A Hope Delayed

The Ongoing Struggle For Peace In Yemen


Payel Islam

“The tragedy of the war in Yemen runs deeper than the statistics and warnings but is rooted in the plight and endurance of the Yemeni people, who have been locked in a geopolitical conflict that has left so many people with so little,” Wilson Nesbit ’19 said.

On December 13th, 2018, a spark of hope was lit in Yemen. The country, which has been dealing with one of the world’s most destructive wars of the twenty first century for the last four years, could finally see peace in sight in the form of a ceasefire agreement. The agreement did not stop the barrage of Saudi airstrikes, one of which occurs every ninety minutes, or end the scourge of Houthi landmines and bombings which have pushed the country into a painful military stalemate, nor was it intended to. The tentative deal, signed between the Saudi-led coalition and a group of Iranian backed rebels known as the Houthis, instead simply signified a willingness to de-escalate the years long war, and included a promise from both sides to avoid war in one of Yemen’s most important conflict zones. The agreement was meant to serve as only a first step to peace, and that step began in Hodeidah.

Hodeidah, which is currently controlled by the Houthi rebels, is one of the largest urban areas in Yemen, with a population of about two and a half million. As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continued to fight the Houthi rebels with mixed success across the country, the battle lines moved to Hodeidah, which is seen by the Saudi-led coalition as being the next step toward permanently ending the Yemini resistance.

The Yemen War, which began in 2015, was ignited when Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, toppled the Saudi-supported Hadi government, which had long discriminated against the Houthi minorities. Saudi Arabia, working alongside the United Arab Emirates, quickly intervened, fearing an Iranian backed regime on their border, in what they thought would be an air campaign that would only last a few weeks. Years later, the war has proved to be far harder to win than the Saudis had expected, with the Houthis integrating themselves among civilians, making Saudi airstrikes less effective, and taking guerrilla-like tactics on the ground that make coalition troops unable to disarm the rebels.

“Neither party truly wants an end to war. And, so as long as this end is not desired, peace is unlikely to offer itself to the Yemeni people anytime soon,” Wilson Nesbit ’19 said.

Neither side of the Yemen War avoids international criticism, with both sides ignoring international law by purposefully targeting civilians. The Houthi rebels refuse to pay civil servants, discriminate against other ethnic minorities in the areas they govern, and have been accused of stealing large portions of humanitarian aid to fund their war effort. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has taken scorched-earth tactics in an attempt to force the Yemeni people into submission, blocking the delivery of food and fuel, and carrying out a destructive air campaign that has ravaged the small nation’s economy. In total, more than one third of all Saudi-led airstrikes target civilians or civilian infrastructure, with the most frequent target of these strikes being food production and distribution centers, which has cut the food supply in the country in half and put ten million Yemeni civilians on the brink of famine. Overall, the United Nations has called the Yemen War the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” with one child dying from war-related causes every ten minutes.

While the Yemen War has already been destructive thus far, international organizations fear that an invasion of the city of Hodeidah could push the country over the edge into a permanent state of ruin. This is because the city stands adjacent to the Port of Hodeidah, where more than 80 percent of the country’s food, water, and humanitarian aid flows through. An assault on the city by Saudi forces would make deliveries into the port virtually impossible, and could deal permanent damage to the port that could make it inoperable for years to come.

In August of 2018, Saudi Arabia and the UAE began to launch an offensive in Hodeidah, believing that a win in Hodeidah would deal a devastating blow to the rebel cause and lead them one step closer to recapturing the capital. International observers, on the other hand, were skeptical, fearing that an attack would deal permanent damage to the country’s economy while only encouraging the Houthis to fight back harder, potentially launching long range missiles into the Saudi capital. The Saudi-led coalition pressed on despite international outcry, resulting in a 50 percent decline of food deliveries through the port, as an additional 3.2 million Yemeni civilians became malnourished. This October, the UN warned that if the attack continued, Yemen would be pushed into the “world’s worst famine in 100 years.”

Finally, after a wave of sustained international outcry, Saudi Arabia halted their assault in December as part of the Stockholm ceasefire agreement that has had mixed results. While some activists, international organizations, and political leaders felt optimistic after the signing of the Stockholm Agreement, which was primarily meant to avoid war in Hodeidah, this optimism has since soured. Both parties have been accused of violating the agreement nearly four thousand times over the last few months, with the Houthis refusing to clear out of the city to let UN monitors turn it into a humanitarian corridor and the Saudis responding to this by carrying out targeted strikes in some parts of the city. However, the United Nations assesses the agreement has having some success, driving down Saudi airstrikes, preventing a continued UAE ground assault, and allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid to many areas of Hodeidah for the first time in six months. Over the last three months, with the ceasefire in effect, the World Food Program reached a record amount of people with humanitarian assistance, the UN announced they would be able to scale up their aid programs by about 50 percent, and airstrikes nationwide declined by about eleven percent. Not all observers are as starry-eyed. The Norwegian Refugee Council, an international humanitarian organization, releasing a report in March finding that casualties in many areas outside of Hodeidah had more than doubled, with food shipments through the port only constituting about a third of what they were two years ago. The Council declared that the ceasefire was no more than a piece of paper, with both sides use the agreement as a smoke screen to double down on attacks elsewhere in the country while pretending to be seeking de-escalation.

One fundamental problem at the root of this digression is the lack of will for peace by the parties in the conflict. Saudi Arabia is involved in Yemen for primarily ideological reasons, believing that the Houthi government, backed by their many enemy of Iran, will always be a threat on their border. For this reason, while the Saudis may sign agreements that downscale certain military engagements, they show little willingness to abandon the war entirely if it means leaving a Houthi-led government on their border. Indeed, over the last century, the Saudis have intervened in Yemen about once every decade. The Houthis, on the other hand, also show little intention to end the fighting. This is because the Houthis are deeply unpopular in the country, as they have little semblance of government, are an ethnic minority, and have routinely denied those in their territories access to basic necessities. Despite this unpopularity, the war is the only thing providing the Houthis with legitimacy, as, even if they are unpopular, the Saudi coalition looks to be even worse, bombing schools and hospitals, and providing a scapegoat that the Houthis can use to escape responsibility for their own failures of government. Indeed, the war has been an enormous recruiting tool for the Houthis, as anger about the Saudi campaign has swelled the ranks of the Houthi army from around 3,000 soldiers in 2015 to more than 120,000 today.

“In the face of these intentions, any agreement signed by either party is less likely to succeed, as neither party truly wants an end to war,” Wilson Nesbit ’19 said.  “And, so as long as this end is not desired, peace is unlikely to offer itself to the Yemeni people anytime soon.”