In Volatile Middle East, West Must Not Forget Yemen

The civil war in Yemen, which is now more than a year old, has been called a ‘forgotten’ and ‘hidden’ conflict, an orphan to the interest of the Western media and policy-makers.

Perhaps that is because, to the casual observer, Yemen has always seemed somewhat war-torn; or, conversely, because its war is, relatively speaking, recent. The fighting in Syria is now into its fifth year while Libya has been on a volatile path of decline since the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Yemen’s civil war, although the latest iteration in a violent struggle for power between the country’s many factions, only entered its latest, most destructive phase about a year ago.

There is also silence on Yemen because the effects of the war are yet to spill over its borders in the way that Syrians escaping their war have, causing a refugee crisis in Europe; or the way the flow of Syrian and other refugees has been accelerated by their freedom of passage through lawless Libya. The rise of outward-looking fundamentalist jihadist groups like ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya has also meant that the conflicts in those countries have been a more pressing concern for Western policy-makers.

It is nonetheless baffling that Yemen has been ignored as it has been by the international media − and stranger still that Western policy on the war has been so phlegmatic. It is almost as if someone had distributed a map of the country that placed Yemen on an island in the middle of an ocean rather than occupying the large chunk of geo-strategically important real estate it does.

Costs of war

The war pitches a military alliance of Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels and military loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who between them seized the Yemeni capital Sana’a in September 2014, against a loose coalition of resistance fighters ostensibly under the umbrella leadership of president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, ousted in the Houthi-Saleh coup, and backed by a Saudi-led military coalition that has been bombarding Houthi-held parts of Yemen since March of last year in the hope of dislodging the group, who Saudis see as a proxy for their great regional rival Iran.

The human cost of the war in Yemen, which has killed 6,000 people, almost half of them civilians, has been devastating. Peter Maurer of the International Committee of the Red Cross described Yemen after five months of war as looking like ‘Syria after five years’. Today some 82 per cent of Yemenis − 21.2 million people, almost the entire population of Syria − now require some kind of humanitarian assistance. But only a small number of people have become refugees abroad, in part because the land and sea borders have been shut off but also because the country was so desperately poor to start with that few can afford to pay to travel outside - even if their lives depend on it.

Yemen is home to a rapidly expanding Al-Qaeda franchise that until recently Washington described as the most dangerous jihadist group in the world, along with a new wing of ISIS. The rise of extremist jihadist groups is particularly worrying given that Yemen sits alongside the 29 kilometre-wide Bab al Mandeb strait, a vital trade chokepoint that is used to transport some 4 per cent of world oil supply and 8 per cent of global trade; and that it is part of the connective tissue of the Arabian peninsula, home to the UK and US’s most important regional partners. Thus far Yemen’s jihadists have been occupied by the war at home, but it is wishful thinking to believe that they will not look beyond the country’s borders.

Most keen observers agreed that the conflict has reached a stalemate that is unlikely to be broken militarily without significant bloodshed and an even worse humanitarian catastrophe, and that it is high time for the international community to do what it can to bring the war to an end. And on 23 March, the UN envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced tentative plans for a ceasefire and new peace talks to be held in Kuwait within a month. It is in the interest of all parties to the conflict − the Houthis, Saleh loyalists, the Hadi government, the many resistance groups on the ground and the Saudi-led coalition − to do their utmost to observe the ceasefire and attend the talks in good faith.

A UN Security Council resolution firmly demanding observance of the ceasefire by all parties to the war would be a good statement of intent for London and Washington in the run-up to the talks − and if not now, a resolution will definitely be needed if they fail. Such a move would make public what has been known for some time, despite continued support from both countries to the Saudi war effort: Yemen’s war cannot be won outright and prolonging it will only deepen the human suffering it has already caused.

Yemen is not an island. And if the ceasefire fails, the war there will only remain a forgotten one for so long.

Peter Salisbury joined Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme as an associate fellow in September 2015.

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