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Will the US-backed war in Yemen ever end?

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Picture: Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images – Supporters of Yemen’s Huthi rebels take part in a rally marking the eighth anniversary of the Saudi-led intervention in their country, in Sanaa on March 26, 2023. After eight years of continuous war, war crimes by all parties, and the Saudi blockade, Yemen still qualifies as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

By Arwa Mokdad

This past Saturday marked the eighth anniversary of the launch of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.

With intelligence and logistical support from the US, UK, France and a few other Arab states, the Saudis conducted an indiscriminate air campaign beginning on March 26, 2015, targeting hospitals, schools, and food production sites, as well as a blockade on their southern neighbour.

Their declared goal was to restore the government of Interim President Hadi to power in Sana’a and counter Iranian influence. But the conflict failed to achieve these goals and resulted in food insecurity that quickly became the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

While some recent developments, including a Chinese-mediated deal to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, have offered some hope for an end to this catastrophic war, it remains unclear whether that hope can be realised in the near future.

Current situation in Yemen

There have been multiple failed attempts to extend the fragile truce that officially ended last October. The current de facto truce is a reflection of the stalemate on the ground.

As has been true throughout the conflict, the warring parties appear determined to pursue power regardless of the detrimental impact on the Yemeni population. Despite sanctions, bombing, and international condemnation, fighting has prevailed and even intensified. In particular, the Houthis, the leading part of a coalition of groups called Ansar Allah, have not been dissuaded by international intervention, but rather further emboldened.

In April of last year, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg announced that the Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition, and the internationally recognised government of Yemen had agreed to a UN-sponsored two-month truce that was subsequently renewed twice for two months each time. Although the truce has now expired, the terms remain somewhat intact on the ground.

While Saudi Arabia has largely refrained from airstrikes since the UN-sponsored truce expired in October, there are no mechanisms preventing it from relaunching its air war.

Meanwhile, conditions on the ground remain dire. Yemenis continue to face restrictions on the movement of people and goods in the North, specifically Sana’a airport and the port of Hodeidah.

Although the truce lifted some key restrictions, it has not been nearly enough to substantially ease the economic and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The persistence of this situation may eventually push the Houthis to return to attacking Saudi Arabia, regardless of whether Riyadh and its allies engage in any diplomatic or military offensives.

As the Houthis consolidate their control over northern Yemen, they are adopting more hardline positions such as requiring male guardians for women and restricting humanitarian flights to Yemen.

Foreign intervention has failed to undermine the Houthis militarily and instead has only strengthened the group’s legitimating narrative of resisting foreign interference and unifying Yemen. The Houthis have effectively won the war and control the majority of the country with strong local support. While their increased radicalisation poses a threat to their continued rule, no opposition in the North is strong enough to challenge them, especially under the current conditions of the war.

But the Houthis will eventually have to share power with other groups in Yemen, which remains a tribal society that will not accept minority rule. Nonetheless, the Houthis thrive under conditions of war, and the longer the war drags on, the harder it will be to reconcile them with anything less than complete autonomy in the North.

Yet there has been some progress. The Houthis and the new presidential council that replaced Hadi agreed last week in advance of Ramadan to a prisoner swap that would include the release of 887 detainees, and other confidence-building measures are under negotiation.

Currently, the key factors holding up the successful conclusion of the negotiations — the payment of salaries to government workers in areas under Houthi control, fully opening the port of Hodeidah, and increasing the number of flights to and from Sana’a — seem to have been mostly agreed upon, although conflicting reports indicate that some challenges remain.

However, regardless of the formal peace process, humanitarian concerns and human rights should remain at the forefront in the international community’s dealings with Yemen.

While some have argued that the recent approval by the Saudis for three flights a week in and out of Sanaa and for some oil to enter the country via Hodeidah marks important progress, these shifts are by themselves completely insufficient to end the wider humanitarian crisis. Payment of government salaries, freedom of movement, and port access remain essential to the well-being of the Yemeni people and therefore should be de-linked from peace negotiations.

While the Saudis have not resumed bombing, a formal, longer-lasting ceasefire agreement is essential to pave a path towards peace. It will be the first step in a long road of recovery and reconstruction, but a first step nonetheless.

Washington’s Role

The United States continues to provide crucial military and technical assistance to the Saudis. The US Army trains Saudi soldiers, advises Saudi military personnel, and provides targeting assistance. The Saudi-led air campaign, which lasted between 2015 and 2022, largely depended on the US refuelling Saudi jets. US Défense companies maintain, repair, and upgrade Saudi vehicles and aircraft through Army contracts with the Saudi military totalling $120 million a month, not including the additional support provided by US contractors.

From 2015 to 2021, the Department of Defence administered at least $54.6 billion in military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which acted as Riyadh’s junior partner in Operation Decisive Storm and continues to support militias battling the Houthis and the internationally recognised government among other groups.

While there is opposition within Congress towards US military support to Saudi Arabia, a bill invoking the War Powers Resolution that passed both houses of Congress in 2019 and that would have significantly constrained US support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen was vetoed by Trump.

In 2022, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tried to push through a floor vote on the War Powers Resolution, but pulled the measure after consultations with the White House. He has promised to reintroduce the resolution after discussing language adjustments with the White House, presumably later this year.

The White House has contended that the resolution is unnecessary and risks complicating ongoing diplomatic efforts. However, as Jamal Benomar, the former UN under-secretary-general, argues, “There’s been a lull in the fighting, but since there was no concerted effort to move the political process forward, the lull is a temporary one and all sides are preparing for the worst.”

In fact, the current conflict is more volatile than in the past as Yemen has become more fragmented with a myriad of rival militias vying for power and sectarian tensions among the population appearing for the first time. The years of war have exacerbated geographic, religious, and historical fault lines, and the longer it continues the deeper these fault lines will cut.

Humanitarian Crisis

After eight years of continuous war, war crimes by all parties, and the Saudi blockade, Yemen still qualifies as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 11 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance with more than 540,000 children under the age of five suffering from life-threatening malnutrition.

Despite these dire circumstances, with generational implications, the blockade remains largely intact. Only a limited amount of fuel and flights are allowed within the country, and commercial shipments are still blocked. This violates international law and exacerbates the crisis, creating conditions ripe for radicalisation.

Iran-Saudi Deal

The recent agreement between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia has contributed to hopes for peace in Yemen, but it may not have a large impact on the conflict.

While the Houthis are often depicted by Western media as an Iranian proxy, there is little evidence that Tehran exerts decisive influence over the Houthis’ strategic decisions. Indeed, the Iranians reportedly opposed the Houthi seizure of Sana’a in 2015, the event that precipitated Operation Decisive Storm.

While Iranian support is mainly political, some military assistance and equipment, such as training, is facilitated by Tehran, sometimes through its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. However, a Hezbollah commander acknowledged that the Houthis are already experienced fighters given their six wars with the central government, calling into question the actual impact of Iran on the course of the conflict.

Isolated internationally and operating with limited resources, the Houthis have enhanced ties with Iran as a last resort to counter the Saudis. Thus, the alliance between the Houthis and Iran should be seen as more a marriage of convenience than an enduring or strategic alliance.

However, the Saudi-Iran deal presents an opportunity for the Saudis to disengage from the costly conflict while saving face. As UN special envoy Hans Grundberg noted, “The parties must seize the opportunity presented by this regional and international momentum to take decisive steps towards a more peaceful future.”

Arwa Mokdad is a Peace Advocate with Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. She supports on the ground aid efforts in Yemen while participating in anti-war campaigns in the US

This article was first published on Common Dreams