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The war in Yemen explained, as ceasefire falters
The Yemen war has killed more than 17,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of famine. Is an end to the conflict in sight?
Published Tuesday 4 December 2018
By Ben Winsor
The United Nations has called Yemen the world's worst humanitarian disaster, claiming the lives of more than 17,000 people.
Despite a UN-brokered ceasefire agreed as part of , deadly air strikes and clashes shook the outskirts of the vital port city of Hodeida on Saturday night and early Sunday morning.
Yemen's war escalated in 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition intervened on the government's side after the Huthi rebels seized the capital and several provinces.
According to the World Health Organization, around 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, though some rights groups estimate the toll could be five times higher.
Save the Children says that between March 2015 and October 2018 around 85,000 children under five may have died of severe malnutrition or related diseases.
There is increasing urgency to find an end to the conflict due to the famine affecting three-quarters of the country's population of 28 million people. The UN said the number of people facing starvation is likely to reach 14 million.
Head of delegation for rebel forces known as Houthis, Mohammed Abdulsalam (R), Yemen Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yaman (L) with the UN Secretary General. Source: AAP
How did the war start?
There are claims Yemen President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi fled the capital Sana’a in his wife’s niqab, or in a food truck, depending on who you ask.
It was February 2015 and a rebel alliance had swiftly overtaken the ancient city, forcing him to head first to the city of Aden and then to Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the administration.
The coup had started in late 2014 as Mr Hadi’s government was becoming increasingly unpopular. His predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh had been deposed during Arab Spring protests. But the former president, then in his seventies, saw weakness in his successor and eyed a return to power. Mr Saleh still controlled elements of the security forces and struck up an unlikely alliance with Houthi tribesmen from the north of the country. With Houthi support, he quickly took control of Sana’a and began wresting control of the rest of the country.
A map of the Middle East showing the location of Yemen to the south. Source: iStockphoto
In March 2015, the situation dramatically escalated. Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of mostly Arab states – supported by the US, UK and France – and launched a military intervention aimed at restoring Mr Hadi to power.
Saudi Arabia maintains that their regional nemesis Iran is closely linked to the Houthis, something Iran denies.
Coalition forces began pounding Yemen with airstrikes, establishing a punishing naval blockade which has led to mass starvation and shortages of medical supplies. But after more than two-and-a-half years of war and failed negotiations, the conflict has remained, for the most part, a stalemate.
Supporters of the Houthi movement wave their national flag and banners reading in Arabic: 'our revolution continues'. Source: Getty
Like the Ottomans and Egyptians before them, the Saudi coalition has found Yemen’s mountainous north to be an arid, hostile terrain for foreign forces.
Houthi rebels control the population centre’s to the north, the Saudi-backed government controls the south.
The United Nations has attempted to pressure Saudi Arabia to seek a negotiated end to the crisis, but there is no strong pressure from key Saudi allies in the US and Europe. Most observers believe that the only way to end the war is with a negotiated political agreement.
How bad is the current situation?
The situation in Yemen is one of the world's largest humanitarian disasters. United Nations figures, which the organisation admits are likely lower than reality, paint a devastating picture.
As of November 2018, the UN has counted more than - including more than - and tens of thousands of people who have been injured. UN officials blame both sides but say the Saudi coalition strikes have been responsible for the majority of deaths and injuries.
Bombs have landed on mosques, markets, factories, funerals, schools and hospitals. The UN has counted more than 1,500 children who have been recruited as child soldiers, mostly by the Houthi/Saleh forces. But the deaths only tell part of the story.
A malnourished Yemeni baby cries as he lies on a bed at a therapeutic feeding centre in al-Sabaen Hospital in Sana'a, Yemen. Source: Getty
The destruction of infrastructure and a Saudi naval blockade has led to crippling medical supply shortages and pushed a quarter of the country’s population to the brink of famine.
UNICEF estimates that every 10 minutes at least one child dies in Yemen as a result of preventable causes such as malnutrition, diarrhoea or respiratory tract infections.
In dusty fields near towns and makeshift displacement camps, rocks and cinderblocks act as headstones for tiny graves. Close to half a million children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, the most serious stage of starvation.
Yemen’s health system has collapsed. Without power and supplies, less than half of the country’s health facilities are fully functional. A massive cholera epidemic could affect up to one million people in 2018.
UNICEF estimates that every 10 minutes at least one child dies in Yemen as a result of preventable causes.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that war crimes are being committed by coalition and rebel forces. Alleged crimes include indiscriminate airstrikes on civilians, the use of child soldiers, the deployment of landmines and cluster-bombs, sniper attacks against civilians, arbitrary imprisonment and forced evacuations.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also documented the use of several types of cluster munitions (cluster bombs) made in the US, the UK, and Brazil. Despite strong resistance from Saudi Arabia and its Arab and Western allies, in September 2017 the UN Human Rights Council ordered an independent investigation into human rights violations.
Peace talks breakthrough
UN envoy Martin Griffiths flew into Sana’a on November 21 for talks with rebel leaders. Days later he met Yemeni officials in Riyadh.
Mr Griffiths returned to Yemen on December 3, shortly before 50 wounded rebels were flown out on a UN charter flight for medical treatment in neighbouring Oman.
The next day a rebel delegation left with Mr Griffiths heading for peace talks in Sweden, hours after the government and rebels agree to swap hundreds of prisoners. Talks between the two warring parties began on December 6.
Rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam holds a press conference together with members of the delegation following the peace consultations. Source: AFP
UN chief Antonio Guterres, in Sweden for the final day of the talks, announced on December 13 a series of breakthroughs including a ceasefire for Hodeida.
The breakthrough agreement at the first round of negotiations since 2016 was a "success", said Daif Allah al-Shami, information minister for the rebels' unrecognised national salvation government.
But on Saturday and Sunday, the Red Sea port city saw sporadic clashes, highlighting the fragility of the already limited truce.
Fresh peace talks are planned for late January 2019.
Mr Guterres warned that "much worse" lay in store for the impoverished country in 2019 unless its warring parties strike a peace deal.
The death of ex-president Saleh
The Houthi alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh was never a natural fit. When he was president he was allied with the US and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis were his enemy.
According to Al Jazeera, in late 2017 the Saudi coalition sought to exploit divisions between Mr Saleh and the Houthis by offering to negotiate directly with him. Clashes between Houthi and Saleh forces began to erupt in November.
Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Source: AAP
In early December, Saleh announced an apparent split from the Houthis and spoke favorably of the Saudi coalition. On 5 December 2017, the Houthi’s announced that Mr Saleh had been killed. A graphic image of his body circulated swiftly on social media.
Experts at the time warned that violence in Yemen would likely intensify, following the former president’s death.
“A lot of people are about to tell you what's about to happen in Yemen,” wrote Yemen expert Gregory Johansen shortly after the news broke.
“The truth is no one knows. But it looks very dark.”
Why Saudi Arabia started bombing
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were strong backers of President Hadi’s administration and feared that the instability could threaten their security.
The Saudis and President Hadi have also claimed that the Houthi rebels are proxies for Saudi Arabia's regional rival, Iran. They justified the intervention as a means of preventing Iran from taking control of a proxy government right on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep.
Iran backs a number of rebel and terror groups who fight against its adversaries in the region. The strength of their support varies, as does their influence over the groups they back.
Saudi army artillery fire shells towards Yemen from a post close to the Saudi-Yemeni border. Source: Getty
Western, Saudi and Yemeni intelligence sources have said that there is evidence of Iran providing weaponry, training and financial support for the rebels. In November 2017, Houthi forces fired a missile into King Khalid International Airport, the primary civilian airport in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh.
Analysts suspect the sudden capability to fire such a long-range weapon could only have resulted from Iranian support. Iran denies supporting the Houthis.
Why the US backed Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a key ally of both the US and the UK in the Middle East. This alliance was strained by the Obama administration's pursuit of a nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions against Saudi Arabia’s key regional rival, Iran.
According to The New York Times, the Obama Administration decided to support the Saudis in an attempt to placate their ally after the nuclear deal.
"That fact alone eclipsed concerns among many of the president’s advisers that the Saudi-led offensive would be long, bloody and indecisive," it reported.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told a US Senate hearing that the Saudis felt threatened by a combination of the Houthi forces and expanding Iranian influence.
"As a result, [Saudi Arabia] felt that they had to defend themselves – and we supported their right to do that," he said.
But in both the UN Human Rights Council and the Security Council, the US and the UK, among others, have shielded their regional ally from diplomatic pressure and criticism. Weapons companies in the US, UK, France, China, Germany and other countries have made billions selling to Saudi Arabia, with the Netherlands the only country to enforce a weapons embargo due to likely war crimes.
As the war drags on, and civilian casualties mount, Western support for the coalition has become increasingly controversial. Several senators in the United States and Labour MPs in the UK have been publicly critical of their own governments for supporting the Saudi campaign.
"This is a stain on the conscience of our nation if we continue to remain silent," Democrat Senator Chris Murphy told the US Senate in November 2017.
"We are not going to get leadership on this question from the administration, they have given a blank cheque to the Saudis, they are turning a blind eye," he said of the Trump administration.
The conflict in Yemen has seen terror groups Al-Qaeda and IS exploit the chaos to expand their influence in the country, he said.
Across the Atlantic, Scottish National Party MP Ian Blackford made a similarly impassioned statement.
"Suspend licenses for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Stop killing children," he demanded in the House of Commons.
Why it isn't making front pages
Yeminis have expressed frustration at the sporadic media coverage the war receives in the West.
The coalition's blockade has kept many foreign journalists and human rights organisations out of the country, with relatively few outsiders able to gain access. The Saudi coalition has banned the UN from carrying journalists on board its aid flights, a practice occasionally used. A journalist from Rolling Stone had to find a smuggler willing to bypass the naval blockade in a speedboat to be able to report from Yemen.
Houthi rebels on the ground are also hostile to the press. Sana'a authorities recently arrested Hisham Omeisy, an analyst and 'fixer' who had assisted several journalists in covering the war.
In this file photo, a Yemeni boy walks amid the ruins after an air-strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. Source: Getty
In May 2017, Yemen’s UN humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick castigated rebel forces, the exiled government and their Saudi allies for a growing humanitarian disaster and a "purposely forgotten" war.
"The parties who are involved in this conflict don't really care at all about the people they represent," Mr McGoldrick told the BBC.
Unlike Syria’s porous land borders, refugee flows from Yemen have been prevented by geography and a sealed border with Saudi Arabia to the country’s north. Diplomatic manoeuvring by Saudi Arabia and its Arab and Western allies has also prevented United Nations investigations and resolutions from bringing attention to the conflict.
What was Yemen like before the war?
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. But despite being arid and mountainous, the nation of 28 million people, roughly the size of Spain, was once considered a hidden gem by adventurous tourists.
Ancient ‘gingerbread-style’ houses in Sana’a old city were a key attraction, as were other precariously perched houses and villages across the country.
A village at Hadhramaut, Yemen. Source: Moment RF
President Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled Yemen for 33 years until an Arab Spring uprising in 2011. During his reign, Mr Saleh accrued more than $60 billion in personal wealth, despite Yemen boasting hardly any natural resources and the economy remaining abysmal. Mr Saleh maintained his grip on power despite ruling over a deeply divided country.
Yemen's population is tribal, comprising of countless groups with ever-changing alliances. Mr Saleh fought wars against the Houthis during his reign, though they became his allies in the civil war.
Al-Qaeda has held a firm base in Yemen since the 1990s. Yemen was the site of their first attack in 1992, and later the deadly bombing of the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in October 2000.
For years Saudi Arabia, as well as the US and the UK, worked with Mr Saleh’s government to target terrorists with drone strikes.
The old city of Sana'a. Source: Getty
In early 2011, large sections of the Yemeni population flooded the streets in protests inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt. Mr Saleh’s regime responded to the peaceful protest with snipers firing into the crowds, killing dozens of protestors. Parts of the army turned against him as a result.
An initiative led by the Gulf Cooperation Council gave Mr Saleh amnesty in exchange for handing power to his vice president, Abdu Rabbuh Mansur Hadi who formed a unity government - the government that has now forced into exile. A process known as the National Dialogue Conference followed the transition of power.
Yemeni anti-government protesters chant slogans during a demonstration demanding the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a on 21 June 2011. Source: Getty
For some time this change was internationally regarded as a best practice, especially compared to the bloody civil wars in Libya and Syria. But after several years of compromise governing, frustration led thousands to march in anti-government protests in August 2014.
In September 2014, Houthi rebels took control of the capital and the fighting continues after nearly four years.
This article was originally published in 2016 and updated in December 2018.