As the deadly coronavirus pandemic meets the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen, last week’s U.S. announcement of $225 million in emergency aid to the United Nations’ World Food Programme for the war-torn country is an important step. But the United States also should energize its diplomacy and press the Saudi-led coalition and other parties to bring the war in Yemen to an end. The prospects, however difficult, still may be more promising now than at any time in this grinding, five-year conflict.
Saudi Arabia had predicted a swift victory when it began its bombardments of Yemen in March 2015 to defend the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against the Houthi rebels. But the Saudis have long been bogged down in what has become an unwinnable war. Seeking a face-saving exit from the conflict, they had engaged in direct talks with the Houthis for several months, and as the coronavirus began to creep into the Arabian Peninsula, announced a two-week ceasefire on April 8. They have since extended the pause for another month, despite breakdowns all around.
The coronavirus has clearly thrown the kingdom for a loop, with more than 28,000 reported cases on its own territory—including members of the royal family—and oil prices in freefall amid a global downturn in demand. As the Saudis struggle to curb their outbreak at home, they would certainly be loathe to deal with the consequences of the same in Yemen.
The holy month of Ramadan, which runs through May 23, gives the parties another reason to lay down their arms and focus on triaging the likely coronavirus onslaught in Yemen. The government reported its first case of infection on April 10, and there are now more than 50 confirmed cases and eight deaths, after a jump in cases over the weekend.
A full epidemic would wreak havoc on Yemen’s already vulnerable population and collapsing healthcare system. Nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s population relies on humanitarian aid, and over 20 million civilians are food insecure. Meanwhile, only half of the country’s health facilities are operational, and those that remain are overstretched and unable to provide adequate care to those seeking it. To make matters worse, recent torrential rains and flooding, especially in Yemen’s south, present the additional threat of another cholera outbreak.
Yet despite a call by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres last month for a global ceasefire to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, heavy fighting continues in Yemen. The Houthi rebels, who control Yemen’s highlands, have continued their military campaign unabated and have accused the Saudis and their allies on the ground of doing the same despite the ceasefire declaration. In recent months, the Houthis have made formidable pushes into the northern governorates of al-Jawf and Ma’rib, areas previously held by forces aligned with the Yemeni government. The Houthis may well believe that continued gains on the ground will improve their negotiating hand ahead of any peace talks.
Meanwhile, the separatist Southern Transitional Council, backed by Saudi Arabia’s coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, can exploit any preoccupation with fighting in the north to assert political and military primacy in the south. In fact, the Southern Transitional Council late last month declared “self-rule,” risking renewed military escalation in the southeast and making prospects for a political settlement even more difficult.
It has become clear that the Saudi-led coalition cannot implement a ceasefire on its own. An earnest nationwide cessation of hostilities would have to include the Houthis, the Yemeni government, anti-Houthi forces on the Red Sea coast, and all southern secessionist forces.
The Houthis, in addition to their continued military operations, have made clear their negotiating terms. After Riyadh announced the initial ceasefire on April 8, the Houthis claimed that Saudi air strikes continued and affirmed they would not stop fighting while Yemen is “under siege,” that is, while Saudi-led coalition forces prevent commercial flights from entering the airport in the capital Sana’a and stymie the flow of goods into the Red Sea port of al-Hudaydah. A senior Houthi official released the group’s conditions for a mutual ceasefire. The eight-page document called for a withdrawal of all foreign forces and an end to the coalition’s air, land, and sea blockade. It outlined unrealistic demands for the Saudis to bear the brunt of reconstruction, reparations, and other confidence-building measures. It makes little mention of ending hostilities with the Yemeni government, even in the event of a ceasefire agreement with Saudi Arabia. Despite signaling openness, these conditions do not represent earnest efforts to begin peace talks.
This is where the U.S. role could be pivotal. It could apply pressure on the Saudis and the UAE to at least ease restrictions on the Sana’a airport and al-Hudaydah port as a show of good faith. Such actions will prove necessary, in any case, to ensure the uninterrupted flow of aid to combat a coronavirus outbreak.
A lasting ceasefire is unlikely without significant pressure from the United States and key international stakeholders to bring an end to the war. It is incumbent on the U.S. to work alongside the United Nations and other international actors to pressure all the warring parties to agree on and uphold a comprehensive ceasefire and to begin negotiations for a political settlement. U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths is working tirelessly to halt the fighting and kickstart negotiations. Yet the United States, as a key Saudi and UAE ally, is in a far better position than the U.N. to push those actors to make necessary concessions beyond a half-hearted halt to military action.
Resolving the conflict is in the U.S. national security interest, as the continuing war thwarts any adequate effort to address the spread of coronavirus in the Arabian Peninsula. And the proper provision of the incoming U.S. humanitarian aid package (and any international aid, for that matter) will require key ports and roadways under the control of various armed factions on the ground to be unblocked. Turned into confidence-building measures, such steps could open the way for broader peace negotiations.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently expressed concern about the Southern Transitional Council’s move and called on the warring parties in Yemen to re-engage in the Saudi-brokered November 2019 peace process known as the Riyadh Agreement. The U.S. has vocally supported U.N. and Saudi peace efforts in Yemen, and officials have occasionally met with Yemeni government representatives to promote such initiatives. However, the U.S. has largely taken a back seat in diplomatic efforts for a ceasefire or political settlement.
The United States should support U.N. initiatives with serious diplomatic leadership to engage regional partners, including the Saudis, the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait, as well as Britain and the European Union to help bring the parties to the table and develop a robust COVID-19 response plan for Yemen. It is not an option to let this critical moment pass.