since the war broke out in March 2015, with 65 per cent of the deaths attributed to coalition air strikes. An international group tracking the war believes the death toll is far higher. The US-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project estimates that more than 67,650 civilians and combatants have been killed since January 2016, based on news reports of each incidence of violence.
Yemen has also become a humanitarian crisis. “Yemen is a disaster and I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel right now,” the World Food Programme’s Executive Director David Beasley said at a media briefing during the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2018, adding:
“If we don’t have access then we can’t monitor [and] draw necessary conclusions. We have to assume the worst.”
A cholera outbreak and a chronic lack of food and medical equipment is putting the population’s health at risk. The Stockholm Agreement from December 2018 offered a ray of hope, with talks focused on confidence-building measures between the two sides and resolving the humanitarian situation as a precondition to another round of talks that will address deep-rooted policy and governance issues and the chance to end the war.
One of the main elements in the talks leading up to the agreement was an immediate ceasefire in and around the port city of al-Hudaydah, through which 70 per cent of the country’s food supply passes. This ceasefire was implemented although it seems fragile.
“Sure, the ceasefire is holding for now, but the fighting has escalated in other areas like in the north,” Dr Elisabeth Kendall, senior researcher at Oxford University’s Pembroke College, told Fanack. “In the east, you also see Saudi Arabia on the ground in what looks like an occupation. The troops arrived in December 2017 to, according to Saudi Arabia, control the smuggling of weapons along the coastlines. There is some truth to it, but they haven’t stopped all the smuggling, and they look like they will be here for a long time. It is a source of concern for local tribes, who don’t necessarily support the corrupted elite either. It is not a simple narrative, and locals are in between parties that don’t necessarily have their best interests at heart, while all they want is to recover the control of their land and borders.”
Another requirement of the Stockholm Agreement was the exchange of more than 15,000 prisoners and detainees, which has not happened and does not seem feasible at the moment. “There hasn’t been any real political development since the agreement, except for al-Hudaydah,” freelance journalist and Yemen expert Laura Silvia Battaglia told Fanack. “The different parties are continuing the talks to establish a truce, but there has been increasing fighting in other regions. Cholera is also a big issue in [the capital] Sanaa, and at the same time you have an increase of horrible cases of men being kidnapped, raped and killed by militias for having denounced the rape of children by the same militias.”
One armed group went as far as attacking a hospital managed by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Aden on 2 April to kidnap and kill a patient about to undergo surgery. “Following this incident, we have no choice but to suspend the admission of patients until further notice,” said Caroline Seguin, MSF’s programme manager for Yemen. “Over recent weeks, the hospital has been functioning at full capacity, particularly the emergency room and intensive care unit, following an escalation of violence in the city.”
One diplomatic action that could lead to fewer air raids in the north, which is held by the Houthis, is the proposal by the US to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. The proposal passed the Senate and House, which could see the US join the growing European movement to stop selling weapons to the kingdom, although Trump is expected to veto it.
“Not selling weapons will not bring peace,” Dr Kendall told Fanack. “But it has the power to make things harder for Saudi Arabia.”
She is pessimistic regarding an end to the conflict, however. “It is so hard to solve that war. They have been fighting for four years so it’s hard to imagine people sharing power. The so-called legitimate government is held in Saudi Arabia and doesn’t have much grasp on the ground because they are supported by foreign powers, while people don’t want the Houthis either, but nothing can be done without making them happy.”
For Battaglia, the country and its power bases are “severely fragmented. It is not at all possible to continue the talks for a truce when allies and coalitions are not working to make alliances on the ground,” she said. “Moreover, it is not clear who wants what, it’s like having a cake that hasn’t been divided yet. As a result, it is not sure who will rule the country or even if the country will remain as a whole.”
In the midst of this political, diplomatic and economic complexity, the civilian population continues to pay the high price for one of the deadliest conflicts in modern history. In this context, who will end up ruling seems a secondary concern.