Yemen peace talk delays add to fears of fresh onslaught
Talks aimed at ending Yemen’s war have been pushed back to the end of the year, sparking fears that the intense violence will worsen and the country will be plunged into famine as the Saudi-backed coalition seeks to completely retake a vital Red Sea port.
Violence in Houthi rebel-controlled Hodeidah has flared in the past week as militias loyal to the government attempt to break the stalemate before the end of the month, when the US and UN had called for a ceasefire.
More than 200 coalition airstrikes have hit civilian neighbourhoods and at least 150 people have died in the bombing after stepping on Houthi landmines or being caught in artillery fire, aid workers said.
A hospital in the May 22 district in Hodeidah’s east – stormed by Houthis who took up sniper positions on the rooftop six days ago – has been emptied of staff and patients, leaving the city with just one functioning medical facility.
“Before they left, the Houthis burned down the section where paper records and files were stored,” a local man, Baseem al-Janani, said. “They wanted to create fire and smoke so they are not easily spotted and targeted.”
If the urban warfare continues, Hodeidah’s 600,000 population stands to suffer. Half are children, who are at increased risk of cholera and malnutrition.
Even a small amount of damage to the city’s port, through which 80% of the country’s food, fuel and aid flows, is likely to plunge the country into famine. The fighting has already prevented aid from leaving Hodeidah, endangering 14 million Yemenis.
It is believed the coalition could continue with a full-scale assault, despite repeated calls from aid agencies for an immediate halt to hostilities.
“If the battle rages on at this level of intensity, I believe it will only take a month or a month and a half to liberate Hodeidah, unless the international community intervenes,” said local Ibrahim Seif.
“Hodeidah is on the verge of a terrible humanitarian disaster which will only add to the wider tragedy already suffered by Yemenis in this ugly war,” said Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni Nobel peace prize laureate. “My country is being systematically destroyed.”
The future of the vital port is unclear: the UN has demanded it be under its jurisdiction, but forces loyal to Yemeni commander Tareq Saleh and the separatist Southern Transitional Council – on paper coalition members allied against the Houthis – are also likely to jostle for control.
While the coalition hopes removing the Houthis from Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, will bring the war to an end, the decades-old Houthi movement is likely to retreat to its highland strongholds and continue to wage guerrilla warfare. Peace talks planned for early next month in Sweden were reportedly derailed by the Houthis, who objected to the US impetus and refused to come to the table unless several new demands were met. The last round of talks in Geneva in September failed after the Houthis failed to attend after three days, citing security concerns.
“There’s a lot of hopeful rhetoric on Yemen in western capitals at the moment but it’s completely not in tune with what’s happening on the ground,” said Adam Baron, a nonresident fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting to restore the exiled Yemeni government is under renewed pressure from international allies in Washington and elsewhere to end its involvement in the war following the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month.
The US, however, is sending mixed signals on what it wants for Yemen’s future, after reports emerged that the Trump administration is considering designating the Houthis, who receive military backing from Iran, a terrorist organisation.
Pro-government forces gather on the eastern outskirts of Hodeidah