by Thomas W. Lippman
Somewhere there may be hopeful signs about the stalemated war in Yemen, some optimistic visions about the country’s future, but if so they were not discernible at a well-attended conference in Washington on March 31.
Diplomats, government officials, relief workers, Yemeni politicians and representatives of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund painted a dim picture of a country facing famine, a country with no money to import food or medicine, a country with no prospects for relief unless its warring factions find the political solution that has eluded them for years.
Several participants predicted that the situation will become even worse if, as expected, the Saudi Arabia–led military coalition supporting the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, tries to capture the key port of Hodeidah, which is held by the rebel group known as Houthis.
An assault on Hodeidah “is very likely to happen, and it could have disastrous consequences for the population,” said Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, United Nations special envoy for Yemen. Cheikh Ahmed, who presided over fruitless peace talks for three months last summer, described himself as “like a surgeon in an operating room and the patient is bleeding–you have to stop the bleeding” before anything else can be accomplished.
Unless the warring factions come to a “political consensus,” he told participants in the conference, sponsored by the Middle East Institute, “Yemen risks becoming a failed state.”
In many ways, other panelists said, it already is.
A paper distributed by the Yemeni embassy said that when the capital city, Sanaa, fell under Houthi control in 2014, “unsound policies led to the hemorrhaging of banknote reserves, rendering the bank cashless and unable to pay salaries since June 2016.” According to Albert Jaeger, IMF mission chief for Yemen, the dearth of banknotes means that civil servants, schoolteachers and hospital workers in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country are not being paid, and thus could not buy food and medicine even if supplies were available. Pensions are not being distributed to retirees. The Hadi government is struggling to rebuild Yemen’s modest oil industry, the chief source of state revenue–but even if full production resumes, the global oil price is only about half what it was when the war started.
Cheikh Ahmed and other panelists said that roughly 19 million Yemenis–out of a pre-war population of about 28 million–are in dire need of assistance, which cannot be distributed because of the security situation and the bottleneck at Hodeidah. “The scale of the need is just overwhelming,” said Robert Wilson, an aid official at the State Department, describing the humanitarian situation as “awful.”
Some analysts believe that the bottleneck at Hodeidah is not the result of Houthi control of the city but of a naval blockade imposed by the Saudis and their partners to ensure that military supplies from Iran do not reach the Houthis. That assessment reflects the complicated nature of the war, in which some participants have interests beyond the fate of Yemen itself.
The Saudis, who in their fear of Iranian encroachment on the Arabian Peninsula have been bombing rebel forces for two years–to no apparent effect other than civilian deaths and infrastructure destruction–“would be the first to say that they are eager to get out of that situation,” said Anne Patterson, who was assistant secretary of State for Near East Affairs at the end of the Obama administration. She said Saudi Arabia is trapped in “a vicious cycle that is very expensive for them and very cheap for Iran,” an assessment shared by other participants, who said that Iranian support for the Houthis is limited but has a disproportionate benefit for the Tehran regime because the air war is draining the resources of its biggest regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis are Zaydi Shiite Muslims, religiously more in tune with the Shiite government in Iran than with Yemen’s Sunni majority and the Hadi government’s Saudi backers. But Cheikh Ahmed and other panelists said the war is not primarily a sectarian conflict but simply a large-scale, intractable power struggle.
The three main parties to the conflict are the forces of the Hadi government, now based in Aden; the Houthis, who besides Hodeidah and Sanaa control most of the northwest; and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for 33 years until forced to resign by large-scale public protests. Saleh was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia after an assassination attempt in 2011, but returned the following year after the Yemeni parliament enacted a law granting him amnesty for any crimes he committed while in office. He then joined forces with the Houthis, taking with him military units still loyal to him.
Ahmed bin Mubarak, Hadi’s current ambassdor to the United States, said the unconditional amnesty was “mistake” by his government. He said it should have been granted only if Saleh agreed to stay out of politics.
According to Nadwa al-Dosari, a conflict management specialist who has spent years in Yemen, the security vacuum created by the conflict in large areas of the country has led to the proliferation of local armed groups that take orders from none of the major participants. The groups have no military training and “some of them are just criminal gangs,” she said, “but they are widely seen as more legitimate than the army was before.” The existence of those militias makes the prospect of a peace agreement that installs a unified central government even more remote than it was before the Saudi intervention in the war.
Near the end of his term, President Barack Obama curtailed some weapons sales to the Saudis because of the mounting civilian casualties in Yemen. The administration of President Donald Trump has signaled that it is preparing to resume the sales. But if Cheikh Ahmed, Patterson, Ambassador Mubarak, and other panelists at the conference agreed on one thing, it was that there is no military solution to the Yemen conflict. What is needed is “political consensus,” Cheikh Ahmed said, and that cannot be achieved until “the Houthis understand that they cannot control the military” under an “inclusive” postwar government.
Even if a unified government is somehow established, Cheik Ahmed said, one of its first tasks will be to resolve the status of South Yemen, formerly a separate country where there is once again strong separatist sentiment.