The conflict in Yemen, marking its first anniversary this weekend, has led to a humanitarian catastrophe. Now, peace talks and a nation-wide cessation of hostilities have been announced for April, but many observers remain sceptical.
T he war in Yemen, often overshadowed by other events in the international arena such as the refugee crisis in Europe and the Syrian Civil War, marks its first, grim anniversary on March 26. One year of conflict, which began with the intervention of a Saudi Arabia-led coalition, has wrought havoc in the Middle East’s poorest country.
Painting a picture of the dire situation in the country, a new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council published this week said the fighting triggered a six-fold increase of people forced to flee their homes. Currently, 21.2 million people in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance.
In broad terms, the war has pitted the Saudi-led coalition and local forces backing President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels, also known as Ansarullah, and their allies, including forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, a host of other armed groups with often divergent interests is also active in the country. Mr. Hadi, after having been pushed out of the capital last year, is based between Aden in southern Yemen and Saudi Arabia. He is backed by the vast majority of the international community.
The Houthis, a Zaydi-Shia sect named after the al-Houthi family, hail from the highlands of northern Yemen. The group took full control of the capital Sanaa in January 2015 after a several months-long military offensive. While the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh fought the Houthis in several wars in the 2000s, the two sides struck up an alliance in the current conflict. Mr. Saleh, a longtime ruler until 2012, who famously said ruling Yemen was “like dancing on the heads of snakes”, was a key ally of the US in counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda. His rule was, however, marred by allegations of human rights violations and corruption.
The war, while less prominently reported on in Western media, has been an ever-present item on the news agenda of media outlets in the Gulf, many of which have been keen to highlight the Houthis’ (alleged) ties to Iran. The Gulf Arab states see the group as an Iranian proxy, a charge the Houthis have denied. Nevertheless, the spectre of a regional cold or potentially even hot war has hung over Yemen ever since the beginning of the conflict.
Winners and losers on the battlefield
Yemen is currently divided into three main parts, journalist Nasser al-Sakkaf explains. The Houthis control most of the northern provinces (including the capital); pro-government forces are in control of most of the southern provinces, while al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has seized several districts in the south. Additionally there are parts of the country still fought over, Mr. al-Nasser told The World Weekly from Yemen.
On March 17, the spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition, Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri, announced that major combat operations were drawing to a close. But fighting continued, with clashes in and around the embattled city of Taiz and heavy airstrikes hitting the capital.
Hisham al-Omeisy, a Yemeni political analyst, told the BBC World News Service that many thought the announcement was just a “public relations stunt” that would not be followed through.
What seems clear so far is that the Saudi announcement in itself will not mean an end to the war or the presence of the Gulf-led coalition on the ground. General Asiri also said forces would stay in the country to stabilise security and initiate reconstruction and he added that there would be continued air support for Yemeni forces on the ground.
Saudi-led forces have pushed back the Houthis and their allies over the last months, ‘liberating’ Aden, now the temporary capital, and reportedly breaking the siege on Taiz, a strategically located city in the southwest of the country, just a few days before the announcement. Just this week, media reports citing local commanders said pro-government forces seized control of two cities in the provinces of Marib and Shabwa.
Veteran Yemen analyst Fernando Carvajal says there was no doubt the Houthis and Saleh forces had suffered casualties on various occasions, pointing to airstrikes and clashes in Marib and Taiz. “Yet, both remain capable of recruiting more tribal elements from among their tribal allies in northern provinces like Sanaa, Amran, Dhamar, al-Jawf, Sadah, Mahweet and Rayma,” Mr. Carvajal told The World Weekly.
Much has been made of the liberation of Taiz by pro-government forces. But, Mr. Carvajal says, Houthi command and control remains “intact, especially in Taiz, where Abu Ali al-Hakem has taken over as commander of militia elements and elements of the 35th Brigade”. He also says the events in Taiz do not represent “a breakthrough” in the march on the capital Sanaa, as pro-government resistance forces are highly fractured and plagued by infighting.
From a domestic perspective, the military campaign in Yemen is very important in Saudi Arabia, where the Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman is in charge of the Yemen portfolio. Analysts have pointed out that the young prince is eager to establish his credentials as a military leader. What happens in Yemen will undoubtedly be part of that.
Despite this progress, ground operations have led to a significant number of casualties by Gulf states, and Sanaa, the ultimate prize in the campaign to reinstate President Hadi in power, remains under the control of the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Unless peace talks, announced for April, succeed, recapturing the capital is sure to be a very bloody battle.
An unintended consequence of the coalition’s focus on the Houthis and those loyal to Mr. Saleh has been the expansion of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), seen by the US as the most active franchise of the jihadi group once spearheaded by Osama bin Laden. Mr. al-Omeisy, the political analyst, told The World Weekly, that the disintegration of the state and the deteriorating humanitarian situation has acted as a catalyst for the growth of extremism, with militias and radical groups exploiting the power vacuum.
While facing a host of internal and external challenges after the killing of senior leaders by drone strikes, AQAP has made significant territorial gains, for example in the vast Hadramawt governorate, where it controls the capital al-Mukalla. AQAP militants have also clashed with pro-government forces in Aden, where instability persists. In a potential blow to the group, the Pentagon said it struck an AQAP training camp on Tuesday morning, killing “dozens” of fighters. However, reports indicated that the casualties from the strike were new recruits and no leaders were present.
The role of AQAP in the current conflict theatre in Yemen is complex. Whereas clashes have occurred with pro-government forces, there have also been reports of collaboration between the Saudi-led coalition and AQAP and its Ansar al-Sharia affiliate. Reporting for the BBC, journalist Safa al-Ahmad for example discovered al-Qaeda militants fighting side-by-side with pro-government forces on the frontlines of Taiz in February. It has also been reported that AQAP supported the liberation of Aden.
Al-Qaeda remains the most powerful jihadi actor in Yemen, but local Islamic State (IS) affiliates have launched spectacular and bloody attacks against all sides involved in the conflict. Both the strong presence of AQAP and an insurgent IS will complicate efforts to stabilise the security situation.
The forgotten ones
“We’ve been in this war for almost a year and everyone has forgotten us,” said Ziyaad, the local driver of Karl Schembri, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s regional media adviser. Writing in the Guardian about his recent visit to Yemen, Mr. Schembri said: “As if Yemen - already the poorest country in the region - was not marginalised enough, the escalation in the conflict and blockade over the last year has pushed it even further out of sight but also further into poverty and desperation.”
Mr. al-Omeisy, who is based in Sanaa, did not mince his words when talking to The World Weekly about the state his country is in. “After one year of war, Yemen is in a far worse condition than ever before in its recorded history,” he said. Reflecting on the low levels of humanitarian funding the UN has so far received, he said meeting the tens of billions needed for post-war reconstruction was “nothing more than wishful thinking”.
The Saudi-led coalition has imposed a naval and air blockade on Yemen, further hardening what UN officials have called a “humanitarian catastrophe”. Speaking to The World Weekly from Yemen, journalist Nasser al-Sakkaf says the blockade has led to traders of medicines not being able to import drugs, which means that “there is a lack of different kinds of medicines”.
The numbers speak for themselves: Since March 2015, at least 6,000 people have been killed, according to the UN, including 3,218 civilians. The Norwegian Refugee Council report says 19.3 million people do not have access to safe water and sanitation, while 82% of the country is in need of humanitarian assistance, an increase by 33% in one year. About 3.4 million children are currently not in school.
Both sides have been accused of having committed possible war crimes or crimes against humanity by sieges, airstrikes and shelling. Reports of the Houthi siege on Taiz, including the blocking of much needed aid, indicate that blame cannot be apportioned to one side alone. However, on Friday, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein condemned the failure of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to prevent civilian casualties, saying it was responsible for the vast majority of innocent deaths.
Looking at the figures, it would seem that the coalition is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together, virtually all as a result of airstrikes.”
Mr. al-Hussein’s comments came several days after a Saudi-led airstrike killed at least 106 people, including 24 children, at the al-Khamees market in northern Yemen’s Hajja governorate.
Mr. al-Sakkaf, the local journalist, says the lack of electricity and a large increase in the price of fuel, only available on the black market in Sanaa, have led to many problems in the capital. He says there is more suffering in conflict zones such as Taiz city, long besieged by the Houthis, where people “cannot get food or medicines”.
Apart from the heavy human toll the conflict has inflicted, many Yemenis and observers of the country have lamented the destruction of its unique heritage and architectural history. The old city of Sanaa is one of three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Yemen that the UN body considers to be in danger. Another one is the old walled city of Shibam from the 16th century, also known as “the Manhattan of the desert”.
Experienced Yemen observer Iona Craig noted in a report in The Intercept on the destruction of cultural heritage in northern Yemen’s Saada governorate: “The Middle East’s poorest nation is famous for constructing the world’s first skyscrapers, often up to 100 feet high, with as many as 11 stories designed to keep extended families and their livestock safely under one roof”.
This week, UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced that peace talks would be held in Kuwait. A senior Yemeni official told Reuters the talks will take place on April 18, accompanied by a nation-wide cessation of hostilities beginning at midnight on April 10. The Yemeni foreign minister, Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi, said the government would attend the talks. AP reported the Houthis had agreed to implement UN Security resolution 2216, requiring them to hand over their weapons and withdraw from the territory they have seized, including the capital.
A previous round of talks, held in Switzerland last December, had failed without any substantive agreements.
Mr. al-Sakkaf said there was currently no chance of successful peace talks “as the Houthi rebels do not believe in peace talks and have many supporters in Yemen”. It does indeed remain a big question whether the Houthis would for example hand over control of the capital. Saudi-led airstrikes on markets, clinics and residential areas are helping Mr. Saleh and the Houthis to attract more allies, Mr. Carvajal adds.
Another key point determining the future of Yemen will be the development of the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Former President Saleh officially announced an alliance with the Houthis in May last year, but there had been previous reports in the Yemeni media about cooperation between the former opponents.
But there have been recent tensions between the two sides, for example relating to a prisoner exchange between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which the latter, according to Mr. Carvajal, used to drive a wedge between Mr. Saleh and the Houthis. Further trouble emerged when members of Mr. Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) criticised the Houthis, with one GPC member saying the Houthis were seeking to eradicate the party.
Renewed fighting in the area around Taiz city at the time of writing, with reports that Houthi forces recaptured the western route into the city, underline the challenges the peace talks and a ceasefire will face. “The recently announced ceasefire will be hard to achieve when commitment of all the relevant groups hasn't been secured,” Mr. al-Omeisy pointed out. He said that due to the splintering of groups, no faction was strong enough to settle the war or act as an umbrella for the peace talks.
In the end, without implementing a permanent halt to airstrikes, sieges and the blockade, Yemenis will continue to suffer, with much of the international community’s attention turned elsewhere.