It is exactly five years since a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates intervened militarily in Yemen. But despite the number of casualties the prospect of peace has remained elusive. The war has worsened in what has been described by the UN as the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe.
Now the War in Yemen Could Be Close to Ending
Now there are reports that Saudi Arabia is looking for a way out of the crisis after realizing that it is fighting a losing battle. What makes the conflict even more complicated is that it is part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia who have been using proxy militia groups in Yemen to undermine each other.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have accused Iran of providing financial and military support to the Houthis, something Iran has denied. Among those factors often mentioned as having played a great role in organizing Iranian-backed proxy militia groups in Yemen was General Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Quds force who was killed in a US drone strike this past January.
Arab Spring Origins of the Yemeni Conflict
The conflict in Yemen can be traced to the Arab spring that forced former President Abdullah Saleh to step down and hand over power to his deputy Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2011. Because of the ensuing state of anarchy, Hadi was faced with a number of challenges, among them the high rate of unemployment, insecurity, corruption, food shortages and separatist movements.
The Houthis — who are mainly made up of Zaidi Shia Muslims — took advantage of the growing dissent against Hadi’s government to establish their control over Yemen’s Saada province. Sunni Muslims in the region who were concerned about the economic situation joined hands with the Houthis and together they took over the capital of Sanaa.
Saleh’s Attempt to Return to Power and Saudi Arabia’s Entrance into the Conflict
Former President Saleh in a bid to return to power entered in an agreement of convenience with his erstwhile rivals the Houthis to take over the entire country and depose Hadi. However this backfired when he was killed by the Houthis in December of 2017
Concerned about the deteriorating security situation, Saudi Arabia and eight other, mostly Sunni Arab countries intervened in Yemen on March 26, 2015, in a bid to defeat the Houthis. More broadly, they wished to stop the influence of Iran and to restore the leadership of Hadi who had fled to exile.
The coalition was backed by Western forces mainly those of US, UK and France who provided it with intelligence information and fuel. Initially Saudi Arabia estimated that the whole operation would last several weeks at most, but five years later the battle is still raging with the number of casualties increasing daily.
Yemen’s Catastrophic Death Toll and War Crimes
In 2019, The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (TACLED), an organization which uses real-time data analysis source on political violence and protests around the world, stated there were more than 100,000 deaths in Yemen since 2015, including over 12,000 civilians killed in direct attacks.
“The Saudi-led coalition and its allies remain responsible for the highest civilian fatalities from direct targeting , with over 8000 since 2015,” said the organization. “Around 67 % of all reported civilian fatalities during this period have been caused by coalition.” It also accused Houthis and their allies for being responsible for over 2,000 reported civilian fatalities from direct targeting since 2015.
During the same period, Human Rights Watch documented a total of 90 unlawful coalition airstrikes which hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools and mosques. One of them was the bombing of a wedding, killing 22 people, including 8 children in 2018. Another documented case, was that of a bomb that struck a school bus killing at least 26 children and wounding 19 more in the busy market of Dhahyan.
“The Saudi-led coalitions attack on a bus full of young boys adds to its already gruesome track record of killing civilians at weddings, funerals, hospitals and schools in Yemen,” said Mr Bill Van Esveld, Human Rights Watch senior children researcher. The organization also accused the Houthis of firing indiscriminately into Saudi Arabia, and using landmines that have killed and maimed civilians and disrupted their lives.
Saudi Arabia’s Invitation to Warring Parties to Come to the Negotiating Table
But in what could be an attempt by Saudi Arabia to exit the conflict, the Kingdom has invited members of the Houthis and the Yemeni recognied government to peace negotiations. This comes a month after Houthis took control of the capital Sanaa and deposed the internationally-recognized Hadi government.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohamed al-Jaber said the proposal for talks to end the five year war remain on the table despite a flare up in violence. “We are committed to de-escalation,” al-Jaber said, adding that “we are ready to have cease fire in all Yemeni territory if they accept it.”
The Houthis have not yet responded to the invitation.
“The standing invitation to the Houthis to meet face to face for talks after provocative attacks this weekend suggests the Saudis desperately want to end the war in Yemen,” said Elana DeLozier, a Yemen expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Why Does Saudi Arabia Want to End the War Now?
The Gulf Kingdom is believed to have felt even been more isolated after its allies in the conflict such United Arab Emirates scaled down their military presence last year to avoid further losses. A Western official familiar with the Kingdom’s policy in Yemen told the Middle East Monitor that “Like the UAE, the Saudis want to say this war is over for us, but the situation on the ground is difficult. “
Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at Ottawa University in Canada informed the paper further that, “Riyadh wants to reduce the costs of its intervention in Yemen after it has realized that it cannot afford the war’s financial and military costs.”
Amid the growing number of war casualties, Yemen is now faced with the coronavirus pandemic which could result in even more deaths because of the fragile security situation and the weak health system. The country has 3,500 medical facilities but only half are still functioning. This means that much of the country’s population of around 20 million have no access to adequate healthcare .