Yemen needs more than peace talks and ceasefires

Yemen needs more than peace talks and ceasefires
Comment: Any peace deal must address the role played by foreign powers and must rebuild state institutions, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
6 min read
05 Dec, 2018
Emaciated 10-year-old Ghazi Saleh, at Al-Mudhafar hospital in Taiz, weighs just eight kilogrammes [AFP]

Horrific scenes of malnourished children afflicted by Yemen's three-and-a-half-year war, which is thought to have directly killed at least 57,000 and resulted in the starvation of more than 85,000 children, have finally forced the international community to take stronger action.

From this week, Sweden is hosting a new round of peace talks, after several previous attempts failed. 

As the conflict faces an obvious stalemate, the United Nations aims to forge a framework for peace between the Saudi-backed, internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran.

These talks may initially seem more promising than previous bids. The Houthi rebels have agreed to join the talks, despite failing to attend previous ones. The faction previously said it would be willing to halt missile fire into Saudi Arabia, which had been a concern for Riyadh. Iran has also voiced support for the talks. Saudi Arabia has allowed Houthi fighters to be evacuated via a UN-chartered plane to Muscat.

All these factors indicate peace could finally be on the horizon.

As with past peace attempts, however, these current talks do not address the full extent of international interference in Yemen and the various domestic obstacles which make stability in Yemen impossible.

International dialogue about peace in Yemen often disproportionately condemns Houthi aggression and Iranian influence, and the peace talks seem oriented this way too. Previous UN resolutions over Yemen echo this; for example a British-backed UN resolution earlier this year focused more on condemning Iran for enflaming tensions and encouraging missile fire against Saudi civilians, while not addressing the coalition's devastating bombing campaign.

Clearly Western support for peace in Yemen is superficial.

Saudi Arabia's role, which has led to the kingdom being accused of war crimes and which is believed to have caused most Yemeni deaths, is not mentioned by the British government

Western politicians, analysts and anti-war campaigners have argued that, without Western military aid, the coalition could not carry out its operations, and halting such support is necessary for ending the war.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has apparently showed more concern for Yemenis' suffering than his predecessor, Boris Johnson. The government has also given hundreds of millions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid to Yemen.

Yet Saudi Arabia's role, which has led to the kingdom being accused of war crimes and which is believed to have caused most Yemeni deaths, is not mentioned by the British government. In fact, the UK has previously refused to back UN inquiries into Saudi "war crimes", showing absolute bias towards the coalition.

The Trump administration, Saudi Arabia's biggest arms supplier, is clearly not serious about peace-making in Yemen either. Not only did they veto the UK-backed ceasefire resolution last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently defended Saudi-US ties, calling a US Senate resolution to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia "poorly timed".

Even President Trump audaciously justified continued arms sales because Russia and China would apparently sell them to the Saudis anyway. Even if they did reduce some arms sales, the US is more concerned about favourable ties with Riyadh.

Even if a ceasefire were passed, or peace talks were completed, it is likely that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will not abide, as they enjoy so much international impunity. The coalition previously ignored severe UN warnings when launching its assault on Hodeida in June. Even with the prospect of peace talks and the ceasefire resolution, fighting inside Hodeida still rages on, showing that warring factions are determined to gain leverage over each other, therefore undermining peace talks.

Yemeni hospitals still receive injured civilians, with Hodeida hospitals unable to take new patients, as they are surrounded by fighting.

The Houthis have previously rejected UN-led peace efforts, claiming they were too favourable towards the coalition, and are likely to approach these current talks with scepticism.

Furthermore, the international community, especially Western backers of the coalition, have not addressed the potential long-term influence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen - which could have detrimental effects in the country even if a peace deal is forged.

Saudi Arabia is supposedly looking to exploit Yemen's crisis, having looked to build an oil-port in the south-eastern Mahra province. Western officials have reportedly discussed in private that Saudi Arabia is aiming to build a pipeline in Yemen, through the Hadramawt province towards the Aden port. Even Yemen's Oil and Minerals Ministry has noticed this; in September they reportedly slammed Saudi Arabia's "looting" of Yemeni oil.  

Saudi Arabia has deliberately bombed Yemen's food production and agriculture, seemingly to keep Yemen weak, dependent on Saudi Arabia's patronage, and to prevent it having independence.

Meanwhile, UAE-backed militias in the south, including southern separatists and Al-Qaeda-aligned militants, threaten any peace deal. Aiming to essentially colonise southern Yemen, Abu Dhabi desires a friendly southern-state to secure its own influence in the port of Aden, giving it improved access to international trade. All this sets the foundations for further conflict, while potentially further depriving ordinary southern Yemenis.

Future international interference in Yemen from both the coalition forces and their backers will push Yemen into an even more fragile position, regardless of any peace deal.

As the war has destroyed much of the country, civilians are often left in desperate circumstances with horrific humanitarian suffering, while the enabling of powerful militant factions such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) allow gunmen to exploit the chaos.

While AQAP lost territory between 2016 and 2017 after a US-backed UAE crackdown, it still has an estimated 6,000-7,000 fighters , and could easily appeal to disenfranchised Yemenis in dire conditions.

Along with AQAP, the influential Southern Transitional Council (STC) and a wide range of tribal factions have not been included in any peace negotiations, showing the current talks are limited.

The real answer to the humanitarian crisis lies in bringing about an end to the conflict in a way that will restore the institutions of the state

Humanitarian suffering will undoubtedly continue. Countless Yemenis have been forced to go without salaries. Food is available - to an extent - yet the main problem lies in Yemenis being able to afford it. The collapse of vital state institutions, including hospitals - half of which are not functioning - and sanitation facilities, have allowed a wide range of diseases, including cholera, to spread.

As Matthew Tueller, US ambassador to Yemen, correctly argues: "The real answer to the humanitarian crisis lies in bringing about an end to the conflict in a way that will restore the institutions of the state."

A combined international effort to restore Yemen's state is essential to prevent future instability and humanitarian suffering.

The international role in the conflict needs to be addressed harshly. Activists including Campaign Against the Arms Trade in the UK have a court case against British arms sales to the coalition set to be heard next April, while in the US, Senate and Congressional support for ending America's support for Saudi Arabia is evidently increasing, heralded by figures such as Bernie Sanders.

Even if the conflict were to be halted soon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could in the future intervene in Yemen if Western impunity does not end. After all, Riyadh has tried to control Yemen since the kingdom's founding in 1932, and has tried numerous times to destabilise the country, including supporting a southern split in 1994 after Yemen's 1990 unification.

A simple ceasefire or peace agreement in this conflict will not prevent any future Saudi expeditions in the country, which will only perpetuate Yemen's instability.

These peace talks are likely to be the start of a long, drawn-out procedure, which will push forward the conversation about peace in Yemen. However, while these local issues persist, and the level of international intervention remains unchallenged, Yemen will remain paralysed and blighted by a long-term humanitarian disaster.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.