Yemen: five years of war

Summary: on the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Saudi-led coalition’s attack on Yemen, a war which has caused the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe continues unabated.

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.

Marking the completion of five full years of internationalised war, there is no sign of any improvement for Yemenis, rather the contrary. The impending disaster of the Covid-19 epidemic is yet another threat to people’s daily lives while all other efforts to end the war have failed in the face of renewed action on multiple fronts.

Quarantine in Rada’a District in Al Bayda Governorate, Yemen. (photocredit: @RedhwanAlSharif)

After a brief interlude of hope at the end of 2019 when coalition airstrikes dwindled, fighting has flared up on previously static fronts in the last two months, particularly in the far north where the Houthis have now fully taken Jawf governorate and are threatening to attack Mareb, a city under government control which has widely been described as a flourishing model of peace and development in recent years. This has led to increasingly desperate appeals from the UN Special Envoy and others for cease fires and a resumption of negotiations.

As if the existing humanitarian crisis was not enough, Yemenis now face the prospect of the coronavirus epidemic: officials on all sides are treating it as an opportunity to further abuse the population while attempting to gain political capital: under the pretext of preventing any infected people from entering the areas they control, each side has set up ‘quarantine’ sites which are more accurately described as ‘infection spreading’ locations due to the complete absence of sanitation, social distancing or even basic eating and sleeping facilities. The closure of all border crossing points has also resulted in a dramatic increase in price of whatever medication is still available, affecting everyone and in particular those with chronic diseases.

Not entirely surprisingly, the Houthi movement’s leader, Abdul Malik al Houthi has hinted that the crisis is caused by biological warfare by the US while the Iranians have made similar accusations; both also follow Trump in blaming political opponents for this crisis.

So this fifth anniversary of the launch of the Saudi-led offensive is an occasion for increasing despair for Yemenis who had hoped for improvements in 2020, as last year had witnessed both positive and negative changes. Early 2019 saw a rise of optimism in anticipation of implementation of the UN sponsored three-part Stockholm Agreement: although the ceasefire in Hodeida held for most of the year despite the absence of any redeployment of forces from the Houthi or the anti-Houthi sides, the situation deteriorated in recent weeks as the latest Houthi offensive has not spared Hodeida governorate where the ceasefire is now close to complete breakdown. The Taiz element of the agreement was laughable initially and indeed none of its absolutely minimal activities have taken place. As for the major signed agreement for the exchange of up to 16,000 prisoners, after multiple meetings of the responsible committee during 2019 led to no releases, a new agreement was signed for the release of about 1500 prisoners in mid-February this year, but it has suffered from squabbles with no prisoners released at the time of writing.

Lack of progress on the Stockholm Agreement is matched by the failure to implement the Riyadh Agreement signed in November 2019: it was designed to reconcile the internationally recognised government of President Hadi, entirely exiled in Riyadh since its expulsion from Yemen’s temporary capital of Aden by the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) in August 2019.  The active support of the STC by the UAE appears to continue despite UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed participating in the signature ceremony for the deal and explicitly supporting it at the time. While not one of the deadlines for its implementation has been respected, further tension between Saudi forces, now alone in representing the coalition, and the STC’s militias in Aden has increased to breaking point throughout the first three months of this year without, up to now, leading to major military clashes between the two groups.

Meanwhile the suffering of the population worsens.  The 2019 UN Humanitarian Response Plan has not been followed by the usual 2020 update. No official statement has been made because the UN’s main financiers are no longer willing to condone the fact that  Houthi officials and their affiliated organisations control both the funds and the decision making process for the distribution of internationally funded assistance in the area under their control where most of the population in need reside. In addition, cases of corruption have become public on all sides as well as within the humanitarian community, including UN agencies themselves [see the Arab Digest newsletter of 19 February]. This unfortunate situation led to a number of funders threatening to cease financing, with the US at the forefront of this movement.  There is also no doubt that the Saudis and the Emiratis object to financing their enemy, regardless of the consequences for desperate people. In addition it is always worth remembering that the main financiers are also the main perpetrators of the war, and that the funds they spend on the war effort exceed their humanitarian contribution by multiple factors.

Without a Humanitarian Response Plan, the UN and its multiplicity of subcontracted international and national NGOs cannot plan their work: contrary to custom, according to which such meetings are held in Geneva, a pledging conference was planned for 2 April in Riyadh. The UN had earlier announced that its appeal for this year would be USD 3.2 billion, i.e. 25% less than last year, despite claiming that the situation remains unchanged, with 24 million Yemenis in need.  Meanwhile, in addition to hunger for more than half the population, an ongoing cholera epidemic (which affected  close to 900,000 people last year), half of the country’s medical facilities being non-operational, and a shortage of basic food and medical supplies, people now have the prospect of the Covid-19 epidemic looming over them.  Yemenis have little to celebrate on this fifth anniversary of the worst calamity to have ever struck the most impoverished country in the Arab world.

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