Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Resolving nothing

The war on Yemen has left the country more devastated and polarised than ever

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Al-Ahram Weekly

On Saturday morning, in the Yemeni capital, tens of thousands gathered in Al-Sabeen Square to protest the first anniversary of the Saudi-led war against the country. Posters of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh — who was forced out of office in 2011 after nationwide protests against his 22 years in power — dotted the sea of demonstrators that filled the square and beyond.

Such epic scenes would have been unimaginable more than a year ago when Saleh, despite his exit from power, still enjoyed political leverage but couldn’t have amassed a fraction of Saturday’s turnout. The event was organised by his General People’s Congress Party.

“It’s the war,” said Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemen expert and non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy. “Sanaa has been bombed for a year,” he said. “People just want the bombing to stop so that they can get on with their lives.”

Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has been ravaged by war spearheaded by Saudi Arabia since 26 March 2015. Dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm”, a 10-state coalition led by Riyadh launched air strikes against Houthi rebels who overtook Sanaa in September 2014 and then continued to advance across the country.

After fleeing Yemen on 25 March, President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi surfaced in Riyadh where he made pleas to the world to intervene and stop the Houthis from “pursuing Iran’s agenda and spreading the Shia sect in Yemen”.

The campaign has left more than 6,000 civilians dead and 30,000 injured, according to the United Nations. At least 21 million people, 82 per cent of the total population, are in need of humanitarian aid, including almost 2.5 million people who have been internally displaced, according to the World Health Organisation.

Because Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food, supplies have been meagre as a direct result of the war, resulting in 1.3 million malnourished children, according to UNICEF. At least 25 per cent of medical and health facilities in Yemen are no longer operating due to destruction or the shortage of healthcare specialists.

As Saleh addressed protesters in a brief, nine-minute speech, Saudi warplanes hovered above Al-Sabeen Square. Saleh attacked Riyadh but said he is willing to engage in peace talks and described the Arab Spring as a “Zionist” plot. He called on the UN Security Council to impose a long-lasting cessation of the conflict.

In a speech delivered from his residence in Riyadh, Hadi, the internationally recognised Yemeni president, praised the year-long Saudi-led campaign for making Yemen “safer”. The Houthi rebels and their allies are weaker, he said, while the “legitimate” government controls the “vast majority” of areas in Yemen.

Almost a month into the air strikes, the Saudi-led coalition announced the end of Decisive Storm, which had “achieved” its goals. Operation “Resorting Hope” was launched. The air strikes continued, however. Then, in November, the alliance announced that the campaign had reached its final stages after liberating the southern city of Aden where Hadi’s government in exile, including Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, chose to return.

But in Houthi-free Aden, both the Arab coalition and the government continued to be targeted by multiple attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), exposing the precarious reality of the coalition’s ability to control the city. Aden’s liberation seemed initially promising, raising hopes for other neighbouring cities still under the grip of the Houthis, like Taiz, to meet a similar fate.

But fears — which some say are exaggerated — that a military advance towards Taiz to liberate it from Houthi control would only unleash an Islamist stronghold hampered the Arab coalition’s plans to wrest control of the city, which is under siege and suffering from severe food and water shortages.

While most of the destruction and casualties in Yemen were caused by the Saudi-led coalition, the Ansar Allah Houthi rebels and military units allied with ex-president Saleh have wasted no effort to cause as much damage as possible and to silence dissent. A report by Human Rights Watch in January accused Houthi rebels of arbitrarily detaining dozens of opponents, including politicians, activists, lawyers and journalists.

Several UN-mediated ceasefires and peace talks have failed to end the conflict. On Monday, the Saudi coalition said it had completed a prisoner swap, exchanging nine Saudi prisoners for 109 Yemeni nationals, ahead of a planned truce and peace talks aimed at ending the year-long war with the Houthis.

“After nearly a year of combat, no side is close to a decisive military victory,” wrote Yemen expert April Longley Alley in a report published last month by the International Crisis Group. “The immediate future looks bleak,” she said.

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