Could pandemic pave a path to peace? Why Yemen war is resistant.

Why We Wrote This

By focusing minds on what is most important, the dark cloud of the coronavirus pandemic has at times displayed a silver lining. That raised hopes for Yemen, but peace there is proving elusive.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
A volunteer for a coronavirus awareness campaign wearing a protective face mask attends a lecture in preparation for any possible spread of COVID-19, in Sanaa, Yemen, March 28, 2020.

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Saudi Arabia’s announcement of a cease-fire in Yemen was welcome news. But with the two-week cease-fire expiring today, the lack of results – with Houthi rebels continuing to press their military advantage, and Saudi planes launching scores of airstrikes in reply – is a stark reminder of the challenges that remain.

In announcing the cease-fire, the Saudis cited the need to pave the way for talks and to cope with the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths noted that Yemen could not “face two fronts at the same time: a war and a pandemic.”

But standing in the way of an agreement “is this huge gap of confidence between the two sides,” says one Yemen-based researcher.

And Helen Lackner, at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says “the solution for the Saudis is, ‘COVID-19 is a wonderful way for us to get out respectably, and start focusing on the rest of our problems, which are not insignificant.’”

“But the Houthis won’t let them go,” she says, noting how the conflict and flow of humanitarian aid have boosted Houthi resources. “You have a fundamental, objective problem: The Saudis want out, the Houthis don’t. How do you deal with this?”

Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia announced a unilateral cease-fire in Yemen, following months in which it had made clear its desire to disentangle from what has proved a costly and humiliating quagmire for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Coming amid a global pandemic, the announcement was welcome news. The Saudi military intervention, beginning in 2015, has been blamed for creating what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

But with the cease-fire expiring today, the lack of results – with Houthi rebels continuing to press their military advantage, and Saudi planes launching scores of airstrikes in reply – is a stark reminder of the challenges to peace that remain.

In announcing the Yemen cease-fire, the Saudis cited both the need to pave the way for peace talks and to cope with the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in the impoverished and war-weary country.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Other positive signs followed, including U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths telling the Security Council last week of progress toward a truce in closed-door talks between the Saudis and Houthis, with agreement expected in the “immediate future.”

The catalyst toward peace was the virus, Mr. Griffiths said, noting that Yemen could not “face two fronts at the same time: a war and a pandemic.” Yemen announced its first – and so far only – laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 on April 10. “This is the time for hard decisions,” the envoy said.

But even as the U.S. was reported Tuesday to be preparing a “substantial contribution” to help Yemen battle the coronavirus, and Yemen was set to receive tens of thousands of test kits donated by a group of multinational companies, the fighting has barely eased.

“Gap of confidence”

In return for a Saudi withdrawal, the Houthis would sign a peace deal, analysts say, and the Iran-backed Houthi movement, known as Ansar Allah, produced an eight-page proposal two weeks ago. But with battlefield momentum now in their favor, the analysts say, the Houthis expect to dictate the terms of any Saudi drawdown – which is unacceptable to Riyadh.

“As far as the Saudis are concerned, they don’t know what to do,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Yemen-based Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. “They’ve given one gesture after another, but these gestures are viewed by the Houthis as empty, given the fact that there is no overall understanding of how the relationship between the two sides will be in the future. The guarantees are not there.”

The fulcrum of any deal needs to be agreement by the Saudis to stop undermining the Houthis, and agreement by the Houthis to protect Saudi borders and limit smuggling and human trafficking, says Mr. Iryani, who was a consultant to the U.N. Development Program in Yemen until the end of 2019.

“What stands in the way is this huge gap of confidence between the two sides,” he says. The Houthis need guarantees that any deal will be implemented, in order to “be willing to give up some power” to the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government – currently in exile – of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Houthi troops ride on the back of a police patrol truck after participating in a gathering of Houthis in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 19, 2020.

The Saudi cease-fire has barely dented the conflict, nor slowed the Houthi military advance on Marib, an oil- and gas-rich prize and one of the last strongholds of pro-Hadi forces in northern Yemen.

The Saudis face another crisis in the south, where a militia backed by the United Arab Emirates warned this week that “the outbreak of war is imminent” as they advance against Saudi-backed government forces.

Houthis “need” the war

“The Saudis want out; the solution for the Saudis is, ‘COVID-19 is a wonderful way for us to get out respectably, and start focusing on the rest of our problems, which are not insignificant,’” says Helen Lackner, a Yemen expert and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“But the Houthis won’t let them go. The Houthis want this war to go on, they don’t want this war to stop. They need it,” says Ms. Lackner, noting current rebel advances, and how the conflict and flow of humanitarian aid have boosted Houthi resources.

“You have a fundamental, objective problem: The Saudis want out, the Houthis don’t. How do you deal with this?” asks Ms. Lackner, author of the 2019 book “Yemen in Crisis: The Road to War.”

Saudi Arabia has been widely accused of elevating Yemen’s civil war into a regional proxy conflagration along familiar Middle Eastern fault lines, which pit Iran and its self-declared “axis of resistance” against Saudi Arabia and its pro-American allies.

When Saudi officials first intervened in Yemen, leading an Arab coalition to reverse the Houthi takeover of Sanaa and reinstall the Hadi government, they promised that “Operation Decisive Storm” would be over within weeks.

Yet instead of a demonstration of Saudi military prowess ordered by the new and assertive crown prince, the Yemen initiative has turned into a venture that is failing, even after the application of more than 20,000 air raids, according to the Yemen Data Project, and the loss of more than 100,000 lives – nearly all of them Yemeni, and many of them civilians.

“Why [the Saudis] don’t declare victory and go home is a question I asked about three years ago, and it would have been a lot easier for them to declare victory [then] than it is today,” says Ms. Lackner. “Can they announce the extension of a cease-fire that hasn’t actually happened?”

Overshadowing the battlefield to-and-fro is the looming risk of the coronavirus to one of the most vulnerable populations on earth. Already with 80% of Yemen’s population reliant on aid relief, and hospitals and health infrastructure ravaged by the war, the coronavirus “could spread fast, more widely and with deadlier consequences than in many other countries,” Mark Lowcock, the top U.N. aid official, warned last week.

Public image aspect

The continued fighting and few signs of any diplomatic breakthrough mean it is not yet clear how COVID-19 could affect war calculations. The U.N. counts 500 Yemenis killed or injured since January, one-third of them children.

“The big change could be if we see COVID-19 taking hold in Yemen and spreading quite quickly, as it is likely to do,” says Peter Salisbury, the senior Yemen analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“Yemen’s population is malnourished, undernourished, and it’s in very bad shape. People are already dying from preventable diseases, cholera, dengue fever, and so on. ... The population’s just incredibly vulnerable,” says Mr. Salisbury.

“There’s a public image aspect to this as well: The Houthis and government of Yemen each seek to be seen as a legitimate governing authority in Yemen, and if you are prioritizing a war over a life-threatening virus, that’s not great for your image,” he says.

“There is a lot of face to be lost in a COVID-19 outbreak,” adds Mr. Salisbury. “But for the time being, the challenge would appear to be that the Saudi initiative isn’t enough for the Houthis.”

“We’re really in a place where it depends on the willingness of one or several of the key parties to take a leap of faith ... to make gestures that build confidence from the other side,” he says. “The question right now is: How willing are the parties to really compromise, in any way?”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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