A ceasefire in Yemen’s civil conflict, now in its fifth year, now appears, at last, to be coming into view. The conflict has cost tens of thousands of lives and been described by U.N. officials as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
“If the fighting continues through 2022,” a U.N. development report released October 10 said, “Yemen will become the world’s poorest country in the world, with 79 percent of its estimated 28 million people living under the poverty line and 65 percent classified as “extremely poor.”
With much international attention now focused on the Turkish invasion of northern Syria and killing, expulsion or flight of many Syrian Kurds from Syria as U.S. troops withdraw, a public diplomacy focus on ways of ending the Yemen crisis seems, at last, to be quietly gaining momentum.
The key adversaries are:
The badly defeated and long-struggling Yemeni government, whose Prime Minister Abedrabbo Mansure Hadi has fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia and whose troops have been expelled from Yemeni cities such as the capital, Sana’a, the vital southern port of Aden and the key Red Sea port of Hodeidah.
Saudi Arabia and nine West Asian and African countries (many of them with predominantly Arab populations), who have tried — with limited victories inside Yemen — to defeat the Houthis seeking control. In fact, the Houthis appear now to have taken control of much of that war-ravaged country.
Signs of Progress in easing Yemen Conflict
There are several indicators of shifting positions in Yemen’s civil strife:
—Saudi Arabia, according to the Financial Times, has been holding talks with the Houthi rebels for the first time in more than two years.
—The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a key ally in the pro-Saudi coalition, has withdrawn some of its troops from Aden in the last two weeks as it has significantly reduced its force’s presence in most of Yemen for the past two or three months.
—Backchannel negotiations between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia began after the Houthis announced on September 30 that they would halt drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia which had been going on during much of the civil war.
—So far, the promised cessation seems to have held. For its part, the Riyadh government agreed, according to the Financial Times, to halt its bombing raids over four Houthi-held cities in Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a. The Houthis also have released nearly 300 prisoners, including three Saudis.
Are these confidence-building steps just a start? Next steps to watch for:
- Lifting of the 10-nation Saudi coalition blockade on fuel imports to the Houthi-controlled North Yemen through the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. (Four tankers with relief supplies have been prevented from landing there for some weeks by the Houthis).
- Mercy flights to and from Sana’a airport to permit sick and wounded Yemenis to leave for medical treatment and return to their country if they choose to do so.
- Re-activation of the peace mission headed by U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths, likely tracking the latest developments. Mr. Griffiths was appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to this challenging role in 2017.
Martin Indyk, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs writes in the forthcoming November/December issue of Foreign Affairs:
“Almost three years into his term, President Trump has nothing to show for his efforts to counter Iran or promote peace in the Middle East. Instead, his policies have supported an unending war and a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”
And in a New York Times column October 14, William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and his associate Jake Sullivan at the Endowment, write:
“To start, both sides (the U.S. and Iran) need to reset their expectations and begin a step-by-step de-escalation that could create the basis for a longer-term resolution. The United States won’t get to the table without some economic relief (for Iran) — either directly or through the European Union, as French President Macron has suggested.
“The Iranians will have to get more realistic, too. It’s simply impractical to think that the U.S. will provide significant sanctions relief without assurances that Iran will immediately begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement (on de-nuclearization) that at least extends the timelines of the 2015 agreement.” (That accord, according to Burns and Sullivan, was meant to be the start, not the end, of diplomacy with Iran. The U.S. had canceled its participation in the agreement last year as among early Trump administration moves.)
Summing it all up, the two Mideast experts write:
“We have our last, best chance for diplomacy before us. We should seize it.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More