Summary: Hopes that a Saudi coalition declaration of a unilateral ceasefire would lead to peace talks have been comprehensively dashed by events on the ground.
Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. 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, published by Saqi Books, is a seminal study of the conflict and what lies behind it.
As the consequences of MBS’s latest impulsive rash move, his oil price war against Russia, are barely unfolding, his very first, the military intervention in Yemen now well into its sixth year, has become a curse. The Saudi regime is now desperate to get out of the Yemeni quagmire but wants to do so without losing face, something it has failed to do in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic seemed a golden opportunity: on 8 April Saudi authorities announced a two week unilateral cease fire in Yemen starting on 9 April, conveniently timed so it could be extended for the duration of Ramadan in the hope this would enable their talks with the Houthis, started last September, to reach an agreement.
This was followed, at the UN Security Council meeting on 16 April, by Special Envoy Griffiths’ extraordinarily optimistic assertion that he expected the warring parties ‘to agree on and formally adopt these agreements in the immediate future’ thus raising the hopes of Yemenis and observers alike that secret talks were progressing. Reality on the ground suggests otherwise: far from calming down, the war between the Houthis and the government supported by the Saudi-led coalition has intensified. Events in the last two months have demonstrated that Covid-19 and appeals from the UN Secretary General for ceasefires worldwide have had zero impact, at least in Yemen and Libya. Apparently, warring leaders believe that the world beyond is busy elsewhere, leaving them to ‘get on with their offensives’ without significant external interference.
Since January, when the Houthis started their offensive in the north heading towards Marib governorate and the main border crossing with Saudi Arabia, Saudi air strikes on Yemen have increased dramatically from their extremely low rate in late 2019. The first three months of 2020 witnessed more than 400 air raids, and during the week following the ceasefire announcement, the Yemen Data Project recorded at least 26 air raids with up to 106 individual airstrikes. Since then airstrikes have continued but failed to halt Houthi advances: as of 21 April their steady progress continued towards the Wadi’a desert border post with Saudi Arabia, bypassing Marib city. For the government, the loss of Marib and the crossing would be a very serious blow to its credibility, let alone the fact that it has become a major population centre and controls access to the oil and gas resources nearby.
Although the Jawf/Marib offensive is by far the main one, the situation elsewhere is hardly better. Throughout Hodeida governorate fighting has resumed on a larger scale in recent months, despite the tenuous ceasefire achieved by the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement. Worsening the already tense relationship between the Hadi government and the UN Mission to support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA), a sniper attack in March wounded one of its liaison officers, leading to the government withdrawing from the mission. He died last week in an Aden hospital, provoking recriminations from the Internationally Recognised Government which blames the UN for failure to medivac him. On other fronts (Dhala’, al Baydha, Taiz and now Socotra), although stalemate continues to prevail, the Houthis are on the offensive and trying to expand their control. All of this demonstrates growing Houthi confidence they are winning a war Saudi Arabia is desperate to end and thus their consequent disinterest in letting the Saudis off the hook.
Houthi response to the Saudi announcement has been a counter proposal for a peace agreement between the Houthi movement and the leader of the coalition, Saudi Arabia. While some of its clauses are reasonable, such as ending all military action and blockades, it implies recognition of the Houthis as the government and relegates discussions of a political formula between Yemeni factions to future separate discussions; it also calls for impressive Saudi reparation and salary payments.
Elsewhere, last November’s Riyadh Agreement between the government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) remains a dead letter. Here, the latest complication combines conflict between the STC and other southern anti-Houthi forces west of Aden with STC attempts to prevent government forces from travelling westwards towards Aden and Lahej from their current position 100 km east of the city. As the only representatives of the coalition (see our posting of 25 March), Aden-based Saudi authorities are trying to prevent the outbreak of fighting between Yemeni ‘allies’, using mediation and significant military reinforcements; as of 21 April, the situation remained critical.
Yemen remains the UN’s ‘worst humanitarian crisis in the world’ (see our posting of 19 February). For the first time in a decade, well into the second quarter of the year, the UN has published no details of this year’s humanitarian response plan. Undersecretary Mark Lowcock’s intervention at last week’s UNSC meeting was notable not by what he said, but rather by the issues he failed to mention. Despite the postponement/cancellation of the 2nd April Riyadh pledging conference (regardless of the suitability of holding such a meeting in the capital of the military coalition’s leading state), many expected to hear details of the humanitarian response plan and the pledging meeting. Instead, after deploring the prospect of the closure of many programmes, he said that the UN needed USD 900 million to fulfil its commitments till end July, without discussing the relationship between that amount and the USD 3.2 billion requested last December. Lowcock thanked ‘donors and supporters’ for pledging USD 800 million, including Saudi Arabia’s recent pledge of USD 500 million. Meanwhile the US has, as threatened, withheld further contributions to the humanitarian effort, and the Houthi-UN struggle over control of the humanitarian sector continues in various forms.
And, of course, as usual, millions of Yemenis continue to suffer helplessly in the face of this callousness. This time, to the above mentioned lasting war-related issues, must be added the impending catastrophe of Covid-19, as well as a deadly infectious disease killing thousands of livestock, and this week’s devastating flash floods hitting many urban and rural areas. With Ramadan starting in days, could things get any worse?