* Ye­men: World's Worst Hu­man­i­tar­ian Dis­as­ter

People's Review - - LEADER - BY SHASHI MALLA

The com­pli­cated civil war in Ye­men has now en­tered a de­ci­sive phase. A coali­tion led by Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE) launched an at­tack last week to oust Houthi rebels from Hodei­dah (on the east coast), the gate­way for most of Ye­men's aid and home to 600,000 peo­ple, rais­ing fears of an ex­ac­er­bated hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis. Ye­men is one of the poor­est coun­tries in the Arab world/Mid­dle East. It ranks 48th in land area and 50th in pop­u­la­tion among the coun­tries of the world (in com­par­i­son Nepal is 92nd and 42nd re­spec­tively). It has been dev­as­tated by the civil war which has been fu­eled not only by in­ter­nal di­chotomies, but also by ex­ter­nal ac­tors and in­ter­ests. It is strate­gi­cally lo­cated op­po­site the Horn of Africa on the strait of Bab al-Man­dap, a nar­row wa­ter­way link­ing the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden/Ara­bian Sea, through which much of the world's ship­ments, in­clud­ing oil pass on to the Suez Canal, the vi­tal link­age to the Mediter­ranean Sea. Ye­men, at Asia's south-west­erly ex­trem­ity, faces Eritrea, Dji­bouti (with US and Chi­nese mil­i­tary bases), So­ma­liland and So­ma­lia on the African con­ti­nent. It thus com­mands the pas­sage­way to the geo-strate­gic strait. The Bab al-Man­dap is one bot­tle­neck in the sea lanes con­nect­ing Asia to Europe, the other be­ing the Straits of Malacca, it­self the gate­way to the Pa­cific. Thus Robert D. Ka­plan writes of the re­gion: “one densely packed axis of in­sta­bil­ity, where con­ti­nents, his­toric road net­works, and sea lanes con­verge.”[The Re­venge of Geog­ra­phy, 2012] The Arab Spring also had reper­cus­sions in Ye­men. An up­ris­ing forced the long time au­thor­i­tar­ian pres­i­dent Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy Ab­drab­buh Man­sour Hadi in 2011. This tran­si­tion did not re­sult in the ex­pected sta­bil­ity, but ex­ac­er­bated the al­ready ex­ist­ing prob­lems in the coun­try. These in­cluded at­tacks by al-Qaeda, a sep­a­ratist move­ment in the south and the con­tin­u­ing loy­alty of many mil­i­tary of­fi­cers to for­mer pres­i­dent Saleh. This frag­ile sit­u­a­tion was com­pounded by the usual is­sues of any de­vel­op­ing coun­try – cor­rup­tion, un­em­ploy­ment and food in­se­cu­rity. Ye­men is pre­dom­i­nantly an Arab Sunni ma­jor­ity coun­try, but in the north the Zaidi Shia Mus­lim Houthi mi­nor­ity is pre­dom­i­nant. In the pre­vi­ous decade, the Houthis had of­ten re­belled against the au­thor­i­tar­ian rule of Pres­i­dent Saleh. Now they took ad­van­tage of the volatile sit­u­a­tion and the weak­ness of the new pres­i­dent Man­sour Hadi to rise up in arms and take con­trol of their north­ern heart­land of Saada prov­ince and sur­round­ing ar­eas. Many Yem­i­nis, in­clud­ing Sun­nis, were dis­il­lu­sioned with the cen­tral gov­ern­ment and started sup­port­ing the Houthis in late 2014 and early 2015. De­prived of sup­port, the pres­i­dent re­treated to the south­ern port city of Aden. In a twist of for­tune, for­mer pres­i­dent Saleh at­tempted to re­gain power by back­ing his erst­while an­tag­o­nists. The Houthi mili­tia and the se­cu­rity forces loyal to Saleh took over con­trol of the cap­i­tal San'a and then at­tempted to take over the en­tire coun­try. Hadi was forced to take flight once more, this time to a for­eign coun­try in March 2015. The per­cep­tion had gained ground that the Houthi in­sur­gents were be­ing sup­ported mil­i­tar­ily by Iran, the ris­ing re­gional Shia power. Led by Saudi Ara­bia, eight other Sunni ma­jor­ity Arab states launched an air cam­paign of at­tacks with a view to restor­ing Hadi's gov­ern­ment. This Arab coali­tion also re­ceived lo­gis­ti­cal and in­tel­li­gence sup­port from the United States, UK and France. A lim­ited lo­cal con­flict had thus been un­nec­es­sar­ily ‘in­ter­na­tion­alised' with broad ram­i­fi­ca­tions. The Saudis in­ter­vened in the war “with hopes of a quick vic­tory over the Houthis . . . but they have in­stead been dragged into a quag­mire” (New York Times). In­ter­nally, pro-gov­ern­ment forces com­pris­ing sol­diers loyal to Pres­i­dent Hadi and pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni south­ern tribes­men and sep­a­ratists were able to with­stand the at­tack on Aden. Ex­ter­nally, coali­tion ground troops landed in Aden in Au­gust 2015 and were suc­cess­ful in oust­ing the Houthis and their al­lies from much of south Ye­men. How­ever, the Houthis con­tin­ued to re­main in the cap­i­tal San'a and to main­tain their siege of the south­ern city of Taiz. Above all, they were now able to fire mor­tars and mis­siles --- prob­a­bly ob­tained from Iran --- across the com­mon bor­der with Saudi Ara­bia, very much to the cha­grin of the lat­ter. Another po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion has now en­tered the civil war. Ji­hadist mil­i­tants from al-Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula (AQAP) and ri­val af­fil­i­ates of the Is­lamic State group (IS) have en­tered the fray. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of the pan­de­mo­nium in the coun­try, they have taken over ar­eas in the south and un­der­taken deadly at­tacks, in­clud­ing in Aden. In a dare­devil man­ner, the Houthis man­aged to launch a bal­lis­tic mis­sile to­ward the Saudi cap­i­tal Riyadh in Novem­ber 2017 --- which was timely in­ter­cepted. This led to the Saudi-coali­tion to toughen up its block­ade of Ye­men, trig­ger­ing ac­cord­ing to the UN “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades”. The coali­tion did lessen its re­stric­tions on rebel-held ports after sev­eral weeks, but the ex­tended shut­down had al­ready re­sulted in price in­creases of ba­sic com­modi­ties, pre­cip­i­tat­ing food in­se­cu­rity and the col­lapse of ba­sic ser­vices, al­ready in dire shape. The Ye­men con­flict is also char­ac­ter­ized by shift­ing loy­al­ties and al­liances. One such was the ten­u­ous con­nec­tion be­tween the Houthis and for­mer pres­i­dent Saleh, which col­lapsed after the lat­ter of­fered “to turn a new page” in re­turn for the Saudi coali­tion stop­ping its at­tacks on Ye­men and end­ing the block­ade. This was con­sid­ered treach­er­ous by the Houthis, who then pro­ceeded to at­tack Saleh's con­voy in De­ceem­ber 2017 and kill him as he at­tempted to es­cape the cap­i­tal San'a. Some weeks later, clashes among pro­gov­ern­ment forces them­selves started. The sep­a­ratists seek­ing in­de­pen­dence for south Ye­men, which was a sep­a­rate coun­try (with the cap­i­tal Aden) be­fore uni­fi­ca­tion with the north in 1990, had pre­vi­ously formed a ten­ta­tive al­liance with troops loyal to Hadi's gov­ern­ment in 2015 in order to stop the Houthis from the north from cap­tur­ing Aden. The un­easy al­liance came to a head in Jan­uary 2018 when the sep­a­ratist “South­ern Tran­si­tional Coun­cil” (STC) ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment and de­manded the res­ig­na­tion of the prime min­is­ter. Sep­a­ratist units did at­tempt to force­fully seize gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties and mil­i­tary bases in Aden, but were re­pulsed. This at­tempted coup “against le­git­i­macy and the coun­try's unity” was duly con­demned by the prime min­is­ter. The po­lit­i­cal equa­tion in the coun­try has be­come more com­pli­cated by acute con­tra­dic­tions within the Saudi coali­tion it­self. Thus, Saudi Ara­bia sup­ports Hadi, who lives in ex­ile in Riyadh, whereas the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE) is tightly al­lied with the sep­a­ratists. In this sit­u­a­tion of do­mes­tic and re­gional tur­moil, the fu­ture of Ye­men does look very grim in­deed. Ac­cord­ing to the UN, more than 9,245 peo­ple have been killed and 52,800 in­jured since March 2015. And of those killed, at least 5,558 and 9,065 of those in­jured up to De­cem­ber 2017 were civil­ians. The Saudi coali­tion air strikes were the main cause of over­all civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. And un­for­tu­nately, western coun­tries, fore­most the US, have been the main sup­pli­ers of lethal weapons. US sup­ply planes have also aided in fu­el­ing Saudi planes mid-air. Ac­cord­ing to the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil, civil­ians have re­peat­edly been the vic­tims of “un­re­lent­ing vi­o­la­tions of in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian law”. About 75 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of 22.2 mil­lion peo­ple is in need of hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance, in­clud­ing 11.3 mil­lion in acute need who des­per­ately re­quire im­me­di­ate as­sis­tance to sur­vive. This is an in­crease of 1 mil­lion since June 2017. Re­gard­ing ba­sic food, some 17.8 mil­lion peo­ple do not know where their next meal will come from, and 8.4 mil­lion are con­sid­ered at risk of star­va­tion. Se­vere acute mal­nu­tri­tion

is al­ready threat­en­ing the lives of al­most 400,000 chil­dren un­der the age of five. At least 16.4 mil­lion peo­ple lack ba­sic health­care, since only half of the coun­try's health fa­cil­i­ties are func­tion­ing. Med­i­cal per­son­nel have had great dif­fi­culty in tack­ling the world's largest cholera epi­demic. Since April 2017, this has re­sulted in more than 1 mil­lion sus­pected cases and 2,248 as­so­ci­ated deaths. In the past three years more than 3 mil­lion peo­ple have been forced to es­cape from their homes, and 2 mil­lion re­main in­ter­nally dis­placed. [All sta­tis­tics vide BBC] The cir­cum­stances in Ye­men can ag­gra­vate ten­sions in the whole of West Asia and North Africa. Above all the do­mes­tic con­flict in Ye­men is part of the re­gional power strug­gle be­tween Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Ara­bia. Gulf Arab states de­nounce Iran for back­ing the Houthis fi­nan­cially and mil­i­tar­ily. Euro­pean coun­tries are anx­ious be­cause of the threats of ter­ror­ist at­tacks orig­i­nat­ing here. They con­sider AQAP as the most per­ilous branch of alQaeda be­cause of its tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise and global reach. The rise of IS af­fil­i­ates in Ye­men is also of ma­jor con­ster­na­tion. Ye­men, in gen­eral, has not re­ceived se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion in spite of its geo-strate­gic lo­ca­tion. It has, un­for­tu­nately, be­come an in­no­cent vic­tim of SaudiIra­nian ‘great power pol­i­tics' and sec­tar­ian di­vide, as well as in­ter­na­tional in­dif­fer­ence (as with the Ro­hingyas in Myan­mar, South Su­dan, Venezuela and other cri­sis-hit ar­eas).

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