The grotesque war in Yemen entered a critical juncture in January 2022 when the Saudi-led coalition launched a series of air strikes at a prison facility. It was a retaliation by Saudis against a missile and a drone attack, against United Arab Emirates, in an industrial district of Abu Dhabi. The rebel Houthis called reports of the attack as baseless and unfounded, but Saudis believed that they had attacked a facility which was placed on No Strike List, and that it didn’t adhere to international humanitarian laws. The civilian casualties in the retaliatory attack were too numerous to deny. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres statements on Financial Times, Al Gumhouriyeh Hospital was so overwhelmed that it couldn’t take patients. This is the second time, after a period of some months, when Houthis also suffered headcount losses. In October 2021, when Houthis tried to seize Marib, an oil-rich northern Yemen region, it suffered heavy casualties then, too. That time, even many of their military vehicles were destroyed.
Andrew England, who wrote an article for Financial Times, heard from his colleague Ahmed Mahat, head of MSF in Yemen, that many civilian bodies at the scene of the strike during January 2022 were still missing. He also believed that it was impossible to believe how many civilians had been killed. Some sources say that the toll is by far the highest in three years.
When another air strike, in the same month, destroyed a telecommunications facility, in Hodeidah, a port region controlled by Houthis, the internet was down all over Yemen, as TeleYemen, a state monopolised company got affected.
A cut to undersea FALCON cable project in 2020 also caused similar outages. Since the advent of civil war, land cables to Saudi Arabia have been affected as well, while connections to two other undersea cables have not been finalised yet due to the ongoing conflict.
In an interview with The New Arab, UN special envoy Hans Grundberg warned the UN security council that recent attacks by the Houthis on the UAE and Saudi Arabia ‘indicate how this conflict risks spiralling out of control unless serious efforts are urgently made by the Yemeni parties, the region and the international community to end the conflict.’ He also warned that aid agencies were quickly running out of money, forcing them to slash life-saving programs.
As the UN World Food Program reduced food rations for 8 million people in December 2021, those 8 million people may get no food at all, or just a reduced ration in future. Starting from March 2022, the UN may also have to cancel most humanitarian flights in Yemen. Funding shortages could also deprive 3.6 million people of safe drinking water, and end programs to combat gender-based violence, and promote reproductive health. The UN describes Yemen as the world’s worst man-made crises, as two-hundred thousand have been directly or indirectly killed. Yet, there are some naïve analysts which challenge this notion as a ‘potentially misleading oversimplification’. They fail to realise about the mounting tally of the dead, about the spreading cholera epidemic spiking up to 2.5 million cases, and the infrastructure that has turned into rubble. In fact, civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen’s war have almost doubled since UN human rights monitors were controversially removed in October 2021. And, in 2020 alone, around fifteen-hundred Houthi child soldiers had died. When it comes to dead children in Yemen, their tally comes to ten thousand.
The situation has also worsened under the years-long de facto land, sea, and air blockade imposed by coalition forces, which has obstructed the flow of vital supplies of food and medicine. The blockade also contributes to an ongoing fuel crises that has helped drive up prices of essential goods.
The roots of the Yemen conflict lie in the fuel price hikes that first happened in 2014, when Hadi government lifted fuel subsidies. It made Houthis launch a protest movement, which was countered by another movement that was loyal to Hadi and al-Islah party in the south. When Houthis took control of much of Sanaa in 2014, the Hadi government eventually resigned in January 2015, and Hadi later fled to Saudi Arabia. Then, a military division happened, with Saleh’s forces aligning themselves with Houthis, while remaining others remained loyal to Hadi government. In 2015, Saudi Arabia joined through military campaigns to restore Hadi administration. But, what made the Yemen war more complex is killing of Saleh by Houthis in December 2017, on suspicions of treason.
For its advantage, Saudi Arabia cobbled together a coalition of Sunni-majority Arab states: Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. By 2018, the coalition had expanded to include forces from Eritrea and Pakistan, mainly to reinstate Hadi government. But, observers also say that due to friction between these actors, the war is prolonging.
In this war, other extremist groups working in an alienated manner such as Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula have even benefitted from the recent chaos. In 2015, the group captured Mukalla, a coastal city, and released three hundred of the group’s inmates from prison. The militant group then expanded its control westward to Aden, and seized parts of the city, before coalition forces recovered much of the region in 2016. AQAP has also provided Yemenis in some areas with security and public services unfulfilled by the state, which has strengthened support for the group.
For years, AQAP vied for influence with the Houthis and the self-declared Islamic State, especially in the central al-Bayda Governorate. The Islamic State marked its 2015 entrance into Yemen with suicide attacks on two Zaydi mosques in Sanaa, which killed close to one-hundred forty worshippers. Though the group has claimed other high-profile attacks, including the assassination of Aden’s governor in late 2015, its following lags behind that of AQAP.
Also, al-Islah party has had a new founded relationship with Saudi Arabia, after its support for Operation Desert Storm. For this, they incurred heavy losses from the Houthis, who launched a campaign of kidnappings against al-Islah leaders. According to an article by Mutahar Al Sofari, in Washington Institute: ‘Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Islah Party, an Islamist party, condemned for its affiliation with Muslim Brotherhood, is exceptional because it contrasts against Saudi Arabia led coalition’s approach to the Muslim Brotherhood generally. As of now, the relationship defies conventional diplomatic boundaries in the region, and yet, it has continued to survive, and both parties have shown a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the relationship.’ However, cracks also appeared when al-Islah party tried to present the war in Yemen as ‘political’ rather than ‘sectarian’, as Saudi press has done.
The US, throughout its course in the war, conducted about one-hundred eighty-five strikes over eight years under Barack Obama, while the Trump administration launched nearly two hundred strikes in its four years. But, the US strikes have also resulted in the deaths of more than one hundred civilians, watchdog groups say. According to an article by Kali Robinson in Council on Foreign Relations: ‘the United States has backed the Saudi-led coalition, as have France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. US interests include security of Saudi borders; free passage in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, the choke point between the Arabian and Red Seas and a vital artery for the global transport of oil; and a government in Sanaa that will cooperate with US counterterrorism programs.’
When it comes to drafting of agreements, the 2018 Stockholm Agreement averted a battle in the vital port city of Hodeidah, but there has been little success in implementing the accord’s provisions, which includes the exchange of more than fifteen thousand prisoners and the creation of a joint committee to de-escalate violence in the city of Taiz.
Many experts even argue that viewing the war as a two-party proxy conflict, as exemplified by UN Security Council Resolution 2216, is unproductive given the fragmentation of anti-Houthi forces, and the involvement of foreign powers. Peace talks that involve more political parties and civil society groups could level the playing field.
—The writer is an author of seven books, and editor of Globe Upfront. [email protected]