Humanitarian crisis

The Houthi rebels agree to peace talks with the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, but the continued siege of the Hudaydah port puts Yemen in imminent danger of a famine-like situation.

Published : Dec 05, 2018 12:30 IST

A Yemeni mother holding her five-year-old son, who suffers from severe malnutrition and weighs 5 kg, at a treatment clinic in Khokha district in the western province of Hudaydah on November 22.

A Yemeni mother holding her five-year-old son, who suffers from severe malnutrition and weighs 5 kg, at a treatment clinic in Khokha district in the western province of Hudaydah on November 22.

Although the much-heralded peace talks between the warring sides in Yemen are yet to materialise, some positive signs are emerging from the shattered country. The Houthi-led forces that control the capital, Sana’a, and the key port of Hudaydah have indicated that they are prepared for peace talks, provided that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition is genuine in its desire to reach a political settlement.

Abdul Malek al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi militant group’s Higher Revolutionary Committee, met the United Nations envoy to the region, Martin Griffiths, on November 22. Addressing the media, Griffiths said the warring sides had pledged to attend talks scheduled to be held in Sweden in December. Saudi Arabia and its allies have been caught in a military quagmire in Yemen and are now desperately seeking a face-saving way out of it. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which so far has been solidly behind Saudi Arabia, has reportedly told Western diplomats that it wants a political solution to the crisis.

The Houthi leadership conveyed to the international community that it was willing to hand over the running of the Hudaydah port, through which much of Yemen’s imports and humanitarian supplies are routed, to the U.N. The U.N. said it was ready to play a “supervisory” role in the management of the port. The Saudi-led coalition launched a brutal assault on the port city two months ago, despite warnings from the international community that such an action would worsen the dire situation in the devastated country.

Some 14 million Yemenis will be on the verge of starvation if the Hudaydah port is closed down. The “Save the Children Fund” has estimated that more than 85,000 children may have already starved to death in the country since the Saudi-led military campaign started three years ago. The U.N. has estimated that one Yemeni child dies of preventable causes every 15 minutes. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that more than 10,000 Yemenis have died as a result of the fighting in the last three years.

The Saudi-led coalition has launched more than 18,000 air raids over Yemen so far. According to research conducted by the Yemen Data Project, one-third of these bombing missions targeted civilian areas, with children bearing the brunt of the attacks. The targeting of a school bus two months ago, killing over 40 children, is an illustration of this. Weddings, funerals, electricity grids, water purification plants and hospitals have not been spared. There are only two functioning hospitals left in Hudaydah. Yemen witnessed one of the worst cholera epidemics the world has seen in recent times. More than a million Yemenis have been affected by a variety of illnesses triggered by the war in the past 18 months.

Yemen is witnessing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. A U.N. report released in August said that Saudi Arabia could be held accountable for possible war crimes in Yemen. A report, “Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial Bombardment and Food War”, by Professor Martha Mundy of the London School of Economics concluded that the Saudi-led coalition deliberately targeted food production and storage facilities.

The military intervention heavily impacted the import of food and other basic necessities to Yemen. Saudi Arabia, helped by the United States, set up a naval blockade on a nation that has been traditionally dependent on international food aid. Yemen, which has a population of around 30 million, is the poorest country in the region and has for long depended on food aid for survival. The food aid the country received in the past three years was just enough to feed around 4.4 million people.

The situation has worsened since the siege of Hudaydah. Many of the areas controlled by the Houthis have experienced a 400 per cent rise in the prices of essentials. The World Food Program (WFP) has warned that the continued siege of Hudaydah puts Yemen in imminent danger of facing a famine-like situation. “Any further decline in imports could likely lead directly to famine,” the WFP said.

The U.N.’s Humanitarian Affairs Chief, Mark Lowcock, said recently that the “immune systems of millions of people on survival support for years on end are now literally collapsing, making them—especially the elderly—more likely to succumb to malnutrition, cholera and other diseases”.

The pressure on Saudi Arabia to end its military intervention in Yemen has substantially increased since the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October. In one of his last articles published in The Washington Post , Khashoggi had called for the ending of the Saudi-led military intervention. “The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be…. The Crown Prince should bring an end to the violence,” he had written.

In the last three years, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has grown more powerful. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), it is now “stronger than it has ever been”. The ICG says the AQAP and the Saudi-led alliance have a tacit understanding in many parts of Yemen. According to the ICG, the AQAP has acquired “a wide range of heavy weaponry, including heavy weapons from Yemeni military camps or indirectly from the Saudi-led coalition”.

Call for ceasefire

Britain, one of the staunchest allies of Saudi Arabia, has called for an immediate ceasefire. France, another close ally of the Kingdom and, like Britain, a supplier of the lethal armaments used in the Yemen war, has called for a cessation of hostilities. In the wake of the killing of Khashoggi, Germany announced that it would no longer sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Even the U.S., which armed the Saudi Air Force with 500-kilogram bombs and provided military intelligence to the Saudi-led forces, has demanded that the war in Yemen should end without much delay.

U.S. Defence Secretary James N. Mattis announced in the third week of November that peace talks to end the war in Yemen would start in Stockholm in early December. Soon after the Khashoggi killing, the U.S. stopped mid-air refuelling of Saudi and allied war planes attacking Yemen. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded on October 31 that a ceasefire should be in place immediately in Yemen and peace talks should be held within a month’s time.

Senator Bernie Sanders, speaking to the media in late November, expressed confidence that the U.S. Senate would soon pass a resolution pulling back all military support for the Saudi-led coalition. Many Republican Senators have openly disagreed with President Donald Trump on his continued support for the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, and his policies. The international community holds the Crown Prince responsible for the war in Yemen and the humanitarian catastrophe that followed in that country.

The U.S. and Britain vetoed a U.N. proposal in June to protect the Hudaydah port from a Saudi-led attack. Saudi Arabia and its allies launched their offensive on the port five months ago, hoping for a quick takeover of the Red Sea port through which 70 per cent of the country’s imports come in. The capture of Hudaydah would have deprived the Houthi-controlled north of the country of supplies of food and other essentials. Saudi Arabia and its allies were under the impression that the capture of the port would enable them to starve the Houthi-led forces into submission.

Saudi Arabia has claimed, without providing a shred of evidence, that Iran was sending arms and missiles to the Houthis through the port. The U.S., France and Saudi Arabia are guarding the entire Yemeni coast. It is virtually impossible for any Iranian ship or military advisers to slip through this naval cordon. Not a single Iranian military officer has been caught on Yemeni soil, despite millions of dollars being offered as reward money. Saudi Arabia has been reportedly spending $6 billion a month on its military campaign in Yemen, but the Houthis still remain entrenched in Sana’a and most of northern Yemen.

Once the war ends, it will be only a matter of time before South Yemen secedes. Yemeni separatists at the moment seem to be well funded by the Emiratis, currently the junior partners of Saudi Arabia. The Emiratis seem to have planned for a future of their own without guidance from big brother Saudi Arabia. The port city of Aden, once the premier port in the region, is now under the control of forces funded and trained by the Emiratis. Aden is strategically located on the Bab-e-Mandeb, a shipping choke point. A ceasefire, if it happens, may only be a prelude to a civil war.


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