In Sweden last week, the Saudi-led coalition and their Houthi enemies agreed to a ceasefire in the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah, an important region through which 70% of aid enters Yemen. The two sides agreed to withdraw their troops from Hudaydah within 21 days under the supervision of a UN-led committee. This ceasefire follows a surge in international attention towards the conflict in Yemen, culminating in a Senate vote for the US to end military support to the Saudi-led coalition.
The conflict in Yemen has been ongoing for more than three years, with tens of thousands of casualties on both sides and an estimated 3 million displaced Yemenis. Why is there global interest now?
There are two reasons. First, the prospect of millions of deaths by famine has captured public attention. The UN recently reported that 16 million Yemenis have experienced food shortages—of those, 5 million are living in pre-famine conditions, and 63,500 are starving to death. Among those in the latter group was 7-year-old Amal Hussain, the subject of a distressing photo that brought the world’s attention to the extreme degree of famine in Yemen.
Another reason for the newfound international attention is the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October. His death instigated criticisms toward Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to be responsible for the murder. Despite President Trump’s reluctance to assign blame to the crown prince, American senators believe voting to stop aid for the Saudi-led coalition is one way to express their resentment towards bin Salman’s actions.
While the ceasefire and global attention may be good news for war-weary Yemenis, the two sides may struggle yet to enact the promises they made in Sweden. Historically such ceasefires have crumbled, and experts say that both sides are motivated to continue fighting.
Fragile Ceasefire Takes Effect in Yemen. Why Now and What’s Next?
CAIRO — An internationally backed cease-fire in the key Yemen port of Hudaydah got off to a shaky start on Tuesday when fighting erupted moments after it took effect at midnight.
The clashes died down hours later, and by late Tuesday residents of the war-torn port were enjoying their first respite from a fight that has raged since June, displacing at least 550,000 people and leading to thousands of civilian deaths.
The truce, agreed to in Sweden last week by Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and its Houthi foes, is intended to ensure humanitarian access to Hudaydah, which is the conduit for 70 percent of aid to Yemen. The deal has stoked hopes the belligerents could start full-blown talks to end a war that has driven the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
But the cessation of hostilities, which followed a weekend of heavy combat in the city, is fragile. And the sporadic bursts of gunfire that rang out even late on Tuesday were a reminder that without concerted international support, heavy fighting could resume there.
What’s the plan to make the cease-fire stick?
At the talks in Sweden last week, the warring parties agreed to withdraw their troops in Hudaydah to the city limits within 21 days under the supervision of a United Nations-led committee. The United Nations envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, says he wants that committee to be headed by Patrick Cammaert, a retired Dutch general who previously led United Nations peacekeeping forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo and along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
To make the deal stick, Mr. Griffiths is hoping to get the Security Council to pass a resolution supporting the latest peace efforts. More broadly, he’s hoping to build on a surge of international attention on Yemen in recent weeks that culminated, on Dec. 13, in a stunning move in Washington, when the Senate voted for the United States to end all military support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
The resolution, which had bipartisan support, will likely have a symbolic rather than concrete impact, at least until a new House is sworn in. But it did send a sobering signal to President Trump, a staunch Saudi ally, that his Yemen policy is now a matter of intense scrutiny.
Why such strong global interest in Yemen now?
One reason: The prospect of a catastrophic famine has focused minds.
A recent United Nations food survey found that 16 million Yemenis are living with food shortages, including five million in pre-famine conditions and another 63,500 who are starving to death. Those figures have increased by 42 percent since the last survey in March 2017, and have raised the prospect of a nationwide famine.
Distressing photos of skeletal children, like Amal Hussain, 7, who died in October, have galvanized public attention on a crisis that, until recently, was overshadowed by other Middle Eastern conflict zones like Syria and Iraq.
But the new focus on Yemen is also a product of international politics.
Global revulsion at the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October set off a wave of hostility directed at the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who the C.I.A. believes is responsible for the killing.
For at least some American senators, voting to stop all assistance for the Saudi-led war in Yemen was a way of registering their anger at the crown prince, and at President Trump’s refusal to take punitive action despite mounting evidence of his role in Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
So this is good news for war-weary Yemenis, right?
Yes and no. The sudden international focus on Yemen pressured both sides to come to the negotiating table. The Trump administration, hoping to dampen criticism of its support for the Saudis, recently stopped refueling coalition warplanes over Yemen in an effort to stem the shocking rate of civilian casualties. Thousands have died since 2015, often killed with American-supplied weapons and munitions.
But there are also worries the two sides will struggle to deliver on the promises made in Sweden — and that if the fighting does resume, it could be fiercer and exact a higher human cost than ever.
Previous cease-fires, most recently in 2016, have crumbled. Experts say that, despite the peace moves, both sides are still motivated to continue the war.
In the past six months Saudi Arabia’s chief ally, the United Arab Emirates, has led a military force which has fought to the gates of Hudaydah, hoping to snatch the city from Houthi control, which would be a major blow to that group. But Yemen analysts say it is unclear whether the loss of the city would cause the Houthis to give in, or fight even harder.
And even as Hudaydah fell quiet, fighting continued on other fronts in Yemen, like in the northern province of Hajjah.
What’s next for Hudaydah?
On Tuesday, anxious city residents waited to see if the truce would hold. Some said that Houthi militias had arrested dozens of people from the eastern and southern neighborhoods where fighting has raged in recent weeks.
Anwar Salem, a schoolteacher, said the gunfire that rang out Tuesday night was among the heaviest he had ever heard. “You could hear it from everywhere,” he said.
Last week in Sweden, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, exulted as Houthi and Yemen government representatives smiled and shook hands in Sweden. Now he has the harder task of turning those gestures into on-the-ground realities.
The Security Council is considering a resolution, drafted by Britain, that calls for plans for a peace-monitoring force in Hudaydah to be put forth by the end of the month. Analysts say he needs to move swiftly.
“The biggest reason for optimism right now is that both sides have agreed to meet again in January,” said Farea al-Muslimi of the Sana Center for Strategic Studies. “Otherwise, it all depends on so many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. So we will have to see.”
Source: The New York Times, Declan Walsh, Dec. 18, 2018. Photo credit to BBC.