As the international community drags its feet and consistently fails to find diplomatic solutions to Yemen's conflict, its population is dragged deeper into a humanitarian crisis with no end in sight.
After initial diplomatic failure to prevent the offensive on Hudaida, the Saudi-led coalition has pushed towards reclaiming the vital Houthi-held city in western Yemen, leaving worldwide observers fearful about the consequences.
The Hudaida assault is the coalition’s greatest offensive since its intervention in Yemen in March 2015 and could be a vital turning point in the conflict - which has largely been a stalemate so far. A coalition victory would put them in a stronger position to capture Yemen’s capital Sanaa, also under Houthi control.
Continued fighting will however worsen Yemen’s already dire humanitarian crisis, which the UN previously called the world’s worst.
Hudaida has as many as 600,000 inhabitants as Yemen’s fourth largest city, and has a port which serves as a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, providing some 70 percent of Yemen’s food and humanitarian aid, and 90 percent of commercial supplies. Most Yemenis already need humanitarian aid to survive, in a country which imports most of its goods.
Humanitarian NGOs have urged the coalition to avert from a military solution and keep the port open, due to the inevitable human cost. The United Nations have scrambled to mediate the conflict, which could not stop the attack.
Days into the operation, hundreds have already died. The UN reported on Saturday that over 4,500 households have been displaced this month. Many civilians have fled to the countryside; yet those who are trapped by bombardment and have no resources or relatives elsewhere are forced to endure this life-threatening conflict.
Pro-Hadi forces have fought along the south of the city and have apparently captured the international airport, according to Yemeni officials and eyewitnesses. The city’s southern gate has also reportedly been secured. The battle has yet to reach the city or the port – when this happens, the conflict will become critical. City fighting would undoubtedly kill many civilians.
The UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths arrived in Yemen last week in a renewed attempt to forge a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Griffiths began talks with the Houthis on Sunday, to urge them to secede the port under international control.
However, the UN’s focus on a Houthi-secession of the port makes a diplomatic solution unlikely. The Houthis unsurprisingly rejected such a proposal, and will stick to this position. They view UN negotiations as too biased towards the Saudi-led coalition, and are wary that if they left Hudeida, further attempts to take more territory would occur.
The UAE and Saudi-led forces, knowledgeable about UN negotiations, upped their bombing campaign on Hudaida. The coalition has already disregarded UN attempts to solve the conflict. Therefore, with neither side willing to concede ground, the fighting will likely continue.
Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at International Crisis group, told me a third option with, “a better chance of success would be a deal whereby the Houthis permit a neutral third-party monitoring of shipments coming through the port, essentially moving UNVIM onshore.”
UAE-backed forces in Yemen have little or no experience in urban warfare, while the Houthis are far more experienced and entrenched in the region. The Emiratis’ calling for US support suggests they have limited confidence in their prowess against the Houthis. This suggests the conflict will be dragged out for a while and likely result in a stalemate, causing greater civilian suffering.
If the coalition’s massive force weakens the Houthis’ grasp of the port however—by which time the chaos would be unbearable across Yemen—they will likely cut aid supply to Houthi areas. The coalition has already shown it can do this, with its blockade in November last year, and by deliberately targeting hospitals. Yemeni civilians’ lives would be played with further.
Countries like the US and the UK have significant leverage over the coalition, and the key to ending the conflict lies in large part with them. Both sell billions of dollars of weapons to the coalition, the Saudi air force would not function without their support, and Britain is Yemen’s penholder at the UN Security Council.
Both governments urged the coalition to exercise restraint. The Trump administration last December had even warned the coalition away from attacking Hudaida. Yet their military support and lack of action to stop the assault shows indirect consent for the operation.
Mr. Hiltermann added: “Right now [US support] is a flashing yellow light: we don't think an assault on Hudaida is wise, because we doubt you can pull it off militarily, but we won't stop you. Just don't drag us into it and don't make the humanitarian situation worse, because that would make both of us look bad, and Congress is breathing down our necks.”
Critics within both nations, from politicians like UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and 2016 US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, to campaign groups like the UK’s Campaign Against Arms Trade, argue that the immediate solution to ending the conflict is an arms embargo on the coalition.
While an arms embargo is unlikely at this point, it would ultimately be successful and effective in ending the fighting, which will take further Yemeni lives.
While the conflict’s backers take a back seat, diplomatic action is once again stalling, and is likely to do so in the future. A worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen is unfolding, where more Yemenis die and the healthcare crisis grows.
Eventually if the battle stalls and when many civilians are hit hard, greater diplomatic action may be pursued – yet for many Yemenis, it could come too little too late.
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