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Dying by the numbers

  • Published at 05:55 pm November 22nd, 2018
Voices are being raised
Voices are being raised REUTERS

Peace seems like a distant dream for the suffering Yemenis

The civil war in Yemen is a multi-polar conflict with both regional and local components. Initially, the revolution started as a part of the Arab Spring, but it gradually turned into a proxy war between the Iran-backed side and their Saudi-backed adversaries. 

According to the UN and other sources, between March 2015 to December 2017, 8,670 to13,600 people have been killed, while more than 50,000 people have died as a result of an ongoing famine caused by the war.

Key participants in the conflict

On the one side are the Houthis, an anti-government rebel group aligned with the Shia branch of Islam. This group is backed by Iran. Their opposition is the active government, established without opposition after the Arab Spring.

The Hadi government is aligned with the Sunni faith and backed by the Saudi coalition. The US, UK, and France have been supporting the Hadi government and the Saudi military in the form of weapon supply, financial aid, and logistics.

Al-Qaeda and the Yemeni branch of IS have both been vying for control in Yemen. The US also performed its own air strikes against al-Qaeda operations in the country, as well as having flown unmanned drones for surveillance and carried out air strikes on behalf of Saudi Arabia.  

Control over Yemen has broader geopolitical implications. The Houthis and Iran’s control over Yemen mean much for Saudi Arabia’s economy. Yemen is situated near Strait of Bab al-Mandeb, which is a chokepoint for maritime trade and energy shipments among Africa, Asia, and Europe. Three million barrels of oil through the Gulf of Aden and the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait to Europe every day.

A large portion of this oil originates from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. As Yemen is situated beside Saudi Arabia, Iran’s plan is to control it to have leverage against Saudi Arabia -- like the Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel -- thus posing a great threat to the Saudi economy and to the global economy reliant on the oil and gas originating from the Middle East.

For the last few years, Iran has been controlling four Arab capitals -- Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sana. So, the Saudi Kingdom is desperate to keep in check any further spread of Iranian influence in the Arab region.

The Western alliance, especially America, also wants to curb the influence of Iran in the Middle East and therefore maintain close relations with the Saudi alliance. Iran’s control of Bab el-Mandeb via the Houthis means giving Iran and its allies Russia and China a great chance to influence the important chokepoint for world trade.

To the surprise of no one, the US and the UK also have business interests in this conflict. They have supplied the Saudi-led coalition inordinate amounts of advanced military equipment.

Yemen’s missile arsenals are another great concern for the US as it can hit any ships in the Gulf of Aden or Bab el-Mandeb, which justifies the Saudi attack in Yemen’s missile depots, serving US Interests. 

Steps towards conflict resolution

The United Nations Security Council has repeatedly failed to adopt a resolution which focuses on the actual problem in Yemen and bring the conflicting parties to the peace table. Outrage over the catastrophic humanitarian crisis has created increasing pressure on the US to pull its support from the coalition.

In March 2018, a bipartisan effort to end US involvement in Yemen failed in a close Senate vote. Previously, US lawmakers tried to stop US support to the Saudi coalition in the House of Representatives, but nothing changed as the Trump administration has extraordinary good relation with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

In October 2018, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis called for a ceasefire in Yemen within 30 days followed by UN-initiated peace talks -- but no actual diplomatic threats being mentioned in their rhetoric is rather disappointing.

Critics argue that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in and the US’s push for peace talks in Yemen are closely linked. After the Khashoggi murder, there have been a lot of congressional reactions and some strong pushback within the US government to rein in Saudi Arabia.

The current call for peace is in danger of falling on deaf ears, as thousands of reinforcements have been sent by the Saudi coalition in the last week of October, in the rebel-held city of Hodeidah, Yemen’s major port for the massive amounts of food and aid needed to keep millions of Yemenis from starving to death. 

Momtaj Monwara is Research Assistant, Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs.