by Khalid Al-Karimi
Hopes for peace in Yemen—or at least progress towards constructive political talks—rose this week. The Houthis began on Saturday to withdraw from Hodeida’s three ports, marking a tentative breakthrough in the four-year war in the country.
Initially, the UN hailed the Houthi pullout from some zones in Hodeida as “very good.” This development has created a sense of optimism that resolving the Hodeida conflict will be a prologue to greater political breakthroughs and will contribute to leading the warring parties to seriously engage in the coming peace talks.
Sadly, good news on peace in Yemen tends to die fast. Just four days following the reported Houthi withdrawal from the contested ports in Hodeida, the military escalation intensified. Even Hodeida, at the center of UN peace efforts, has not been spared. The fighting between the warring sides broke out on Wednesday, placing the city at risk of an all-out war. The two sides exchanged fire in Hodeida using heavy weapons including artillery.
Yemen’s warring sides, when they agree to talks, often proceed to flex their muscles on the battlefield. They believe that, to have the strongest position during negotiations, their soldiers must continue to fight the enemy nonstop. This destructive attitude has ended many previous peace bids. The recent fragile progress in Hodeida may meet the same fate.
In the wake of the Houthi pullout, the UN facilitated this week talks between Yemen’s warring sides in Jordan. The theme of the talks is to work out a way to run Hodeida’s ports. So far, the two sides are deadlocked on how to administer the sites and distribute the revenues. This stalemate can lead to the use of force by both sides as they try to maintain their presence in the port city. Such a scenario will be bloody, chaotic, and destructive. Also, there is no guarantee that one side will trump the other on the battlefield within days or weeks.
Hodeida is not the only place where violence is occurring. “Despite the significance of the last few days,” said UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen Martin Griffith. “Yemen remains at the crossroads between war and peace.” Armed confrontations between Houthi fighters and government forces in Yemen’s Dhale province have persisted, with a heavy toll on civilians. According to government officials, 27 civilians have been killed and 73 injured over the past 40 days.
The warring parties in Yemen have shown no signs of capitulating. They still own sufficient weapons and are able to receive more to keep the war on. This week, the Houthi movement claimed responsibility for using seven drones to attack two oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, which, according to Saudi media reports, left no casualties or damage.
The Saudis are discovering that the conflict in Yemen has become intractable. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia incapacitated the Yemen air force within minutes. Nowadays drones from Yemen are attacking vital Saudi oil installations. Although the Saudi-led coalition thinks the Houthi military force is weakening, the opposite is true. The Houthis continue developing their military capabilities, and their attacks on Saudi targets have not ceased.
Responding to the attack, Saudi warplanes carried out a series of airstrikes on the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa on Thursday morning. One airstrike hit a residential area, annihilating an entire family of six members including four children. Abdulrahman Saleh, a local resident, was among those who scrambled to find the dead bodies under the debris. He said, “Shedding the blood of civilians can’t lay the groundwork for peace. Instead it is a recipe for pushing more Yemenis to join the battlefield and take revenge. ”
The effort to bring the Yemen war to a close gets harder the longer the war continues. Both parties to conflict need to understand this difficult truth. The coalition’s war of attrition is in fact a war against millions of civilians who are at risk of severe famine and countless epidemics. Many Yemenis are worried less about the fighting between the coalition and the Houthis and more about watching their country head toward further chaos, polarization, and deterioration. Four years of war have turned Yemen into the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history, setting back the development in the country about 20 years.
The war in Yemen is not going to stop overnight, and the road to peace is explosive. But the recent peace efforts can pave the way for greater advances that lead to the overall cessation of hostilities.
Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sana’a-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter at the Yemen Times newspaper.