This month marks five years since Houthi rebels took over the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and then pushed south, triggering a military intervention by neighboring Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition partners.
Since then, the country has become a staging ground for one of the world’s worst — and most overlooked — conflicts and humanitarian disasters. While accurate figures are hard to gather, the respected Armed Conflict Location & Event Data project (ACLED) estimates that the death toll has surpassed 100,000 since 2015, including over 20,000 deaths in 2019 alone and some 12,000 civilians killed in directly targeted attacks since 2015. The war has also seen one of the worst outbreaks of cholera in modern times, along with widespread malnutrition and a host of associated diseases and otherwise preventable deaths.
According to the U.N., over 24 million people — 80 percent of the population — are in need of humanitarian aid and protection, making Yemen the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.
Meanwhile, the country continues to be a battleground for U.S. operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and, more recently, the Islamic State.
Yet, despite the horror — and widespread war fatigue among Yemen’s various combatants — a comprehensive settlement still appears elusive. On the contrary, aid workers and analysts fear that the conflict is now settling into a protracted stalemate, with local deals serving as a poor substitute for a lasting peace.
“Today, Yemen is a no-war, no-peace state, which I suspect could be sustainable for another four years, without a genuine will for peace,” said Yemen analyst Sama’a Al Hamdani, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute.
That’s largely because the war is essentially a proxy for the wider battle between Iran and the Saudi-UAE alliance — and between Iran and the United States.
“Solving this is the key to de-escalation throughout the region,” Al Hamdani said.
So, while there was a tiny glimmer of hope in February when a U.N.-administered medical flight was allowed to carry seven seriously ill patients out of Sana’a airport — the result of months of negotiations with Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of Yemeni air space — until such efforts become part of a bigger settlement, millions of Yemenis will continue to suffer.
How Did We Get Here?
In a land riven by competing tribes, militias and outside powers, Yemenis are all too familiar with war and suffering.
It was only in 1990, after decades of civil war, that the independent northern and southern states united to form the modern republic of Yemen, with strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh taking over the impoverished country.
A wily political operative who ruled for over 30 years, Saleh was forced to resign during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and was replaced by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who came to power as part of a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Meanwhile, the northern-based Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam and make up about a third of population, have long chafed under Sunni-majority rule — both at the hands of Saleh and later his replacement.
After a series of clashes and protests over fuel prices and political representation, the Houthis advanced on the capital and ousted President Hadi’s internationally recognized government in 2015. Hadi fled to exile in Saudi Arabia, which promptly launched a bombing campaign to restore him to power.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has inserted itself into Yemen’s various political and military disputes to exert influence over its southern neighbor, which controls the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a strategic chokepoint for the global transit of oil. The Houthi takeover in 2015 sparked fears in the Sunni kingdom that its Shiite archrival Iran would gain a foothold next door.
While the Houthis were nominally aligned with Iran in the early stages of the conflict, many experts say Saudi Arabia exaggerated claims of Tehran’s ties with the rebel group. But eventually those ties hardened as the fighting dragged on and the conflict devolved into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The decision to mobilize a coalition of Arab states to intervene in Yemen was spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s young de facto ruler, who has moved aggressively to contain Iran and consolidate power at home.
While initially hailed as a reformer, Salman has since come under fire for a series of controversial, and clumsy, missteps — among them, orchestrating a largely unsuccessful blockade of Qatar; purging wealthy Saudi princes and businessmen under the guise of tackling corruption; and allegedly ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist for The Washington Post. Most recently, Salman has become embroiled in accusations that he was involved in hacking the phone of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Post.
But Saudi Arabia’s brutal military campaign in Yemen has drawn perhaps the fiercest international condemnation — even from Riyadh’s traditional Republican backers in Congress. The Saudi-led coalition has been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilians and imposing an air and sea blockade that has kept lifesaving food and medicine from a country on the precipice of famine and a cholera epidemic.
Even Saudi Arabia’s staunchest ally, the UAE, seems to have grown weary of the Yemen quagmire and began withdrawing its forces from the country last summer.
In the face of mounting pressure, Saudi Arabia in recent months reportedly engaged in back-channel talks with the Houthis via Omani interlocutors.
“Saudi Arabia wants to get out of the conflict because of the reputational damage the war and the humanitarian crisis is doing to it,” said Al Hamdani. “But it needs some kind of win in order to do so.”
No Military Solution
A win on the battlefield, however, is unlikely. While the initial stages of the conflict saw rapid military advances — and retreats — more recently, it has seen relatively stable frontlines.
The Houthis — formally known as Ansar Allah — continue to occupy much of the northern Yemeni territory from where they originally sprang, including Sana’a. Backed by Iran and principally composed of Zaydi Shiites, the Houthis also have a number of northern tribal allies on their side.
Facing them is the anti-Houthi bloc, principally composed of the National Resistance Forces, loyal to Hadi’s government, which is now based in Riyadh, and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist movement harking back to the time up until 1990 when South Yemen was an independent state.
On the ground in support of the anti-Houthi bloc is the Arab coalition that Riyadh mobilized, originally consisting of troop contingents from nine countries, but now effectively composed of Saudi troops, along with dwindling Emirati and Sudanese contingents.
The latter two have been drawing down in recent months, with the UAE largely replacing its forces with STC troops that it has trained and equipped. The Sudanese — originally committed by the now-overthrown regime of Omar al-Bashir — have seen their original 30,000-strong force in Yemen dwindle to just 657, as the new government withdraws from what is an increasingly unpopular war.
The anti-Houthi bloc is thus far from united, as evidenced by a rupture that took place between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia last year when the Southern Transitional Council seized control of the southern port city of Aden, Hadi’s political stronghold. That led to clashes between the UAE-backed STC and forces loyal to the Saudi-backed president, whose government opposes the southern separatists. A peace deal, the Riyadh agreement, brought the power struggle to an end last October.
The other key peace deal is the U.N.-sponsored Stockholm Agreement, which was signed at the close of 2018 after fierce battles over the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, a critical gateway for food and other supplies. The agreement resulted in a ceasefire there, along with pledges by all sides to exchange prisoners, establish humanitarian aid corridors and pull their forces back from the port and surrounding city to create a demilitarized zone.
The agreement raised hopes for an end to the war, even though parts of it have yet to be implemented. Nonetheless, there had been a significant lull in fighting since last September, when the Houthis announced they would suspend attacks on Saudi Arabia following drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities (which the Houthis claimed responsibly for but which were widely attributed to Iran).
Meanwhile, the Saudis seemed keen for a solution as well. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, “We may have some skirmishes from time to time, but the trend is toward a political settlement.”
And Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen and broker of the Stockholm deal, described the end of 2019 as one of the conflict’s quietest periods.
The relative calm, however, was shattered on Jan. 18 with a Houthi missile strike in Marib governorate, east of Sana’a, that reportedly killed over 100 pro-government troops. Saudi Arabia responded with a barrage of airstrikes on rebel targets. In a statement, Griffiths said the renewed fighting “is putting everything we gained at a great risk.”
More bloodshed has followed since then, with over 30 civilians killed in Saudi airstrikes in mid-February after Houthi rebels claimed to have shot down one of Riyadh’s jets.
“Under international humanitarian law parties which resort to force are obligated to protect civilians,” Lise Grande, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said in a statement. “Five years into this conflict and belligerents are still failing to uphold this responsibility. It’s shocking.”
The Houthi missile strikes may have been an attempt to gain leverage ahead of any peace talks. But some have suggested they could have been a response to the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, on Jan. 3 — and a failed U.S. drone strike against Quds commander Abdul Reza Shahla’i in Yemen the same day. Indeed, the recent escalation in hostilities between the U.S. and Iran, occurring while both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been using back channels to try to de-escalate those tensions, is likely having a literal impact on the ground in Yemen.
Prospects for Peace?
Disentangling the war from the wider confrontation between Iran and the U.S. may be key to a future settlement in Yemen, while Yemen itself may also be key to disentangling the wider confrontation.
Following a summer of oil tanker skirmishes and an attack on Saudi oil-processing facilities after Trump tightened sanctions on Iran, The New York Times reported that the UAE government reached out to Iran in a bid to defuse the situation. The Saudi oil attack revealed Riyadh’s military weaknesses and may have prompted the kingdom to quietly reach out to the Iranians as well.
Amid the escalating tensions, it’s possible that the Houthis want to avoid becoming embroiled in a larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran in the wake of Soleimani’s killing. Meanwhile, an end to the war in Yemen would also be in America’s interests because it could curb Iranian influence in the country and cool hostilities in the region.
If, in fact, all sides are driven by a desire to avoid further instability, the conditions could be ripe for the U.S. to prod the Saudis and Houthis to come to the negotiating table.
“There is a fragile opportunity for peace right now,” said Al Hamdani. “If the Arab coalition and the U.S. are serious about wanting regional de-escalation, then Yemen would be the place to do this.”
At the same time, humanitarian efforts should be disentangled from the fortunes of the political negotiations, aid agencies say.
“The humanitarian situation shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip and should be kept separate from any higher-level talks,” said Padraic McCluskey, humanitarian affairs advisor for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). “All the warring parties can take further steps to improve the space for humanitarian organizations to gain access,” he added.
Indeed, MSF and other groups have recently reported increasing difficulty in the ability of aid workers to move around the country, or even enter it in the first place. Access for civilians to medical facilities is also deteriorating, as internal lines harden, sometimes cutting off villages and towns from their nearest clinics and hospitals.
“Traveling further costs money, which people often don’t have,” said McCluskey. “So people stay put until something goes very badly wrong. This is one factor behind a recent increase in newborn deaths we’ve seen, even as the incidence of cholera has been going down.”
The U.N. medical airlift in February was a small step in the right direction, but it will take a lot more than a mercy flight for a handful of sick Yemenis to cure the country.
To that end, the United Nations will launch a new humanitarian appeal for Yemen this month. The hope is that the appeal generates a response not only among international donors, but also among the warring parties on the ground — in the form of greater access both in and out of the country, and a return to the conference table, rather than the frontlines.
That was the message Mark Lowcock, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, made last October when he gave an update on Yemen to the U.N. Security Council.
Lowcock praised a surge in donations from Saudi Arabia and the UAE that he said “will allow humanitarian agencies to continue keeping millions of people alive. This is cause for optimism. But there is much more to do if our aim is not just to reduce people’s suffering, but to end it altogether.”
“The only way to achieve that,” he said, “is to stop the war.”
About the Author
Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a freelance journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs.