The end of September has seen Saudi Arabia and her key allies denouncing as “biased” a UN Human Rights Council resolution that has renewed a UN –backed investigation of alleged war crimes in Yemen, where Riyadh leads a coalition battling Shia rebels. This condemnation was issued on 28 September in a joint-statement released by the Riyadh-backed Yemen government, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. This statement has termed the resolution as unacceptable as it , according to them “clearly contradicts the clear mandate laid out by the UN Security Council”.
It may be mentioned here that the members of the Human Rights Council voted in favor of the resolution by 21 to 8, with 18 abstentions. The joint statement also pointed out that the resolution had failed to consider the real and legitimate concerns of those states who are most affected by the situation in Yemen. Many countries in the Human Rights Council however disagreed with those who had issued the joint statement. They pointed out that air strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition had caused “most of the documented civilian casualties” in Yemen. They also disagreed with the targeting process applied by the Saudi –led coalition and observed that this had turned the conflict in Yemen into one of the world’s humanitarian crisis.
It would be worthwhile to trace here the historical reference pertaining to this on-going conflict.
Yemen has been locked in a seemingly intractable civil war for a little more than three years. This has not only created acute instability but also a disaster. According to some UN observers, the civil war has killed more than 9,245 people and injured 52,800 plus people since March, 2015 and most of them were civilians.The quagmire in Yemen has unfortunately produced an unrelenting humanitarian crisis, with at least 8.4 million people at risk of starvation and 22.2 million people – 75% of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance. Severe malnutrition is also threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children under the age of five. At least 16.4 million people now lack basic healthcare. Medics in Yemen are struggling to cope with the world’s largest cholera outbreak, which has resulted in more than 1 million suspected cases and 2,248 associated deaths since April 2017.
The conflict evolved out of the Arab Spring movement of 2011, when an uprising forced the country’s long-time authoritarian President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The political transition was supposed to bring stability to Yemen, one of the Middle East’s poorest nations. However, President Hadi’s task was very difficult as he had to struggle to deal with various problems including militant attacks, corruption, food insecurity, and continuing loyalty of many military officers to Saleh.
Fighting began in 2014 when the Houthi Shia Muslim rebel movement took advantage of the new President’s weakness and seized control of northern Saada province and neighboring areas. The Houthis then went on to take over the capital Sanaa and subsequently forced Mansour Hadi into exile abroad.
The conflict escalated dramatically in March 2015, 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 declared aim of restoring Mr Hadi’s government. The Saudi-led coalition feared that continued success of the Houthis would give their rival regional power and Shia-majority state, Iran, a foothold in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor.
In June 2018, Saudi-backed government forces began an assault on the key rebel-held port of Hudaydah, the entry point for the vast majority of aid going into Yemen and a lifeline for the starving. Aid agencies at that time warned that the offensive could make Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe much worse. This appears to be coming true.
Saudi Arabia and the other coalition members still declare that Iran is backing the Houthis with weapons and logistical support – a charge Iran denies.
It needs to be noted here that both sides have since been beset by infighting. The Houthis broke with Saleh and he was killed by Houthi fighters in December 2017. On the anti-Houthi side, militias curiously include separatists who are seeking independence for south Yemen and also factions who oppose the idea.
The upsurge in violence including the unfortunate airstrike in August that took the lives of 44 schoolboys out on a field trip induced Martin Griffiths, the UN’s Special Envoy for Yemen to send out formal invitations to the warring parties to attend a new round of consultations in Geneva on 6 September.
Mr Griffiths, it may be recalled took over his role in March,and is the third UN special envoy since 2011This initiative was also taken because the latest tragedy had reignited public criticism over the role of Western countries, including the UK and US, which has been backing the Saudi-led coalition through billions of dollars in arms sales and operational support. The bomb deployed in the latest devastating attack which pulverized the school bus was also reportedly provided by a US arms manufacturer.
This measure was welcomed by most parties as a good initiative as such a meeting would have been the first such event in two years, after two failed rounds. Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group however observed that while “the bus attack will certainly add to pressure on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to move toward a negotiated end to the war” he was “not convinced that this will be decisive.”
It would be pertinent at this point to mention that the Houthis meanwhile have not been dislodged from Sanaa, and have been able to maintain a siege of the southern city of Taiz and to fire mortars and missiles across the border with Saudi Arabia. Jihadist militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and rival affiliates of the Islamic State group (IS) have also taken advantage of the chaos by seizing territory in the south and carrying out deadly attacks, notably in Aden. It may also be recalled that the launch of a ballistic missile towards Riyadh in November 2017 prompted the Saudi-led coalition to tighten its blockade of Yemen.
Mr Griffiths since taking over his task has carried out sustained shuttle diplomacy and tried to be pro-active with regard to the anguished appeals of aid agencies involved in Yemen. This has been undertaken to avert an all-out assault by pro-government forces on the vital Red Sea port of Hudaydah, and the adjacent city, currently in Houthi hands. It may be mentioned here that most of the humanitarian aid on which 80% of Yemenis rely for survival comes through Hudaydah. However this step has indirectly also convinced the UAE, which took the lead on the Hudaydah offensive, that only a ratcheting up of military pressure would bring Houthi leaders to the negotiating table, ready to do a deal.
Realizing the evolving cross-currents within the paradigm, and the prospect of greater threat, Houthi leaders have apparently told Mr Griffiths that they are now prepared to hand over Hudaydah port to UN administration, a move they had resisted for years. However, after this development, the coalition also shifted the goalposts. They demanded that the rebels withdraw from the city too. This has led an Arab official within the coalition to state that “we think more military pressure still needs to be exerted on the Houthis”to ensure full victory in Hudaydah. It is generally being held that such a situationwould be a real game-changer that would bring a swift end to this war.
Analysts following events in Yemen carefully feel that a change might be forthcoming by the end of this year, but, the assault against such a large city, where well-trained Houthi fighters are now entrenched, will prove to be more daunting than the first coalition military plans envisaged.
This has underlined one simple fact. Ever since the UN envoy first announced his plan to launch a new political process, all sides have expressed support for his efforts. However, they have also voiced pessimism too. At the same time, while the US and UK governments are known to have raised concerns about coalition military tactics in private with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in public, they have defended their long-standing allies.
Iran’s role in resolving the conflict is definitely also a significant factor. Nonetheless, the extent of its military support, and its sway over the Houthis, is now also being disputed.
This has encouraged the United Nations to consider convening for the moment talks about talks and an informal discussion only among Yemenis. The ambition after that is to move gradually towards more substantive negotiations in a broad process that draws on dialogue in back channels, shuttling between capitals, and engagement with Yemenis across civil society. This has also led Bashraheel Hisham Bashraheel, deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ayam newspaper in the southern Yemeni city of Aden, which is under government control to describe current efforts as “baby steps, just baby steps,”with the great risk that this new process will also falter – just like the last two rounds.
In any case we all need to understand that what happens in Yemen can greatly exacerbate regional tensions. It also worries the West because of the threat of attacks emanating from the country as it becomes more unstable. Western intelligence agencies consider AQAP the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda because of its technical expertise and global reach.The emergence of IS affiliates in Yemen is also a serious concern.
The last but not the least factor in this conflict is the geo-strategic importance of Yemen for the region. It sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass.
These factors need to be understood by all the ball players. Consequently, as this sensitive dynamics unfolds, stability and sanity should be the guiding norms.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst
specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance