By Prarthana Mitra
Five years after the Saudi-led proxy war in Yemen pushed the country to the brink of starvation, the United Nations confirmed this week that the crisis is only bound to get worse. For the longest time, the situation in Yemen has worsened away from global scrutiny.
However, within days of a damning UN report claimed that the poorest Arab nation is set to experience the worst humanitarian emergency of 2019, an UN-led peace talks hastily organised and are currently underway in Sweden.
This is the biggest step towards peace in the country’s civil war since 2016, and the best hope for establishing diplomatic talks and negotiating a ceasefire in the region.
What did the UN report say?
According to the UN report, some 132 million people in 42 countries will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2019, and Yemen tops the list of most desperate nations. Four billion dollars will be required to provide aid to 15 million Yemenis, the United Nations said on Tuesday, calling for an immediate ceasefire. Some 12 million of them would require food assistance.
At least 57,000 people have been killed since the conflict in Yemen started in 2014, according to the UN. At least 85,000 children have died from malnutrition, including the starving girl who became the face of Yemen’s humanitarian disaster.
Nearly four million people have been forced from their homes in the last 5 years, including 600,000 who were displaced by the battle for Hudaydah.
But wait … what’s the conflict all about? Who is involved?
Analysts argue that the original dispute is both sectarian and political.
When armed Houthi rebels from the Shiite Muslim minority refused to recognise the government established by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi Arabia and its ally UAE intervened in 2015, upon realising that Iran (Shiite) was supporting the rebels with weapons and missiles.
In 2015, Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, then the defence minister, drove his country into the war to defend the internationally recognised government, which had been ousted from capital Sana’a by the Houthi rebels. The quest between the two sects for power and influence across the Middle East soon turned Yemen into a battlefield.
What has happened since Arab Spring?
Some, however, believe that the war is principally driven by the violent factionalism that wrecked Yemen in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests of 2011, which forced longtime authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit.
Saleh continued his alliance with the rebels, and is believed to have influenced the Houthi seige of Sana’a in 2014. Hadi’s internationally recognised government, which had replaced Saleh’s, and was already struggling to govern the deeply divided nation, was forced into exile. This was followed by the Saudi intervention which snowballed into the humanitarian crisis today.
Backed by the US and other western allies, relentless airstrikes were launched on Houthi forces which drastically escalated the conflict. The Houthis responded by firing missiles into Saudi territory.
Currently, Houthis have established control over most of the northwest, while large parts of the south and east controlled by pro-government Saudi-led coalition forces. There is significant presence of the Al Quaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) in large parts of the country as well.
Millions of civilians were caught in the crossfire. Hospitals and sewage facilities have been indiscriminately bombed, resulting in epidemics like cholera. But death by starvation among children in particular has reached unthinkable porportions, as Yemen’s central port, Al-Hudaydah, remains cut off from external supply. In June 2018, Al-Hudaydah had been attacked by pro-Hadi forces.
Why is the port of Al-Hudaydah important?
The most intense battles lately have been fought in the Red Sea port of Al-Hudaydah (in the north), which the Saudi-led coalition is trying to recapture from Houthi control, and which is the only supply route for humanitarian aid.
Two-thirds of the Yemeni population depend on the food, medicine, and other vital necessities coming in through Al-Hudaydah, to stave off a looming famine and impoverishment. The port is also one of the few escape routes for migrants who are wary of a prolonged crisis. In fact, many international organisations have been known to extradite their staff out of the port city in case there is a recurrence of an attack on the port.
What has happened in the peace process so far?
On October 30, as concern over the crisis and pressure on Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) over Khashoggi’s murder mounted, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis set a 30-day deadline for a ceasefire in the conflict, and for the start of peace talks. Last week, the US Senate further turned up the pressure by supporting a resolution that seeks to end American support for the war.
The United Nations redoubled its warnings on Tuesday when its humanitarian coordinator, Mark Lowcock, declared Yemen’s impending famine as the worst humanitarian emergency. Many other organisations have issued calls to prosecute MBS for war crimes.
What is happening in Sweden?
After the last peace effort collapsed in September when Houthi officials failed to turn up for talks in Geneva, another Houthi rebel delegation flew to Sweden on Wednesday for preliminary consultations with the Saudi-backed government. The coalition delegation is expected to be led by Hadi’s foreign minister, Khaled Alyemany.
This comes a day after 50 wounded Houthi fighters were allowed to fly to Oman for treatment as part of an elaborate sequence of confidence-building measures, in keeping with rebels’ demands. Whether both sides will have a face-to-face meeting in Sweden is not confirmed yet. However, mediators are expected to discuss prisoner exchanges brokered by the Red Cross, the status of Al-Hudaydah, and proposals to reopen the international airport in Sana’a, which is currently accessible only to humanitarian flights.
The United Nations is also pushing a proposal to assume control of the port in Al-Hudaydah as a means of ensuring flow of relief aid to the eight million (soon to be 12 million) Yemenis who currently rely on international aid to eat. The UN chief also met with MBS last week to discuss the possibility of a ceasefire.
Although the Swedish talks convey very little hope of immediate reconciliation, they could play a crucial role in Yemen’s immediate future. Likening the potential outcome of prolonged air strikes and port sieges to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, back in June, CEO of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband said, “They must act now to secure a ceasefire before the people in Hodeidah city suffer the same fate as those in Aleppo, Mosul or Raqqa.”
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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