Five years exactly have gone by since the US-backed Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates’ coalition militarily intervened in Yemen’s conflict to support the Yemeni government in confronting the Houthis’ powerful rise in the country. Hitherto, the war remains unstoppable and peace is elusive.
It was March 26, 2015, when Yemen slid into a new war chapter. Sadly, the pace of violence is yet to recede, and the quagmire grows further.
Year after year, the war has taken a heavy toll on the people, leaving thousands dead and millions displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance. The UN has been describing the situation in Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world because of failed peace efforts and thriving military options.
Today, as Yemen’s devastating war enters its sixth year, armed confrontations and airstrikes go on unabated.
Today, as Yemen’s devastating war enters its sixth year, armed confrontations and airstrikes go on unabated. Waves of displacement have not stopped and preparations for battlegrounds from both sides are in full swing. It is a war in which no party has shown signs of fatigue or capitulation.
Arguably, the country faces a worse scenario if compared to 2015. While the north is embroiled in sporadic confrontations between the government and Houthis, the south is stuck in a deadly power struggle between the government and southern separatists.
Heavy fighting has wreaked havoc in Yemen’s northern Al-Jawf province early this month, ending in the Houthi takeover of Al-Hazm city that was controlled by pro-government forces and loyal tribesmen. The fighting resumed mid-March in the Khabb and Asha’af district of the province, killing 35 combatants from both sides.
The Houthis – officially known as Ansarallah – have bested their opponent in Nehm district in Sanaa and Al-Hazm of Jawf. This can embolden them to push towards Marib, an oil-and-gas-rich province. And the battle is likely to persist.
UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths visited Marib for the first time on March 7 in the wake of Al-Hazm city’s fall to the Houthis. He called for an immediate freeze of hostilities.
“We will either silence the guns and resume the political process, or we will slip back into large-scale conflict and suffering that you have already seen here in Marib,” Griffiths pointed out. But his call has gone unheeded as atrocities have not ceased.
Fighting could extend to districts in Marib and the battle for this strategic province could result in another tragedy given both sides are heavily armed and prepared to fight till the last breath.
Fighting could extend to districts in Marib, such as Sirwah, and the battle for this strategic province could result in another tragedy given both sides are heavily armed and prepared to fight till the last breath. Should the Houthis wrest control of the city—which seems implausible so far, this could mean the Yemeni government in the north is ultimately eliminated.
Another bleak picture with an uncertain outcome is emerging in Hodeida province. Escalations have occurred over the last few days which could pave the way for an all-out war. The consequences will not only hurt the Hodeida population, as millions of people in Yemen’s north will also bear the brunt of the fallout. Hodeida’s ports are critical supply lifelines and 80% of food imports and humanitarian aid flow through this port city.
The parties to the conflict signed a peace agreement in December 2018 to spare the city, but its implementation has misfired thus far. The situation remains tense and explosive. Both sides have been mobilizing their forces, readying for war as peace efforts keep hitting dead ends.
The UN seems incapable of pushing for the implementation of an agreement in one province in Yemen, which raises the question of how it could persuade the two sides to reach a comprehensive and sustainable resolution to the conflict in the entire country.
The UN seems incapable of pushing for the implementation of an agreement in one province in Yemen, which raises the question of how it could persuade the two sides to reach a comprehensive and sustainable resolution to the conflict in the entire country after five years of war.
Like the north, Yemen’s south is plagued by serious political and military troubles. Since 2017, a power struggle between the government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) has fragmented the south and destabilized several Houthi-free southern provinces. The parties’ differing agendas have shattered peace in the south and hampered progress towards a political settlement.
The STC literally rules over Aden, Lahj, Dhale and Abyan province where the government is almost non-existent. STC’s vision is to regain independence from Yemen’s north and become an autonomous country once again, as it used to be prior to 1990. The Yemeni government opposes such a scheme and is keen to preserve Yemen’s unity. Such a divide is hard to bridge without significant regional and international pressure and efforts.
The Saudi-UAE led coalition military managed to drive the Houthis out of Aden and other southern areas in 2015, but it has failed to defeat the Houthis in the north or prevent infighting in Houthi-free provinces in the south. Such a failure has given birth to a new dimension of the conflict, or what has been described as a war within a war.
A half decade or less could have been sufficient to put out the flames of war in Yemen if the Saudi-UAE led coalition did not deviate from its fundamental stated objective.
A half decade or less could have been sufficient to put out the flames of war in Yemen if the coalition did not deviate from its fundamental stated objective which it declared upon the launch of Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015.
The objective was clear: to restore the UN-recognized government in Yemen that was toppled by Iran-allied Houthis. But the coalition’s conflicting priorities have failed Yemen and betrayed Yemenis. Neither has the government been restored to power nor have the Houthis been defeated.
The prolonging conflict has cost Yemen dearly in every aspect. The country’s health system has been decimated over the last five years. Epidemics such as cholera and dengue fever have been prevalent and have taken thousands of lives. Fifty percent of Yemen’s health facilities and infrastructure have been dysfunctional due to the Saudi-UAE led coalition airstrikes and curable diseases have been lethal.
More recently, the global outbreak of COVID-19 presents a huge threat to Yemen. In countries where health systems are robust and sophisticated such as Italy and China, the virus has disrupted lives, claimed thousands of deaths, and thousands more are infected. A COVID-19 outbreak in this war-ravaged nation will be unmanageable and uncontrollable. And even though no case has been officially reported in Yemen to date, it remains an additional looming threat.
A COVID-19 outbreak in this war-ravaged nation will be unmanageable and uncontrollable.
At present, the international community, the United Nations, and even the Saudi-UAE led coalition seem powerless to impose an end to Yemen’s destructive war.
As Griffiths acknowledged in a recent statement, “The decision to continue the war is the decision of the parties. Peace is only possible if and when the parties make the responsible decision to put Yemenis first and lay down the arms.”
It seems unlikely the warring parties will put aside their weapons any time soon and the road to peace is still long. The end of the conflict remains unpredictable, but what can be anticipated is that this sixth year of war in Yemen will carry yet more violence and humanitarian suffering.