Four years of war in Yemen: why has victory been so elusive?

Summary: Hudaida ceasefire survives but going nowhere. Yemen divided, the war stalemated, human suffering continues. UN out of ideas.

The Stockholm agreement on a ceasefire around Hudaida has not broken down, but has not led to the hoped-for opening up of food and medical supplies to the population, nor to a wider ceasefire. The UN reports scores of civilians killed in fighting, especially in Hajja province in the north-west. On 23 March the Saudi led coalition conducted air raids on Sanaa which they said targeted Houthi drone stores.

On 14 March the US Senate voted to end US support for the Saudi led coalition. The measure is expected to be passed by the House of Representatives, but to be vetoed by the President.

According to the Guardian the five main UK opposition parties have written to Jeremy Hunt calling for an end to the UK’s “morally reprehensible” arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and noting that Germany, Spain, Denmark, Canada, the US Congress, the UN human rights council and the European parliament have all called for a suspension of arms sales. The UK government too is unlikely to be convinced.

Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article (a longer version is to appear shortly on the Orient XXI website). She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about political, social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October 2017.

Four years of war in Yemen:  why has victory been so elusive?

As Yemenis mark the fourth anniversary of the war and struggle to survive in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, what has changed and why has the Saudi-led coalition still not won?

Aftermath of coalition bombing in Yemen, 12 Sept 2018

Of course the main change has been the death of more than 60 000 people through directly war related actions and countless more from the impact of the humanitarian crisis (starvation, cholera etc).  Yemen’s future is jeopardised with millions of children out of school and traumatised. The economy has collapsed and 80% of its population is below the poverty line at a time when inflation last year was conservatively estimated at 40%. Millions are on the brink of starvation.  One of the few survival strategies for families is to allow their young men to join one or another fighting group, the only reliable source of income.

Meanwhile, the ill-named ‘decisive storm’ operation launched by the Saudi-led coalition on 26 March 2015, has failed to achieve its official purpose, namely the restoration to power of the transition president, Hadi.  This needs to be recalled as coalition rhetoric is nowadays focused on Iran. The Huthis, following the breakdown of their alliance with ex-president Saleh, killed him in December 2017 and have, since then, strengthened their stranglehold over the highlands where they rule with ruthless brutality.  Desperation also leads to compliance, as the Huthis control access to basic necessities. Saleh’s elimination has weakened the country’s main national political organisation, the General People’s Congress.

By contrast, disorder reigns in the two thirds of the country, home to one third of its population, ‘liberated’ from the Huthis, but actually never under Huthi control in the first place.  There, including Aden, temporary capital since 2015, what little governance exists, comes from local leaders, with varying levels of commitment to the welfare of their populations and Hadi’s internationally recognised government is notable by its absence.  National security institutions are absent, instead there are disparate local forces dependent on the United Arab Emirates which recruits, trains, deploys and pay them. They answer to the UAE commanders, if anyone. Moreover, the UAE support one of the many southern separatist factions, the Southern Transitional Council, whose autonomy is debatable; it now sends its leaders on world tours managed by western public relations companies.  Other southern, as well as any other Yemeni political voices, are silenced.

The northern liberated area, around Mareb, is now the fiefdom of Vice President Ali Mohsen, former close associate of president Saleh, a leader of the Islah party, an organisation with Islamist connections, which partly explains the UAE’s less than enthusiastic support for Hadi’s government.

As for the war, stalemate persists on most fronts, despite the totally incomparable forces and equipment available to the coalition on the one hand and the Huthis on the other.  While the latter benefit from some minor technical assistance from Iran and its associates to upgrade their old missiles, their main military skills were acquired on the ground through years of fighting. By contrast, the coalition has millions of dollars’ worth of the most advanced western military equipment, training and technical support.  Why has it not won the quick victory intended by MBS when he launched it?

Part of the answer lies in the rivalries within the Yemeni elements of the coalition, reflected in the actions of the two main international participants, Saudi Arabia and the UAE: thanks to their notorious limited military competence, Saudi forces are absent from Yemen, except when needed to mediate between UAE supported separatists and the few units loyal to President Hadi. Emirati- supported groups are more active fighting Islah [a major component of the Hadi government] than their official target, al Qaida;  indeed, credible evidence has emerged of both the UAE and SA supporting AQ elements, particularly in Taiz and al Baidha.

For the last two years, Hodeida has been the focus of international attention. While justified by its importance in reducing the nightmarish humanitarian disaster, this has been at the expense of other interventions with greater potential. The coalition military offensive on Hodeida was interrupted through UN and other international pressure following both the assassination of Saudi Jamal Khashoqji and world public opinion outrage at the daily sight on public media of starving and dying children. The resulting negotiations in December 2018 were the first in 27 months. Hastily convened, the talks led to the ‘Stockholm agreement’ whose main substance is the withdrawal of all forces from Hodeida to facilitate the delivery of basic necessities to those in greatest need.  The very vagueness of its texts has led to its predictable unravelling in implementation, due to the incompatible and conflicting interpretations made by each side.  Neither side is yet ready for peace, still seeking victory, while publicly asserting that the only solution to the crisis is political, a statement they demonstrably do not believe.

Meanwhile, not for the first time, a major military opportunity has been neglected thanks to the above mentioned rivalries and conflicts within the coalition forces. In Hajour (Hajja province), coalition forces, under the command of Ali Mohsen, supporting the tribes against the Huthis, failed to advance. The reinforcements ordered by the Chief of Staff in February never arrived, while offers of assistance from both Tareq Saleh and Salafi forces based in the Tihama, fell on deaf ears in the Hadi military command, why? The Huthis have now won.

Although millions of Yemenis desperately long for the war to end, their leaders are as callous as ever. The humanitarian disaster worsens. Talk of post-war distracts from addressing the current situation. The international agencies talking of reconstruction are the very ones who promoted the neo-liberal policies which contributed to the country’s collapse. The coalition-induced political and social fragmentation is deep.  The UN-sponsored ‘peace process’ lacks new ideas and initiatives. Meanwhile Yemenis continue to suffer and die.  Hopefully next year, a more optimistic piece will be appropriate.

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