Ending the war in Yemen

Boys sit together inside a school building for displaced Yemenis who fled fighting between Huthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government forces, in the town of al-Turba in Taez governorate on February 4, 2021.   | Photo Credit: AFP

One of the first key foreign policy decisions that President Joe Biden took after assuming office was to end the U.S.’s support for Saudi Arabia’s six-year-long war on Yemen. He halted weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, appointed a Special Envoy for Yemen, and removed the Shia Houthi rebels, who control the northwestern parts of the Arab country, from the list of foreign terrorist organisations. Both former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump looked away from Yemen even as the country, amidst a multipolar civil war and Saudi bombing, descended into chaos and witnessed a humanitarian catastrophe. Can Mr. Biden be different?

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The war in Yemen

The crisis in Yemen is not only about the Saudi-Houthi conflict. It has many more dimensions: humanitarian, civil, geopolitical and sectarian. When Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies went to Yemen in March 2015, they had a clearly defined objective: drive the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, out of the capital Sana’a and stabilise the country under the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi that they support. The Saudi-led coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen, which they hoped would eventually weaken the Houthis, and started a bombing campaign aimed at wrecking the rebels militarily. This campaign was a failure as the Houthis entrenched themselves in the north-west despite the military and economic challenges.

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The only success the Saudis can claim from a tactical point of view is that the Houthis were limited to the north-west. But the Saudi-backed government failed to consolidate its position even in the south. A separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), has established its rule in southern Yemen. The UAE, which backs the STC, has pulled out of the Saudi-led coalition. All this is happening while the humanitarian situation in Yemen is worsening by the day. The war has killed over 10,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of a famine. According to the UN, 50,000 Yemenis are starving to death and 16 million will go hungry this year. They are depending on food assistance to survive, but the war is making it difficult for aid groups to operate in the country. Many more are dying due to preventable diseases as Yemen lacks proper health infrastructure and essential medicines.

Blockade and bombing

Finding a solution to such a vexed, multipolar conflict will not be easy. But that shouldn’t prevent the international community from taking steps. Their immediate focus should be on tackling the humanitarian situation in Yemen. This week, the UN held a conference to raise up to $2.41 billion for aid works in Yemen, but got pledges only for $1.35 billion, which means the aid operations would be impacted further. Even the limited humanitarian work cannot be sustained if there is no reprieve in the fighting. The last six years of war prove that the Saudi strategy of blockade and bombing was a failure. The Houthis continued to amass weapons, even technologically advanced drones which they use to attack Saudi targets across the border, despite the blockade, while the Yemeni people continue to suffer.

The Saudis should ask themselves whether they should continue with a failed strategy while the situation in Yemen keeps worsening. Also, the continued Houthi rocket and drone attacks have left a hole in Saudi Arabia’s national security umbrella. The Houthis are also under pressure. If they want international legitimacy, they should stop fighting and start talking with other stakeholders. A ceasefire is in everybody’s interest but the question is who will blink first. The Biden administration should use its leverage to pressure Riyadh to lift the blockade, a key Houthi demand, as a confidence-building measure and push for talks for a lasting ceasefire. Once a ceasefire between the two main rival blocs is achieved, the U.S. and its regional allies could call for a multilateral conference involving all stakeholders to discuss Yemen’s future. Yemen can find a way out of the current crisis provided the war is brought to an immediate end and the country is given diplomatic assistance.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 5:33:56 AM |

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