Three years of war in Yemen, what has the MBS-led coalition achieved?

Summary: deadlock after three years’ war, with the Saudi coalition mis-perceiving the indigenous Huthi movement as an Iranian puppet, and the Huthis still in control of territory including the capital, but increasingly corrupt and oppressive. Population destitute and dying. Some hints of a negotiation. UN and outside powers may be reviewing a policy which has become untenable.

In our most recent posting on Yemen (5 February) we concentrated on the problems of the south. Today we return to the main international conflict in northern and central Yemen between the Huthis and the Saudi-led coalition. During last night 25/26 March Saudi air defences  shot down seven ballistic missiles fired by the Huthis, three over Riyadh and others over Najran, Jizan and Khamis Mushait (Abha was also targeted according to the Huthi press agency SABA). An Egyptian was killed by falling debris in Riyadh, the first casualty of these attacks.

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 was published by Saqi books in October 2017. She has published two longer articles this week marking the third anniversary of the war on the Open Democracy website at link and link.

Three years of war in Yemen, what has the MBS-led coalition achieved?

Mohammed bin Salman is sitting out the third anniversary of his first foreign policy fiasco in Yemen by enjoying mutual promises of billions dollars of purchases with Trump in Washington, buying advanced weaponry and selling entertainment projects.  Meanwhile Yemenis throughout their country continue to suffer starvation and disease thanks to the Saudi-led blockade of its main ports and Sana’a’s airport as well as daily airstrikes in the northern Huthi-controlled area.  Although an end to this destructive and disastrous war is not around the corner, prospects for coming months are mixed.

On the one hand, Trump’s recent appointments of anti-Iranian hawks reinforces his closeness to both MBS and his Emirati ‘mentor’ Mohammed bin Zayed in their shared hostility to Iran, possibly to compensate for his intention to abandon them on the Qatar clash? Both MBS and Trump insist on reducing the Huthis movement to a mere Iranian proxy, and refuse to recognise it for what it is, namely an indigenous Yemeni movement with its local grievances and demands which achieved its current political and military dominance thanks to its own efforts, with only minimal support from Iran. However more aggressive anti-Iranian moves in the region in general are most likely to deepen and increase Iranian support for the Huthis which would escalate attacks on Saudi Arabia, thus serving Iran in its struggle with Saudi Arabia, while of course worsening that crisis for Yemenis, something which is extremely relevant for Yemenis but appears to be of little concern to the international actors involved.

Yemenis gather near the rubble of houses after an airstrike near Sanaa Airport on March 31, 2015

On the other hand, for Yemenis and those directly concerned with their fate, there are a few hopeful signs. UN Security Council Resolution 2216 remains in place as a major constraint on UN efforts to end the crisis: it demands both the return to power of President Hadi, by now lacking any influence on the ground, and military withdrawal of the Huthis from Sana’a, in other words surrender, something which is out of the question for the Huthis at a time when they have been scoring a series of victories. Despite this constraint, the new UN Special Envoy can rely on new members (mainly Kuwait and the Netherlands) of the Security Council to take positive initiatives when he has achieved some progress on the ground and the need for a new resolution becomes urgent.

Arriving to the dossier with a clean slate and a good record, despite being British, Martin Griffiths, the new Envoy is in a position to develop a new basis for negotiations with all parties. The Huthis, who simply refused to deal with his predecessor for the past year, are currently hosting him in Sana’a; he needs to  demonstrate independence from British positions viewed in Sana’a as firmly aligned with (some even say subservient to) those of the Saudi-led coalition for domestic political and commercial reasons.

The UN is also deeply involved in Yemen through its humanitarian and development work.  With an appeal for USD 2.96 billion for this year’s Humanitarian Response Plan to assist only 13 million of the 22 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance,  a pledging conference is due to be held in Geneva in early April.  A quick reminder of the basics of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: of the 22 million,  8 million are effectively starving, a further 9 million are merely hungry, 16 million don’t have access to water and sanitation, 2 million are currently displaced and more than 1 million affected by cholera, a second world record.  Children are particularly affected and their dreadful circumstances are described by UNICEF’s MENA director in a deeply shocking media briefing yesterday 25 March.

Jamie McGoldrick, the extremely active and outspoken senior UN Resident Coordinator left his post at the end of last year, having established good working relationships with colleagues and the authorities in Sana’a. His replacement, a US citizen, arrives from Iraq and starts locally with the negative associations of her citizenship.  At the time of writing, she has not yet made public her approach to the country’s extreme humanitarian crisis and development problems.

So while the new UN leadership in Yemen needs to prove it is up to the extremely demanding tasks ahead of them, others are continuing efforts started in the last year. Last week the EU ambassador to Yemen led a senior delegation to Sana’a including the French and Netherlands ambassadors, representing two states with deep and important involvement in Yemen.  They met all the main leaders there, both the Huthis and other parties still operating in Sana’a. Their visit certainly contributed to persuading the Huthi leadership that, at long last, it is treated seriously by the international community. Meanwhile other senior European diplomats have been talking to president Hadi in Riyadh and members of his government in Aden.

Yemeni politicians have also been very active in recent weeks. The General People’s Congress, Saleh’s former party which remains Yemen’s largest, is regrouping around a new leadership in and out of Yemen.  The Huthis’ main negotiator, based in Muscat for the past two months, has met Iranian leaders but also, most probably and significantly, Saudi officials in efforts to identify the bases for future discussions.  Huthi leaders in Sana’a clearly indicated to the EU delegation their willingness to negotiate as soon as possible, possibly because they are aware of being at the peak of their power and expect renewed military ground offensives from forces restructured by Tareq Saleh with UAE support. They are likely to give the same message to the UN Special Envoy.

So in a context of these mixed messages, on the third anniversary of the internationalisation of the conflict, the millions of suffering Yemenis have ground both to hope and prepare for another year of war.

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