The civil war in the poorest country of Middle East, Yemen, began in early 2014 and has only gotten worse since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015. The coalition’s recent attack on the Huthi-controlled port city of Hodeidah may, as some have argued, offer a chance to end the conflict. However, if the international community doesn’t do more to try and bring the conflict to conclusion, it is likely that the war only worsens and continues.
Yemen has seen civil wars throughout its history, and the most recent one’s roots began over a decade ago. The Huthis are a Zaydi Shiite political movement from the north of Yemen. Zaydi Shiite Muslims make up around a quarter of the country’s population. In recent years, the Yemeni government has systematically repressed their region economically and culturally. This sparked six-rounds of fighting between the two sides between 2004 and 2010, the last of which briefly saw Saudi intervention. In the last few years, the Yemeni government has charged that the Huthis are proxies for Iran and an existential threat.
The current crisis stems from Huthi disappointment with the political transition that began in 2011 when former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was removed. Fearing continued marginalization in the north, the Huthis swept south, picking up allies along the way. They captured the capital of Sana’a in September 2014 and the major southern port city of Aden in spring 2015.
The war has since gotten worse. Fearing Iranian presence on their southern border (the Iranians provide training, financing, and arms aid to the Huthis), the Saudis formed a coalition with the Yemeni government and the United Arab Emirates, among others, to push out the Huthis and restore the Yemeni government. After successfully recapturing Aden, the war has stalled.
Amidst the fighting, over 10,000 Yemeni civilians have perished. The international community has voiced anger at continued Saudi bombing of civilian targets, leading to multiple U.S. Congressional attempts to halt or diminish U.S. support to the coalition, including a current effort by Senator Robert Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, to stop a huge arms sale to the Gulf States. Washington, viewing Yemen mostly through a counterterrorism lens, has provided intelligence, refueling, and munitions to the alliance.
The coalition’s military excursion to Hodeidah, which the United Arab Emirates is leading, is the largest of the conflict thus far and threatens to make the already dire humanitarian situation worse. Hodeidah, a city of 600,000, is the main entry point for international aid due to a Saudi-imposed blockade.
Currently poised on the outskirts of the city, if the Huthis refuse to relinquish control, a coalition push into the city center could see house-to-house fighting and threaten the lives of over 250,000 people, with many more internally displaced. This is a hard blow for a country where 8 out of 29 million people already risk starvation, and that is facing the “worst cholera outbreak in modern history.”
Time to avert a prolonged disaster is growing short. U.N peace efforts seeking a government return and Huthi disarmament have so far been unsuccessful, with the coalition calling for complete Huthi disarmament, withdrawal, and a denunciation of Iran. Negotiations over the fate of Hodeidah have a slim chance of success. The U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, met with Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in Aden on Wednesday last week. This came on the heels of a meeting the prior week with Huthi leader Abdel Malek al-Houthi, who indicated that he might be willing to hand over the port to the U.N.
It seems, though, that this would not be enough for the coalition. At his meeting with Griffiths, Hadi “insisted on the need for the Huthis to withdraw completely and without conditions from Hodeida, or face a military solution,” according to a Yemeni government source who spoke to AFP. The Emiratis announced on July 1, though, that they were halting their offensive in order for the U.N. to try to negotiate a deal. Hadi is reportedly meeting with Griffiths again on July 2.
Even if both sides did agree to U.N. control over the port, the Huthis would still control the surrounding areas, making it a pyrrhic victory at best for the coalition. Moreover, as Peter Salisbury cogently points out in his analysis in Foreign Affairs, the Emiratis, who are leading this assault, are looking to score a larger political and military victory in Hodeidah as part of their longer-term strategy to end the conflict on their terms.
After years of fighting, much blood and treasure spent, and numerous failed attempts at negotiations, it is unlikely that either the Huthis or the coalition forces will be willing to give up enough to forestall further bloodshed in Hodeidah. Prior to the initial Griffiths-Hadi meeting, it seemed the best to be hoped for was a near-term agreement that relinquished Huthi control of the port but left them in control of the city and its surroundings, delaying the inevitable fight for control of the larger region and buying time for a negotiated solution. Even this agreement will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach.
A larger fight for total control of Hodeidah and its environs will be catastrophic for innocent Yemenis. With the U.N. approach failing thus far, and both sides seemingly intransigent, it is time for more concerted international action.
The recent humanitarian conference in Paris is a step in the right direction, but more political and national-level buy-in is needed. The U.S. holds the most cards to pressure the coalition. Moves to curtail support to the coalition could go a long way to push the Yemeni government and the coalition side to the negotiating table but seem unlikely from the current U.S. administration and Congress.
In Washington’s absence, it will be up to other Western allies to pressure the government side, while others, such as Oman, should redouble their efforts to move the Huthis. There are compromises that both sides could live with at the end of the day, such as partial Huthi disarmament. For the sake of millions of Yemeni citizens, all sides need to find out where those compromises lie.