Developments in Yemen: No longer the "Forgotten War"?
Updated: Dec 21, 2018
Yemen has long been referred to as ‘the poorest nation of the Arab world’, a harsh reality reflected only too well in the civil war which has plagued it since 2015. (1) Yemen is a nation experiencing entrenched political divisions between the recognised Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel forces who challenge it. The latter, who have been trying to gain control of the government for themselves, have the backing of Iran, the regional enemy of Saudi Arabia. Consequently, a Saudi-led coalition including the UAE and seven other Arab states are arming the Yemeni government in an effort to resist rebel advances.
This state of civil war has defined Yemen for 4 years now. A previous attempt to instigate peace talks in September 2016 fell through when the Houthi delegation failed to turn up to discussions in Geneva. Now however, there is a glimmer of hope, as UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths successfully gathered both sides around the negotiating table in Stockholm just over a week ago.
For the purposes of contextualisation, it seems appropriate first to look at the status quo in Yemen. In 2015, Houthi forces captured Yemeni capital, Sana’a, forcing President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee abroad. The ousted Yemeni government were therefore forced to move southwards and set up another government in Aden. The two parties are therefore engaged in a monumental power struggle which has driven the entire nation into turmoil and civilian trauma. The major point of contention is the Red Sea port of Hudaydah, which both groups are fighting to control. 90% of international aid enters the nation through this port city, and until this week, it has been in the hands of the Houthi rebels. According to the government in Aden, the rebels have used control over the area to smuggle in arms and raise income for their cause.
Before the talks began, UN Envoy Griffiths accordingly remarked: ‘We’d like to take Hodeidah out of the conflict because…it’s the humanitarian pipeline to the rest of the country’. (2) In this port city alone, thousands of civilians are trapped with very limited food and access to hygiene. UN representative Lisa Grande has reported that if the war is not stopped or at least quelled soon, a full-blown famine could engulf Yemen in the next three months. Grande compares the situation to those famines experienced in Ethiopia, Bengal and, to some extent, those that happened in the Soviet Union, with 12-13 million civilians at risk of starvation now. The problem is, if civilians have not yet given into the dangers of starvation, they are threatened permanently by air strikes from the Saudi-coalition. Hygiene is also scarce, with 10,000 new cases of cholera reported each week, according to the World Health Organisation. (3) With a situation as dire as this, the need to work towards ending the civil war has never been so pressing.
In the run up to the talks, there was a risk of over-optimism on the part of the international community. Various obstacles initially proved very difficult to overcome during negotiations. Firstly, the nation’s main airport in Sana’a is held by the Houthi rebels, who are threatening to prevent UN planes from accessing it unless it is opened up for regular flights again. The airport has been closed for regular flights for two years now as a containment measure for the civil war. Conversely, the Yemeni government was also obstinate in their opinion that the only way to end the war was for Houti rebels to hand Hudaydah back to them. Naturally, with such staunchly differing viewpoints on either side of the negotiating table, difficulties were bound to arise. But Griffiths was still determined to call these talks an ‘important milestone’, as both parties had already signed a prisoner swap deal which promises to reunite thousands of Yemeni families.(4) It is measures such as this which, whilst not ending the war entirely, build confidence on both sides that an all-encompassing ceasefire might be reached in the future.
It was therefore not expected that these talks would result in a total breakthrough, but “The language”, according to BBC Chief Lyse Doucet, “is of de-escalation and restraint”. There is also a tone of willing co-operation coming from both sides, with Yemeni government representative Abdullah al-Alimi tweeting that the talks are a “true opportunity for peace”. Houthi leader Mohammed Abdelsalam also pledged to “spare no effort to make a success of the talks”. Borne out of these attitudes, the Stockholm talks have now reached what UN officials have termed a ‘breakthrough agreement’, involving a ceasefire over the port city of Hudaydah, the aforementioned prisoner-exchange agreement and a cooperative statement regarding the contentious city of Taiz. (5)
However, it is still key not to jump to conclusions about these positive aspects of the talks. Whilst certainly advocating an unprecedented level of cooperation between the two sides, the Houthi handover of Hudaydah to local security forces may not be as smooth as one would like to think. Not only is the deadline for this unreasonably tight – December 31st 2018 – but the local forces themselves are packed tight with Houthi sympathisers. This therefore begs the question, is this really a handover at all? And if it is the intention of the Houthi forces to demilitarise the zone, will it be completed in time? Additional issues such as the reopening of Sana’a Airport have also not been addressed, and solutions to the collapsed national currency continue to elude the negotiating table. Progress is undoubtedly occurring, but it is far from comprehensive.
In spite of these areas of doubt, Yemen is certainly shifting away from its nickname as the “forgotten war”. Griffiths has achieved something monumental simply by managing to gather both parties in Stockholm after four years of bitter civil war. Before the talks began, Hudaydah was said to be the priority, and a ceasefire has indeed been agreed upon for the area. This will be the first case of Houthi demilitarisation since the beginning of the conflict, making clear the role of territorial compromise. The terms of the talks are indeed vague and the logistics of the ceasefire are yet to be confirmed, but these negotiations represent advancement which would have been unthinkable one year ago. Whilst being careful not to fall into the trap of excessive optimism, the international community must latch onto these developments to kindle an environment of positive diplomacy in this war-weary nation.
At the time of writing, Issy Williams is a final year History and Languages student at the University of Bristol. She is most interested in contemporary power politics in Russia and the Middle East.