Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Yemen: Race to victory before famine

A deepening famine could spur a breakthrough in the Yemen war, though for which side remains unclear

Yemen: Race to victory before famine
Yemen: Race to victory before famine

Everyone is in a race against time in the Yemen war. The Saudis and their US allies want a military resolution before famine conditions worsen — a famine the UN secretary general warned against. Meanwhile, their Houthi rivals are trying to hold their positions until the tragedy is so obvious it puts more international pressure on their enemies to end combat operations.

Thus, fighting has escalated on several fronts. Liberating any of these fronts from the control of the Houthis and their ally former president Ali Abdullah Saleh would be a great victory that could lead to a military resolution, or at least a serious start of negotiations to reach a political solution.

Despite widespread fighting, the Saudi-led Arab coalition wants to liberate any of the cities of Taez (central) or Al-Hudayda port (West) or Maidi (far northwest) or Al-Makha (southwest) or Al-Baydaa (central) or the actual capital Sanaa. Each of these is significant. Naturally, Sanaa is the most important and is a symbol of victory or defeat in this war that entered its third year in late March (Arab coalition airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthis began in March 2015).

However, the military mission is not easy because of a stalemate in strategic positions over the past two years as Houthis (Zaidi Shia) and Saleh took control of the north with the most population and resources. Meanwhile, their rivals, Hadi’s supporters, are in control of what was known before unification as South Yemen. Hadi’s forces, which are mainly composed of elements from the southern movement (demanding a return to pre-union arrangements of 1990) and the Reform Party (the political front of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen), have failed to take control of Taez since the start of the war.

Taez is significant for several reasons. It is historically the traditional rival of Sanaa, and was the capital for Sunnis (Al-Shawafe) while the capital Sanaa was the headquarters of Zaidi rule. Taez is also home to more than one million people and anyone who controls it has leverage over Aden — the capital of the South — and controls a forward line of defence of Sanaa. Although it is a mostly Sunni city, it remains in the hands of the Houthis until now because it is under constant siege on the brink of humanitarian disaster.

Al-Hudayda is the port of what was known pre-1990 as North Yemen. It is the Houthis actual gateway to the world after they lost Aden in the early months of the war. Al-Hudayda is in the centre of the coast under Houthi control and therefore it is most likely that the forces of Hadi and the Arab coalition will attempt to overtake it from the sea. The pair were encouraged when the US declared its intention to “occupy” it or assist in liberating it from Houthi control to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to a country where almost half the population is on the verge of famine.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned in his address to the Security Council on the Yemen crisis that the country “is facing the worst humanitarian crisis today”. Guterres said more than 19 million people — more than two thirds of the population — are in dire need of urgent food aid, and 17 million could face famine, which makes Yemen “the biggest food crisis in the world”. He continued: “There are children younger than five years old dying every 10 minutes in Yemen for reasons that can be avoided… if we worked quickly.”

Since Yemen entirely relies on provisions arriving at Al-Hudayda port, the UN asked Arab coalition forces and the US not to target this strategic port.

The British newspaper The Guardian published a report at the end of last year, at the time of the first attempts by coalition forces to take control of the port, stating that the port of Al-Hudayda can become “the Aleppo of Yemen” where civilians suffer from war and hunger without any advocates.

Many US activists began collecting signatures demanding their country led by Donald Trump should not intervene in the war in Yemen which has so far killed 10,000, rendered 3.1 million homeless, and more than half the population is on the brink of famine, according to UN estimates.

As well as the two main cities, there are Maidi harbour in the farthest north and Al-Makha in the southwest. Although they are strategically insignificant compared to Hudayda and Aden (the temporary capital of Hadi and his government), taking control of either of them could raise the morale of government forces and the Arab coalition. Battles around them are fierce but without any clear penetration.

The same is true for Al-Bayda in central Yemen where Hadi, his forces and the Arab coalition have tried to take complete control of the tribal region for two years, but without success. Meanwhile, Hadi’s troops are facing serious security instability because of attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), the strongest branch of the terrorist group.

Al-Qaeda presence in Yemen stirs the pot and opens the door for US military intervention to fight terrorism. But US intervention in favour of Hadi and the Arab coalition will detract from them for seeking Washington’s help against their fellow countrymen. Maged Al-Madhaji, a Yemeni professor of political science, warned that US intervention in Yemen on the side of Hadi and the Arab coalition could expand the war in Yemen, and compound the humanitarian disaster.

Omar Abdel-Aziz, a Yemeni writer close to Hadi’s government, believes the war will gravitate towards “legitimacy”, but admits the road to victory may not be easy.

But no one will accept allowing Yemen to starve to death. It is primarily a moral condemnation of the rivals in Yemen, then the Arab coalition and finally the US. This moral condemnation could pave the way for a political solution to head off worse humanitarian conditions, but the military stalemate could entice Houthis to hold on to the “victory” they achieved with great difficulty. This could, in turn, cause Hadi and the Arab coalition to insist on saving face.

The military stalemate — causing political stagnation — could in turn lead to famine or “the greatest humanitarian disaster in the world”, whereby the southern region of the Arabian Peninsula linked to the Horn of Africa could become a multi-faceted humanitarian disaster. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis and top rival in the region, could take advantage of this calamity to expand the crisis to Gulf countries, not by hunger but political unrest.

“Iran is exporting its problems to its Arab neighbours,” asserts Abdel-Aziz. “It is more fragile than it appears, but it makes many Arab countries look like they are followers or too weak to confront it. We must address the humanitarian crisis before Tehran takes advantage of it.”

It is uncertain whether this race against time will save Yemen, no matter which side is victorious.

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