by Abubakar Ben Rajeh
The war in Yemen enters this March its sixth year since the Saudi-led Arab Coalition, with the effective participation of the UAE and logistical support by the U.S., launched the military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis. Saudi Arabia justified its military intervention in Yemen by lending support to the legitimate government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansur Hadi, who had been toppled by the Houthi rebellion and forces loyal to late president Ali Abdellah Salah, in September 2014. Hadi himself was elected in February 2012 following the stepping down of Salah under the pressure of the revolution of February 2011, as the then Arab Spring uprisings swept the MENA region.
The war in Yemen has so far consumed many rounds of UN mediation between the Houthis and the legitimate government, in Geneva and Stockholm; as well as secret talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, and tentative agreements between the Hadi government and self-proclaimed Southern Transitional Council. Even though several agreements have been signed, they have not been observed and the war has continued to rage and become ever more complex (1). This situation is compounded with the emergence of new conflict parties and the proliferation of localised and sub-conflicts within the ongoing war, all of which constitute hurdles for prospecting scenarios for ending the conflict (2).
As the news about the war in Yemen is relegated to the sundry news stories of the mainstream media in favour of conflicts deemed more pressing and threatening for Europe, as well as the spectre of pandemics, we ask whether the Saudi-led coalition has accomplished its mission in Yemen in the light of the disastrous humanitarian effects of the war on civilians.
Has the Arab Coalition Accomplished its Objectives in Yemen?
The Saudi-led Arab coalition launched its air strikes, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, against the Houthis and their Abdallah Salah’s loyalists in late March 2015. What was thought would be a swift and decisive campaign turned out to be a perilous venture, as the Houthi forces continued their southward offensive. Besides, the Saudi coalition did not dare to engage in a full-scale ground offensive for fear of the Houthis’ combat experience sharpened over six conflicts that they fought against Abdallah Salah’s regime, as well as the challenging terrain of the country. Therefore, it is safe to say that the Saudi-Emirati coalition has reached an impasse in Yemen.
Various geopolitical analyses have been put forward for the inability of the coalition to win the war. These vary, from the poor estimate by Saudi Arabia and its allies of the capacity and combat capabilities of the Houthis, to those who doubt Riyadh’s commitment to defeat or even degrade the Houthi group. Some analysts have even suggested that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are using the Houthi card to disguise their expansionist ambitions in Yemen, to gain access to the Arabian Sea and control over the Gulf of Aden (3). On the other hand, the Emirates have striven to weaken Hadi’s government on the pretext of its alliance with the Islah Party (Muslim Brotherhood). Furthermore, the Emirates have formed and armed militias outside the national Yemeni army in the south and east of the country, based in Aden and Hadhramaut governorate. Moreover, units of the Emirati army are based in Yemeni ports and islands such as the Al Mokha port and Socotra island.
Since 2015, human rights NGOs have documented tens of cases where airstrikes injured civilians in houses, hospitals, schools, and mosques. These amount to war crimes according to some NGOs. Saudi forces struck, for instance, a wedding celebration which killed 25, including eight children. In another strike the coalition hit a bus leaving at least 26 children dead, using American and European weapons (4). On the other side, Houthis indiscriminately shell Yemeni towns, and their rockets target popular neighbourhoods. This has been especially devastating in Aden and Taiz, the third largest city in Yemen, where tens of civilians including children and women lost their lives (5).
Reports by Yemeni and international human rights organisations, as well as lawyers, have documented hundreds of cases of human rights abuses by all parties involved in the war in Yemen. Houthi group forces, the Yemeni government, forces loyal to the Emirates, as well as the Saudi-UEA coalition have all failed to observe international humanitarian law when dealing with their political opponents, since 2014. Forced disappearance of persons, arbitrary detention, including of children, running of secret detention prisons, as well as psychological and physical mistreatment and even torture of women have been common human rights abuse practices since the overthrow of Hadi’s government in late 2014 (6).
Mwatana NGO, a Yemeni human rights organisation, conducted a study on the detention centres in seven Yemeni governorates (Amanat Al-Asemah, Aden, Al-Hudaydah, Ibb, Ma’rib and Taiz, and Hadhramaut). Mwatana surveyed 277 current and former detainees, and 60 police officials in police stations, on the conditions of detention and respect for the law from 2015 to 2018. In addition to breaches of procedural practice regarding arrests and detention, the study revealed the recourse of conflict parties to the use of unlawful detention sites such as private buildings, government buildings and compounds, as well as schools and even sport stadiums, all of which did not meet international and national standards (7). Yemeni activist Huda al-Sarari, has been awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for human rights in February 2020 in recognition of her daring work which exposed a network of secret prisons run by the United Arab Emirates in southern Yemen (8).
Another casualty of the war in Yemen is the cultural heritage of the country. Mwatana for Human Rights documented 15 historical and archaeological sites that were directly targeted by the Saudi-Emirati airstrikes. These sites included the historic town of Baraqish and the northern gateway to the old Ma’rib dam. Attacks on cultural property included the destruction of two religious landmarks in Taiz (Al Sudi Dome - Al Rumaymeh Dome) by an extremist group active in areas under the authority of President Hadi’s government. For their part, Houthi tanks and artillery targeted the historical Madrassa and Mosque of Al-Ashrafiya in Taiz (9).
Interference with Humanitarian Aid
The war has created one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has to deal with. In its 2018 annual report on Yemen the UN estimated that 14 million Yemenis face starvation, as well as epidemics such as cholera, as a result of the violent conflict (10). However, interference by the warring parties with humanitarian aid access, through blockades of important ports, imprisonment of humanitarian relief workers, seizure and confiscation of aid and fuel tanks aimed for power generators of hospitals and water pumps, have all worsened the livelihood of the populations. In “Humanitarian Agencies as Prisoners of War” The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies explains the dilemma faced by the international aid agencies who find themselves forced to submit to the terms of the Houthis who control most of northern Yemen in order for them to deliver aid relief, worth almost US$4 billion in 2019 alone. This garners the Houthis “critical source of rent and influence for the group’s own war effort.” The Sana’a Centre argues that the hard truth is that aid is not reaching all those who need it most, and that it only serves to perpetuate a protracted conflict (11), resulting in more waves of IDPs (12).
The Yemeni parties must rally around a comprehensive national project, in order to find consensus on the shape of the Yemeni state and its territorial integrity; and the establishment of a transitional authority based on the principle of partnership, leading to a comprehensive political process that is separate from subnational projects and regional polarisation. Otherwise, Yemen will remain subject to international and regional polarisation, which will prolong the war and exacerbate the suffering of the Yemeni people. It is indispensable that the international community pressures the regional powers to stop the war and destruction in Yemen, to push the Yemeni parties to sit at the table of dialogue and negotiations and bring peace to Yemen.
(1) ECFR: Why the Riyadh Agreement is Collapsing, 3 February 2020
(3) Ali Ahmed Al Amrani, Yemeni ambassador to Jordan, Al Mawqea Post, 4 Mar. 2020
(5) Dozens killed as Yemen's Houthis shell Aden, Saudi jets bomb airport
(7) Mwatana for Human Rights, “Study on the situation of detention centres in Yemen, 2015-2018”, 2019
(8) Yemeni activist who exposed secret UAE prison network wins top human rights award
Yemeni activist Huda al-Sarari wins human rights award
(9) Mwatana for Human Rights, “The Degradation of History”, November 2018
(10) Yemen Events 2018, HRW
(11) The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, “Humanitarian Agencies as Prisoners of War”, February 2020
(12) استهداف المنظمات الدولية في الضالع. من يقف وراءه ومن المستفيد؟ تقرير الموقع بوست