Counted in human lives and suffering, the ‘Golden Victory’ operation seems to be turning out to be truly golden.
For many outside observers, Yemen looks like yet another of the MENA region’s failed states. But in this case, the ordeal has a more complex nature.
The crisis that the country is currently undergoing was preceded by a long and complicated past. Yemeni history of the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century has overflowed with protracted internal confrontations. Whereas the unification of Yemen was achieved in 1990, Yemeni society lacks social cohesion to an even greater degree than other states in the Arab world which are also going through difficult times.
The majority of the population are Sunni Muslims, but the northwestern part of the country is mostly populated by Zaidis – adherents to a branch of Shia Islam. Prior to the unification of the country in 1990, this region existed as a separate state – one of the key factors shaping the conflict, where a central role is played by representatives of the Zaidi Ansar Allah movement, better known as the Houthis.
An important milestone in the emergence of the current crisis was the Arab Spring. In Yemen, this turbulent process at the end of 2011 led to the country’s long-standing leader Ali Abdullah Saleh’s removal from power, which was followed by further socio-political destabilisation.
Events became even more dramatic with the military intervention of a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2015. The intervention was caused by the success of the Houthis, which had led, inter alia, to the expulsion of the incumbent President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi from the country. The official goal of the coalition is the return of power to the de jure acting president. However, according to many analysts, Hadi lost control over events taking place in the country.
In addition to this line of confrontation, Al-Qaeda is active in the country and separatist groups in the south are struggling for the separation of South Yemen.
The total number of the conflict’s victims in the last three years is estimated to be about 10,000 people, according to the most conservative figures. In 2017, Yemen was struck by an epidemic of cholera that affected over one million people and claimed the lives of several thousand. 22 million Yemenis today need humanitarian aid, while millions – up to eight million according to some organisations – are on the verge of starvation. The current humanitarian situation in Yemen is described as the worst in the world. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provide the country with substantial financial assistance, but in present circumstances, most assistance is being dispersed without reaching its target groups.
The difficult situation in the country is, for obvious reasons, a problem for Yemen’s neighbours. The religious dimension of the crisis has been accompanied by the involvement of regional powers, meaning the current phase of the conflict cannot be considered apart from the Sunni-Shia (read Saudi-Iranian) confrontation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE claim that Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons, including missiles, which the latter launch at Saudi territory. Iran denies this. In any case, the way Iranian media cover the Yemeni conflict makes it crystal clear whom Tehran’s sympathies are with.
On 13 June, Arab Coalition forces launched Operation ‘Golden Victory’ to drive the Houthis from the Yemeni port of Hudaydah, located on the Red Sea. Earlier, the coalition had already seized the Red Sea port of Mocha. It is through Hudaydah, according to the coalition, that the Houthis receive their military supplies. And without blocking it, the coalition would find it difficult to achieve decisive success. However, the key problem is that it is through the same channel that the bulk (up to 80%) of humanitarian supplies goes to Yemen. The UN has warned that in the worst-case scenario, this operation could result in the death of 250,000 people and the depriving of millions of people of humanitarian aid.
In the days leading up to the operation, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross evacuated most of its employees from the city. A statement issued by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on 17 June states that starting from 1 June about four and a half thousand households had already been displaced in Hudaydah.
In these conditions, David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme urged “all parties to the conflict to meet their obligations to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and take active steps to respect international humanitarian law.”
The UN, through its special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has attempted to convince the Houthis to transfer the port of Hudaydah to UN control in order to avoid unnecessary casualties among civilians and to keep channels for humanitarian aid and food deliveries intact. As yet, these efforts have not brought visible success.
At the same time, it is still not clear why the coalition didn’t confine itself to a sea blockade of the port, which would have minimised the risk of mass civilian casualties.
Disputed claims have emerged regarding events in and around Hudaydah. The coalition has claimed its detachments have reached the city airport, which the Houthis deny. The Houthis also argue that the United States and the United Kingdom are supporting Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the operation. Recent information has also indicated the presence of French special forces in Yemen.
Amid the worsening situation in Yemen, a portion of the American political establishment is beginning to express discontent at the participation of the US military in the operation.
The humanitarian dimension of the problem is easier to understand. What is more difficult to assess is how the outcome of this battle, whatever it may be, will affect the course of the Yemeni crisis as a whole. Representatives of the Arab coalition consider taking Hudaydah as the key to mastering the Yemeni capital Sana’a. It is also thought that if the operation is successful, it will be possible to force the Houthis to negotiations, as then they would have lost their most important supply channel and source of income.
The coalition suffered its most serious reputational losses at the beginning of the operation. It will now likely continue to the very end, disregarding the international community’s criticism and the pressure of international organisations. But how much can the city’s takeover really do to bring about the end of the conflict? And will it change the positions of the external actors involved in the process in any way?
Since the strife between Iran and the Arab coalition’s key members is one of the main factors determining the dynamics of the Yemeni conflict, a solution to the problem should also be sought in this area. Reducing the severity of the confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh as well as initiating a dialogue between them would provide the Yemenis with more opportunities for overcoming internal contradictions independently. At least the proxy factor would then become less pronounced in Yemeni developments. But so far this route has looked like a tunnel with not even a glimpse of light at the end.
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