Security Exchange News

The Protracted Peace

29 November 2018

The conflict in Yemen, which started in March 2015, has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Thousands have been killed and many of those who survived face starvation and disease. The situation, which was already dire, has deteriorated since the Saudi-UAE coalition launched a major offensive on the port city of Hodeidah earlier this year. Airstrikes have supported ground offensives by pro-government troops, who are attempting to seize control of the city from the Houthi rebel group. The port is a vital entry point for aid into Yemen and the heavy fighting has frequently prevented the UN’s World Food Programme and aid agencies from delivering much-needed food and medical supplies to civilians. Long-term shortages have also pushed up prices of basic goods, putting them out of reach for most of the population.

The scale of the crisis has prompted various states, aid agencies, and the UN to increase calls for a ceasefire. However, as is often the case, there is a complex network of alliances and contrasting interests which are undermining the process. The UN’s envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, was in Yemen’s capital Sana’a last week for talks with the Houthi rebel group as he attempts to broker a new round of peace talks. Then on Monday he headed to the Saudi capital Riyadh to meet with officials from the government. The talks are a precursor to more formal talks between both sides, which are set to be held early next month in Sweden. The last attempts by the UN to broker peace collapsed in September when the Houthis refused to travel to Geneva, Switzerland.

It is also proving difficult to get an international consensus on the conflict, evident when a UN resolution was stalled by the US and other members of the security council. The UK, who drafted the resolution, called for a halt to the fighting in Hodeidah and the resumption of humanitarian deliveries; however, the US, China, Kazakhstan, and Ethiopia all claimed that any decision should be taken after the talks in Stockholm. According to reports, the Saudis and UAE had heavily lobbied against the resolution, claiming that they wouldn’t travel to Sweden if the resolution was passed. In a joint statement, five aid groups said the US would share responsibility for the humanitarian crisis if they did not end support for the coalition. “If the government of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, [the Houthi group] Ansar Allah, and other parties to the conflict fail to take these steps, and if the United States does not use all levers of pressure to compel them to do so, responsibility for the deaths of many more Yemeni civilians will lie not only with the parties to the conflict, but with the United States as well,” said the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam America, Care US, Save the Children USA and the Norwegian Refugee Council USA.

The issue has also caused division within the US Senate, which this week voted on a bipartisan motion that could limit American support for the Saudi-led coalition. Senators voted 63-37 in favour of taking the motion forward and is likely to result in more debate next week. Politicians from both sides have expressed concerns over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. Allegations that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing have forced even staunchly pro-Saudi politicians like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to support the motion.  "I changed my mind because I'm pissed," Graham said following the vote. Al-Jazeera published an article based on an investigation by the Centre for International Policy that claims five of the 37 Republican Senators who voted against the motion had received campaign contributions from pro-Saudi lobbying groups, the largest of which was the $19,200 paid to Rob Blunt, the Senator for Missouri. Al Jazeera also claimed that a Yemeni commander, Abu al-Abbas, was receiving financial and military support from the UAE despite being designated as a terrorist by the US for financing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS). Pressure will continue to grow on the Trump administration if it continues to back the Saudis. Positive talks next week could provide some breathing space, and more importantly, a much-needed respite for the people of Yemen.