Yemen

Drones purportedly flown by Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked Saudi oil pumping stations on May 14, creating a new flash point in a region already on edge over rising tensions between the United States and Iran.

A Houthi military official claimed the group launched multiple attacks against “vital Saudi installations” using drones to deliver bombs. The Houthis have been fighting the Saudi-backed government in Yemen since 2015.

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At the two-year mark of his presidency, Donald J. Trump finally has the team he wants. With the departure of H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, and James Mattis, individuals more aligned with the president’s inclinations now have his ear inside the White House, as do prominent conservative commentators on the outside. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is careful not to step on Trump’s toes—when asked on his way back from Turkey what the president meant by threatening to devastate Turkey economically, Pompeo replied, “you’d have to ask him.”

On Yemen, the Trump administration has tied the worst humanitarian disaster in the world to stopping the spread of Iranian influence. The crisis in Yemen was not the focus of Pompeo’s Cairo speech on January 10, where he mentioned Iran at least two dozen times, including the promise “to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. Pompeo did express support for UN efforts to achieve peace in war-torn Yemen, but announced no special US diplomatic initiative toward that end.

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Days after finishing a fresh round of peace talks in Sweden earlier in December, UN Yemen Special Envoy Martin Griffiths remained optimistic, but also expressed caution saying “our collective achievements this week were indeed a significant step forward. But what is in front of us is a daunting task.  As ever the hard work starts now.”

To be sure, there are plenty of daunting issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve a lasting peace in Yemen. These issues were not addressed in the talks in Sweden. While negotiators failed to reach agreement on the economic and political issues fueling the war in Yemen, the talks deliberately prioritized humanitarian issues, starting with the main access point for international aid: the port city of Hodeidah.

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With the high and ever-growing civilian death toll of Yemen’s civil war, the acute need for peace contrasts sharply with the sparse hopes of a peace process. After months of delays, the government and rebel forces announced on November 19 their intentions to temporarily freeze military operations and convene for negotiations in Sweden. The success of these talks will depend on whether the parties can effectively apply the lessons of past peace talks to structure a new peace process for Yemen.

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When over $2 billion was pledged for the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP) earlier this year, it was considered not only a success but also the best funded response plan worldwide according to anonymous aid workers who spoke to the author during the UN General Assembly. So far, 65% of the pledged funds have been delivered. The delivery of the remaining funding is expected throughout this year.

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Officials in US President Donald J. Trump’s administration have repeatedly described the ongoing conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, hence justifying the United States siding with a country that many US officials view as “our strong ally” against Iran.

Ironically, the Yemen policy of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was also Iran-centric, lending the Saudi-led coalition vital logistical and intelligence support in order to get grudging support from Riyadh for his nuclear deal with Iran.  

Both administrations have been guilty of looking at Yemen solely through the prism of Iran policy. In both cases, Yemen has suffered the consequences.

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Recently the World Bank published its annual world income categorization of 189 countries and 28 other economies. Jordan, Syria, and Yemen were among the nine countries whose status climbed or fell to reflect changes in gross national income (GNI). Jordan progressed from a lower-middle income to an upper-middle income country ($3,896–$12,055 per capita). The effects of the civil wars in Syria and Yemen unsurprisingly caused the two countries to drop from lower-middle income countries ($996–$3,895 per capita) to the lowest rung on the ladder: low-income ($995 or less per capita). The deterioration of the economies of Syria and Yemen is significant. Mass displacement of populations, large reductions in production, and physical destruction have caused billions of dollars in damages. In both countries, industries that once gave people a livelihood are absent due to ongoing fighting.

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As the conflict in Yemen continues and the country’s humanitarian crisis deepens, UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is attempting to negotiate a ceasefire for the port of Hodeida, a vital port for bringing aid and food into the famine-struck country. Earlier this month, the Saudi-led coalition began attacking the port city in response to missile attacks from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Taken against the recommendation of its allies such as the United States, this attack endangered the lives of many Yemenis who rely on the port for 70 percent of their food, fuel, and medicine imports. Aid organizations are struggling to deliver to the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” As Yemen’s war continues into its fourth year and the death toll reaches over ten thousand, Griffith’s negotiation may not only provide relief to the humanitarian crisis, but might also offer hope for a future settlement to end Yemen’s civil war.

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The assault by the United Arab Emirates’ forces and their local allies in a Saudi-led coalition on the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah that began last week and remains underway rightly raised concerns once again about the potential humanitarian consequences of Yemen’s ongoing war. Hudaydah is one of the impoverished country’s most important ports, the channel through which most international aid and imports reach Yemeni families in dire need of food, medicine, and fuel. But the discussion surrounding humanitarian aid in the Yemen war has become badly entangled in geopolitics, and it has become difficult to separate posturing on the part of the belligerent parties and wishful thinking on the part of international powers from the actual needs on the ground.

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There are three possible outcomes to the ongoing battle for Hodeida. First, the Saudi-led coalition succeeds in ousting the Houthi fighters from airport, seaport, and city. Second, the Houthi forces succeed in thwarting the land assault, but remain surrounded from the south and the east. Third, both sides accept a UN sponsored compromise, placing airport and seaport under an international force to keep the flow of humanitarian assistance going and provide a lifeline to civilians across the country. In all three options, the war continues grinding agonizingly on, though obviously the compromise option would not only provide relief to the civilian population of Hodeida, but also serve as a possible stepping stone to a broader peace agreement in the war-torn country.

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