Jonathan Fenton-Harvey reports on how Saudia Arabia’s intervention has backfired in a conflict which has already cost 130,000 lives.
At the start of this year, United Nations Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths had suggested that Yemen was entering an unprecedented era of peace and was largely “unscathed” from regional tension. Yet, a day later, fighting erupted after a Houthi missile attack on a government military camp in the Marib province, which killed more than 120 soldiers. Once again, it was an indication of a failure by peace efforts to address deep-rooted causes of the conflict.
Violence rapidly spread elsewhere, including outside the capital city Sanaa. Now, government forces have re-advanced on Sanaa and residents in the capital report that Saudi-led war planes have recommenced some operations on the Houthi-controlled city following the latest escalation.
Even in the western coastal Hodeidah governorate, ongoing violence between Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi Government-aligned and Houthi forces have dashed UN-sponsored peace talks in Stockholm of December 2018, which aimed to end fighting around the vital port city through which most of Yemen’s aid flows.
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“Clashes have erupted again on the outskirts of the city and there is daily suffering as a result of it,” Manel, an east Hodeidah resident, told Byline Times. “A few days ago a child died while leaving his home due to a shell nearby. Every night we hear the sound of explosions and clashes. Then the situation becomes calm during the day and they resume everything again at night.”
The city is still highly militarised and surrounded by conflicting sides, after the coalition backed an offensive against Hodeidah to ‘liberate’ it from Houthi control in June 2018.
“The violence has now escalated dramatically elsewhere in the country,” Ali al-Sakani, a journalist and activist based in Marib, said. “Two women were killed and six others were wounded in a Houthi attack on the house of MP Hussein al-Sawadi in Marib.”
The Houthis have also intensified their drone and ground attacks against Government forces in Serwah and Haylan. They are also trying to cut off the highway between Marib and Sanaa, added al-Sakani.
Riyadh’s History of Intervention
Saudi Arabia launched a bombing campaign in March 2015 against the faction and to reinstate Hadi, who was forced into exile following a Houthi insurgency in September 2014. Riyadh was joined by the United Arab Emirates with some support from several mostly Arab and African states.
Yet, the Houthis have now consolidated their control over northern Yemen. Though they became further antagonistic after the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January, such longstanding domestic tensions throughout the faction’s history since its founding in 1992, are driving their actions in Yemen.
In November last year Saudi Arabia brokered a peace agreement known as the ‘Riyadh Agreement’, to unify the Hadi Government and separatist Southern Transitional Council (STV) – after the latter launched a coup in August and violence erupted between both sides. Such moves were designed to secure Riyadh’s favoured candidate’s rule over Yemen, and reunite government and separatist forces against the Houthis. After all, Saudi Arabia still seeks to consolidate its long-held geopolitical ambitions over Yemen, while attempting to marginalize the Houthis.
“I think the Houthis want to exploit the current ceasefire with Saudi Arabia and make quick ground gains against the government forces,” said al-Sakani, adding that they seek to expand their influence before future peace efforts.
The Houthis have already made minor gains in the recent fighting, and had also launched missiles at Saudi Arabia’s Aramco facilities, while firing at southern Saudi targets, at the end of January. This jeopardizes any peace efforts with Riyadh too. The Hadi government also still seeks to restore control over Houthi-captured territory.
Meanwhile the UAE has continued to support the STC, which still desires an independent southern state per pre-1990 unification lines. Along with recent Houthi violence and subsequent government fighting, both Abu Dhabi and the separatist faction’s agendas could disrupt the Riyadh agreement and renew fighting over the south.
Over 130,000 have died from Yemen’s conflict since March 2015, a figure many media outlets had previously underestimated. Millions are also on the brink of famine, while over 24 million of Yemen’s 30 million civilians are dependent on external aid to survive, in what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
International attention to the conflict had largely decreased, particularly after the fragile Riyadh agreement which gave a false illusion of peace.
Ambassadors to Yemen, including Martin Griffiths, as well as the EU and other political figures like US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have expressed alarm at the conflict and called for de-escalation. Yet once again due to the failure to address the deep-lying tensions, and failure to hold intervening parties to account, peace in Yemen is still a distant prospect.