Deputy UN Special Envoy to Yemen Maain Shuraim left Yemen after three days of talks with officials from the Ansar Allah Houthi movement and the General People’s Congress Party (GPC) against a backdrop of pessimism over the possibility of a political breakthrough, military escalation and a severe deterioration in humanitarian conditions in the country.
The UN reiterated its warning at the beginning of this year that Yemen could become a humanitarian catastrophe of a scale unwitnessed since the end of World War II. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over a million people are believed to be infected with cholera. The epidemic, which has already spread through 22 of 23 provinces of the poorest country in the Arab world, has claimed 2,237 lives.
In the coastal city of Hodeida, some 500 cases of diphtheria have been reported. It is the first time the disease has appeared in the country since 1993, according to the Ministry of Health in Houthi-controlled Sanaa. Hodeida, the main port in the country, receives 90 per cent of the country’s food, medicine and fuel imports. The prices of all these commodities have risen at unprecedented rates as they become increasingly scarce on the local market.
The World Food Programme reports that more than a third of the country’s population (nine out of 28 million) require food aid but that the international community has been unable to collect sufficient funds to provide the necessary relief.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition has been campaigning to seize control of Hodeida which the Saudis claim is the outlet through which the Houthis receive arms from Iran.
The Houthis are fighting on two fronts to counter the coalition offensive, one in Lahij and the other to the north, along the Yemeni border with Saudi Arabia. Sputnik news agency reports that Houthi forces have succeeded in seizing control over the strategic Jebel Al-Hamam heights in Lahij. To the north, according to the Houthis’ Al-Masira television station, Houthi forces killed a Saudi soldier and Yemenis fighting on the side of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the Asir region of Saudi Arabia.
Taher Ali Al-Auqaili, the chief of staff of the pro-Hadi army, told The Economist that the condition of his soldiers is deteriorating as a result of delays in the payment of their salaries, now over nine months late. He said that some soldiers were forced to sell arms or information to the Houthis. He added that, after the killing of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis seized control of the arms of the Yemeni army that had fought under him. This, combined with the fact that a large number of Saleh’s officers were now loyal to the Houthis, made it unlikely that pro-Hadi forces would be able to recapture the strategic heights in Lahij.
On Monday, Houthi forces shot down a Saudi F-15 fighter over Sanaa with a ground-to-air missile. The previous day, the Houthis downed another fighter — a British-made Tornado — in Saada. Arab coalition sources report that the two pilots were saved in a rescue operation.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition’s war against the Houthis is now approaching the end of its third year. It was launched in March 2015 with the purpose of reinstating the legitimate government in Sanaa and on the grounds that the Houthis, backed by Tehran, posed a threat to Saudi national security.
According to unconfirmed estimates, Saudi Arabia has lost 200 soldiers and billions of dollars without attaining its declared aims. The internationally recognised government has yet to return to Sanaa, while Riyadh is facing intense international pressure due to the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Yemen.
Around 10,000 people have been killed in the war so far from both sides. The majority are civilians killed by Arab coalition bombing, according to international human rights agencies. The suffering of civilians intensified after Riyadh imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Yemen.
With the death of Saleh at the hands of his erstwhile Houthi allies, Yemen is staring at an even more uncertain future. Observers believe that the GPC is cleft between its members’ tribal loyalties and a tendency to side with the Houthis or even the Hadi government. The appointment of Sadek Amin Abu Rass to succeed Saleh as the party’s chairman has, so far, not helped shed light on what lies ahead even though he was elected by an overwhelming majority.
Uncertainty appears dog the other side as well. Mohamed Al-Shami, a Yemeni journalist, said that the Arab coalition is not unified. The UAE supports Saleh’s son, Ahmed, who has vowed to exact revenge from the Houthis, while Saudi Arabia supports Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar from President Hadi’s camp. “So far, neither man has proven popular among the Yemenis, which complicates matters,” Al-Shami said.
Shuraim arrived in Yemen 6 January. He asked the Houthis to offer concessions in order to end the political deadlock and make it possible to resume negotiations that have been stalled since August 2016. He also asked them to ease restrictions on GPC leaders and to release detainees, and designate representatives in the joint committee tasked with containing major escalation. The Houthis have already released 200 people who took part in the events that led to the death of the former president in early December.
The question of Al-Hodeida was a priority in Shuraim’s visit. The UN, through Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, had proposed a draft agreement that would begin with the creation of impartial military committees that would oversee transitional security arrangements and the withdrawal of militias from the capital, Hodeida and Taiz within 45 days. This would be followed by a comprehensive power-sharing agreement and preparations for general elections.
However, Shuraim would not leave Yemen before receiving a threat by Saleh Al-Sammad, chairman of the Supreme Political Council in Sanaa, to disrupt international navigation in the Red Sea if the Arab coalition persisted in its military escalation. Al-Sammad, on the other hand, stressed that the Houthis were prepared to reach understandings. “They will find that we are readier than ever before in the past, in order to spare the bloodshed of the people and for the sake of security and stability in the region,” he said.
GPC member Mohamed Shajjaa, who resides in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Al-Sammad’s remarks illustrate the dilemma in which the Houthis found themselves after the assassination of Saleh.
Abdel-Malik Abdel-Jalil Al-Mekhlafi, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister of the internationally recognised Yemeni government, listed five conditions for returning to the negotiating table with the Houthis. The Houthis, he said, should stop targeting politicians, release detainees, halt “aggressions”, lift their blockades on cities and permit the entry of relief convoys.
The international community has accused both sides — the Houthis and the Arab coalition — of preventing humanitarian relief from reaching designated recipients. However, as the UN has pointed out, Riyadh’s land, sea and air blockade remains the most salient factor in the aggravation of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly