Yemen’s warring parties completed a major U.N.-brokered prisoner swap in October. The swap is the largest of its kind since the ongoing Yemeni civil war erupted in 2014. In September, a joint statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations announced a deal in Geneva to swap 1,081 prisoners. That figure includes 15 Saudis and four Sudanese.
The exchange was made over two days: Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16. The ICRC said on Friday (October 16) 352 prisoners were exchanged after more than 700 were swapped on Thursday (October 15).
The prisoners, reportedly, were transported on 11 flights, which took off or landed in five different cities: Sanaa, Seiyun, and Aden in Yemen; and Riyadh and Abha in Saudi Arabia. Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam said the exchange brought “back hopes of building peace.”
On the other hand, the Yemeni government’s Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani – who was among the prisoners freed by the Houthi rebels – tweeted that the Saudi-backed government was committed to continue working to secure the release of all the rebels’ detainees.
Among those freed and flown to Aden on October 16 was Eid Allah al-Kouli, a prominent Yemeni intellectual and author who was captured by the Houthis in Hodeidah before being imprisoned in the capital for five years, according to Ahmed Naji, a leader of Yemen’s writers’ union, per Al Jazeera.
“We’re very happy this operation has concluded with success, regardless of how challenging it was to put it together.”
The move was widely welcomed. “We’re very happy this operation has concluded with success, regardless of how challenging it was to put it together,” said Yara Khawaja, a spokeswoman for the ICRC in Yemen, which has overseen the swap. She, reportedly, expressed hope it would help the warring sides overcome mistrust and restart more substantive negotiations “to end the suffering of millions of Yemenis.”
U.N. envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, told the Security Council that the swap was an “airlift of hope,” adding that both parties remain in negotiations for a permanent ceasefire, which he anticipated could be agreed on by the end of the year. “I know what the parties think of the specifics and I know how we, I think, can bridge the gap between them and meet their aspirations. So it’s weeks, not months, I hope this year,” he told reporters, according to Reuters.
Much More Work Needed
While the swap is certainly a positive move, much more work still needs to be done for peace to prevail. Clashes will continue until a ceasefire is in place, which means that the daily suffering of Yemenis will remain, and likely deteriorate further, especially with the coronavirus outbreak battering the most vulnerable and the country’s economy.
Yemenis want to live in peace, not just see prisoners being exchanged. It is estimated that over 233,000 people were killed by the end of 2019 because of fighting and the humanitarian crisis. The only way to prevent this number from increasing is through halting the clashes between the warring parties. So far, neither the Saudi-led coalition nor the Houthis appear to be disengaging militarily.
So far, neither the Saudi-led coalition nor the Houthis appear to be disengaging militarily.
In the six-year-old Yemeni war, all the warring parties share responsibility for the situation that Yemenis live in today. According to a report published in August by Independent Yemeni, human rights organization Mwatana, and the London-based Ceasefire Center for Civilian Rights, Yemen’s warring factions have “all damaged, destroyed, used, occupied or attacked schools.” The report documented more than 380 attacks on or in close proximity to educational facilities between March 2015 and December 2019, per Al-Monitor.
Moreover, in September, the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen accused Yemen’s warring parties of widespread violations, some amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, calling for an end to impunity, and for perpetrators of these crimes to be brought to justice.
It could be argued that if countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or Iran had not become involved, the situation would not have worsened to this extent. Their involvement has only further complicated the war. The same argument applies to Western governments selling arms to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition. These governments’ unconditional support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE seems to have led Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to act irresponsibly without being concerned about any potential consequences. This is because such governments have been putting their interests ahead of their values.
The Military Solution Has ‘Failed’
History has taught Yemen that foreign interventions are not a determining factor in creating a win for any of the warring parties. For instance, the 1962 revolution against Muhammad al-Badr, the Imam of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, began a civil war in Yemen between the Republicans and the Royalists, which lasted for eight years. The Egyptians backed the Republicans, and the Saudis fought a proxy war by backing the Royalists. Shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war — a war that the Arabs refer to as the Naksa (the setback) — Cairo withdrew its troops. Meanwhile, the Saudi-backed Royalists were defeated.
Despite the Saudis spending billions of dollars on this war, they have still failed to defeat the Houthi rebels.
It is evident now more than ever that the current conflict in Yemen has no military solution. Despite the Saudis spending billions of dollars on this war, they have still failed to defeat the Houthi rebels, who even managed to improve their military position.
“Clearly [the military solution] has failed: the Houthis are not only still in place, but stronger than they were before the Saudi-UAE intervention,” Daniel Serwer, Director of Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told Inside Arabia. “Academic scholarship has demonstrated that interventions by neighbors that are not superpowers on one side of a conflict without multilateral approval or impartiality are less likely to succeed. [It] looks . . . as if the Yemen intervention fits that paradigm.”
Only a political solution has any chance to settle the conflict now forcing Yemenis to live through the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The warring parties should put their country and its future first and start the necessary dialogue. They can build on the achievement of this recent exchange of prisoners, but it remains to be seen whether they will be able to take a step that actually gives Yemenis hope.