Yemen in Focus: Escalating violence undermines ceasefire efforts

Yemen in Focus: Escalating violence undermines ceasefire efforts
This week we focus on violations of a ceasefire in Yemen, defections on Socotra island, and more.
7 min read
15 April, 2020
Houthi rebels have continued attacks in Yemen. [Getty]
Violence between Yemen's warring factions has continued to escalate in the country despite the announcement of a temporary ceasefire aimed at allowing authorities on the ground to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The ceasefire was aimed at creating "favourable conditions" for a UN-supervised meeting between the Riyadh-backed Yemeni government, the rebels and the coalition to pave the way for a permanent ceasefire in Yemen, coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said at the time.

However, Yemen's Houthi rebels have reportedly breached the ceasefire multiple times since it was announced by the Saudi-led coalition last Wednesday, including launching attacks against Saudi and UAE-backed government forces in the eastern Marib region, al-Jawf and Nihm.

On Friday, Houthi air defences shot down a "spy plane" belonging to the coalition in the Razih district of Saada province in northern Yemen, the official Saba news agency quoted a military official as saying.

In Taiz, at least eight civilians, mainly woman and children have been killed by Houthi snipers in the past three weeks, including reported incidents post-ceasefire according to current member of the Federal Constitution Drafting Committee Aolfat al-Dub'i.

Last week, the house of a prominent sheikh from Marib's Abidah tribe was struck by a Houthi ballistic missile, causing several civilian casualties, though Sheikh Ali Bin Gharib was left unharmed, Almasdar Online reported.

Read more: War-weary Yemenis eye a shaky ceasefire with suspicion

The escalation of Houthi attacks within the country have attracted widespread criticism across the board, including Yemen analysts, officials from the internationally-recognised Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi government and other factions on the ground.

Southern secessionist Vice President Hani bin Brek on Tuesday warned its forces, which are backed and trained by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), would retaliate to Houthi aggression.

Violence between Yemen's warring factions has continued to escalate in the country despite the announcement of a temporary ceasefire

"The STC & all its forces at every front has right to retaliate against Houthis' violations. We accepted UN-Arab Coalition's ceasefire to focus on #COVID19, but we're facing a force that doesn't respect agreements," bin Brek said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Yemen's Minister of Information Moammar Al-Eryani said the attacks "confirmed" the Houthi rebels' "indifference" to peace, and reflected a lack of consideration about the risks of the coronavirus outbreak. 

But the rebels themselves have dismissed the ceasefire, noting peace cannot be achieved without lifting the economic blockade.

"The priority of our Yemeni people is to halt aggression and lift the siege first and foremost to allow for dialogue in safe and calm conditions," Houthi Spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said on Twitter.

"We have witnessed the failure of dialogue under siege and violence in past experiences and our people will not accept the repetition of something that proven to have failed several times," he added.

Yemen has been mired in violence since September 2014 when the rebels overran the capital and other major cities across the country. The conflict grew more vicious just months later in March 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition intervened, paving the way for a brutal war that has left more than 100,000 dead and created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Read more: Trump's aid cut is a death sentence for Yemenis facing coronavirus and war

The dire conditions in Yemen were exacerbated last week after the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Yemen's Hadramout, triggering fears of a catastrophic outbreak in the war-torn country.

"Covid-19 is an opportunity the Saudis have been looking for for a long time to extract themselves from Yemen. Riyadh is offering the Houthis everything they can right now, both in public and in backroom talks, " Farea al-Muslimi, an associate fellow at London's Chatham House think-tank told The Guardian.

Yemen's Houthi rebels have reportedly breached the ceasefire multiple times since it was announced by the Saudi-led coalition

"For the Houthis, this is also a familiar strategy they have used before. They'll tell the Saudis they'll stop attacks in border areas and leave Saudi troops alone, but continue their push on the internal frontlines so they have a better hand overall, not just over the Saudis but also over their Yemeni enemies," he added.

Meanwhile, Reuters on Tuesday reported the continuation of indirect talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

"Saudi Arabia is very serious about ending the war but it will depend on how far they can go to appease the Houthis and build some trust," one of the sources said, noting talks between the rebels and Saudi officials took place over the weekend.

This follows months of backchannel talks between the warring factions, which have been engaged in a deadly conflict that has remained at a stalemate for five years.

Meanwhile, military activity has also increased on Yemen's Socotra island this week after three divisions from the STC's 1st Marine Brigade launched a rebellion against the Yemeni government forces.

The former government's 1st Marine Brigade had in February defected to secessionist forces after promises made by the UAE-backed STC to increase salaries for members of the coast guard battalion to match those of the Security Belt Forces - the southern separatists' military arm.

The move this week came after the STC sacked its chief representative on the island after government forces captured an STC military camp in Socotra.

Yemen's internationally-recognised government has routinely accused its Emirati allies of sowing discord among factions in the south of the country as well as attempts to occupy the island.

In 2018, the government accused the UAE of seizing Yemen's Socotra island when it unloaded tanks and troops there.

Saudi Arabia, the main backer of the UN-recognised Yemen government, had to send troops to Socotra to defuse a standoff between Emirati and Hadi forces.

In 2019, Yemen's government accused the UAE of deploying its troops on the archipelago during a visit by Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Daghr.

Last May, Yemen's interior minister criticised the UAE and said it should concentrate on fighting the Houthis instead.

The UAE has denied Yemeni accusations that it is seeking control of the island.

Despite what is projected as a united front between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, cracks in the Saudi-Emirati alliance showed last year after the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council turned on Hadi and seized Aden, leading to weeks of infighting before a truce was declared.

The coalition itself has faced global controversy for its activities in Yemen, which has unleashed the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN, which says 80 percent of the population - 24 million people - are in need of aid. 

On Tuesday, a Guardian report revealed how the United Kingdom's leading arms manufacturer BAE Systems sold £15bn worth of arms and services to the Saudi military since 2015, when it intervened in neighbouring Yemen.

Read more: Yemen in Focus: UN's lax approach 'emboldens Houthi violence'

Deals between the controversial arms maker and the Saudi kingdom generated £2.5bn in revenues during just 2019, according to Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).

Since the start of the war, the total sales of BAE arms and services to Saudi Arabia alone are slightly over £15bn, the figures revealed.

"The last five years have seen a brutal humanitarian crisis for the people of Yemen, but for BAE it's been business as usual. The war has only been possible because of arms companies and complicit governments willing to support it," Andrew Smith of CAAT said.

The report also exposes alleged discrepancies between the true value of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the £5.3bn total value of UK export licences.

"These figures expose the cozy relationship between the Saudi regime and BAE. But they also imply that the value of UK arms sales is far greater than government figures show," Smith added.

But a government spokesperson told The Guardian that the UK "takes its export responsibilities seriously and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria."

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino