The announcement that the US will withdraw troops from Syria, made by President Donald Trump before the New Year, once again brought everyone’s attention to Syria, leaving other crises in the region in the shadows. One of them is the protracted civil war in Yemen, which has led to a deep humanitarian crisis that continues to worsen. According to the UN, 80% of Yemen’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance at the moment.
The Houthi movement, which is opposed to the central government, is known for its extremism and supposed backing from Iran and Hezbollah and hardly evokes sympathy from onlookers. However, the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that backs the officially recognised government of Yemen has acquired a sharply negative image among the international community. This is due to its indiscriminate bombing of the territories occupied by the Houthis, which affects mainly the civilian population. The coalition’s actions in the conflict has even led to Arab allies such as Morocco refusing to further support the Saudi-led operation in Yemen.
Hope for progress in resolving the crisis was revived when the UN negotiation process was intensified in late 2018. The December meeting in Stockholm brought together representatives of the Yemeni government and the Houthis, eventually leading to both parties signing an agreement to exchange prisoners and establish cease-fire in the port city of Hodeidah, which for several months had been subjected to fierce coalition bombings. However, the implementation of the truce remains unfinished, while on both sides there are accusations of violating the agreements.
Prospects for further progress are questionable: the coalition continues bombing Hodeidah and Houthis do not want to leave the city, fearing that it will fall under coalition control (also, in this case they would have lost the main transport channel connecting them to the outside world). In early January, the Houthis organised a drone attack on the government army during a military parade in the south of the country. The attack demonstrated the remaining combat potential of the rebels and the limited effectiveness of the Stockholm agreement, even though currently the agreement is the only option to end the conflict. Thus, on 16 January 2019, the UN Security Council decided to establish a special political mission to support the December agreement. The UK plays a prominent role in this process, though of course a more active position on the part of other international actors could accelerate things.
Russia has traditionally had considerable influence in Yemen, and could theoretically impact the dynamics of the conflict. However, Yemen isn’t of direct concern to Russia in terms of national interest (unlike the situation in Syria), and the benefits of a possible engagement in the conflict are unclear.
Washington’s position could play a crucial role as well. At this point, there is growing resistance in Congress to continue supporting the Arab coalition with intelligence and logistical support. In addition, both within the United States and abroad, criticism of the way the US is combating the al Qaeda branch in Yemen is growing, for civilians are disproportionately affected.
On the other hand, if Trump follows through with his promise to leave Syria, they will have the opportunity to concentrate on the Yemeni crisis, intensifying the struggle against Iran, which has repeatedly been stated by National Security Advisor John Bolton as the number one priority in the region for the US.
However, the main problem lies in the fact that regardless of the outcome of the conflict, there are no forces inside Yemen that could restore the country’s ruined economy and social cohesion. In this situation, the United Nations and the international community should already be developing a reconstruction program for Yemen and looking for sources of investment in this extremely complicated endeavour.