Yemen: ceasefire and the collapse of ‘legitimacy’ – Steve Bell, Stop the War Coalition

“Given the terrible suffering that the Yemeni people have endured, the first nationwide ceasefire since 2016 can only be welcomed.  But there is a long way to go before the war ends.”

By Steve Bell

Since April 2nd, a UN mediated two month truce has been declared in Yemen, with the Saudi coalition, and Ansarallah (“the Houthis”) in Yemen, making independent announcements.  Given the terrible suffering that the Yemeni people have endured, the first nationwide ceasefire since 2016 can only be welcomed.  But there is a long way to go before the war ends. 

It is far from clear whether the coalition’s ceasefire is a move towards peace, or a regroupment for more effective war.

Immediately, a development of perhaps greater substance for the war is being slid over in western coverage.  On April 7th, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, ‘President’ and ‘Vice-President’ respectively of the ‘internationally recognised government’ handed their power over to a newly formed Presidential Leadership Council.

The extraordinary importance of this is that the “legal basis” for war lies in UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2216 in 2015. The resolution outlines the President’s call for war upon his own people – “he has requested from the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and the League of Arab States to immediately provide support, by all necessary means and measures, including military intervention, to protect Yemen and its people from the continuing aggression by the Houthis”. 

The resolution endorsed by the UNSC continues “Reaffirming its support for the legitimacy of the President of Yemen, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and reiterating its call to all parties and Member States to refrain from taking any actions that undermine the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen, and the legitimacy of the President of Yemen”. In pursuit of this, over seven years of war have been waged. The implications will be examined later.

The continuing humanitarian crisis in Yemen:

Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, gave testimony to the UNSC on March 15th.  He highlighted that out of a population of 31.9 million, 23.4 million Yemenis require some form of humanitarian assistance.  19 million of these will go hungry in 2022 – an increase of 20 percent over last year. 

He also drew attention to the fact that, even with food prices in Yemen nearly doubling over the past year, they will further rise.  Yemen imports more than 35 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Basheer Al Selwi, spokesperson for the International Commission of the Red Cross in Yemen, stated in late March, “Since the onset of the Ukraine conflict, we have seen the price of food skyrocket by more than 150 percent. Millions of Yemeni families don’t know how to get their next meal.”

UNICEF, in its March 2022 “Humanitarian Update”, states that currently 45 percent of children are stunted and over 86 percent have anaemia. 2.2 million are acutely malnourished, including more than half a million children facing severe acute malnutrition, a life threatening condition. In addition, around 1.3 million pregnant or nursing mothers are acutely malnourished.

UN estimates that by autumn 2021, 377,000 deaths have occurred because of direct or indirect effects of the war. The Saudi regime has refused to deploy its main army inside Yemen, having some knowledge of the tenacity of Ansarallah popular committees and armed forces. Instead, the coalition used foreign mercenaries and local Yemeni militias. But the Sadis has used its huge advantage in air power to weaken Ansarallah, and intimidate the civilian population.

Annelle Sheline writes: ” The extremely high mortality rate in Yemen partly reflects Saudi-led coalition bombings that target civilian infrastructure, which have destroyed access to food, water, and healthcare. There is a misperception that coalition air-raids primarily target military facilities.  In fact, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out more than 8,000 air raids targeting military facilities, and almost as many – more than 7,000 – targeting non-military facilities.  The remaining 9,000 air raids are documented, but the Yemen Data Project could not determine their targets…

“Non-military targets include, airports, telecommunication towers, agricultural and food-processing plants, electrical infrastructure, water treatment facilities, and residential areas.  The systematic targeting of civilian infrastructure necessary for basic survival have made food, electricity, clean water, and healthcare increasingly difficult to access.  Hunger and disease are rampant.  Yemen is one of the few humanitarian crises wherein starvation is driven not by a lack of food, but by the population’s inability to purchase what food is available.”

On top of this, the Coalition has imposed a blockade by land, sea and air.  Over the past year this has been used to considerably worsen the position of the civilian population by blocking the entry of fuel into areas controlled by Ansarallah, involving between 70 to 80 per cent of the population. 

Presently, 70 percent of Yemen’s import pass through Hodeidah port – which is controlled by Ansarallah. In 2021, Saudi Arabia restricted the entry of fuel into Hodeidah. From January 28th until March 21st, no fuel was allowed into Hodeidah. Between January and October 2021, there was a 70 percent decline in fuel imports compared to 2020, according to the World Food Programme November 2021 update.

Saudi Arabia “allows” 45,000 metric toons of fuel imports a month, this is compared to the pre-conflict need of 544,000 per month.  Lack of fuel reduces transport, and essential services such as hospitals and water provision require imported fuel.

Bruce Riedel, former CIA analyst and advisor on Middle East issues to four US presidents, writes “The blockade is an act of war against the Yemeni people and is directly responsible for the massive humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, especially the malnutrition of children…”, adding that the blockade “should be investigated as a war crime.

Ceasefire or a regroupment pause?

In such horrific conditions an end to military action is a precondition for resolving the humanitarian catastrophe. But there has to remain an element of doubt whether the ceasefire will hold. This is not because of the continuation of local skirmishes, serious though they are. It is because without an inclusive political process the ceasefire will be undermined.

In pursuit of its goals, the Saudi government hosted talks in Riyadh prior to the ceasefire. Ansarallah refused to attend, as it did not accept the Saudi capital as neutral territory. Eventually, the UN ceasefire was mediated in the capital of Oman, Muscat. Oman is not a participant in the coalition’s war, although it remains a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

The Saudi talks included the main Yemeni parties engaged in the coalition’s war. It is clear that the talks were an attempt to unify the anti-Ansarallah forces. The problem has been that these allies have been in serious conflict with each other.  There have been many incidents of armed clashes, including the use of heavy weapons and air strikes.  There have been many attempts to resolve or negotiate out the differences – including the Riyadh agreement in November 2019. That agreement between ex-President Hadi’s forces and the UAE backed separatists in the Southern Transitional Council promised coordination against Ansarallah. But it remained a dead letter as conflicts continued to break out, and coups against each other continued in governorates.

It is a big assumption to make that the Presidential Council marks a qualitative break with this past. The Council is led by Rashad al-Alimi, one of Hadi’s close political advisors since 2014.  He was, like Hadi, associated with the old regime of President Saleh, serving in various security and intelligence roles between 2000 and 2011, the year of Saleh’s fall.

The constitution of the Council, drawn up in the Riyadh talks, gives great powers to the Council’s leader. These include control over political and military affairs of state; setting foreign policy; power over the general command; representation of the “republic” at home and abroad, and powers to appoint governors, judges and the central bank governor. None of which have been given by a representative body of Yemenis in Yemen.

Nor does this leader offer early confidence in his statecraft.  As reported in Al Araby website on 17th April, he stated “Our first option is peace, but we are ready for war”. And more clearly :”We believe the council is in a position, with coalition support, to score a decisive military victory.”  In the eighth year of war, the new leader believes a “decisive victory” is possible despite it having eluded all coalition efforts to date.

The Council itself reflects division as much as unity. There are four members from the north – three associated with old regime and one from Al Islah. There are four from the south – split between two UAE aligned and pro-separatist, and two Saudi aligned, including Al-Islah member. While pro-Saudi forces dominate, the fundamental differences in programme threaten the Council’s coherence. There are no women Council members.

A ceasefire creates the best conditions for a positive development.  But the Council has to treat Ansarallah as an irreplaceable partner in making a better future for Yemen.  Continuing with suggestions of “Iran’s proxy terrorists” is useless. If the Council continues to ignore the popular support for Ansarallah, and insists it is the new “legitimate” government then there is no prospect for an inclusive peace process to reinforce the ceasefire.

Legitimacy and otherwise

None of this has prevented the coalition’s backers from enthusiastically endorsing the Saudi-engineered Council. The EU ambassadors to Yemen were quick to endorse, as was US Secretary of State Blinken. 

In the UNSC meeting on 14th April, Martin Griffiths said the establishment of the Council, and an offer of $3 billion economic aid from the Gulf Co-operation Council, would set Yemen on a positive course. Hans Grunberg, UN Special Representative for Yemen, welcomed Hadi’s delegation of his powers as “an important step in efforts to foster stability and an inclusive Yemeni-led and owned political settlement”. 

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador, welcomed the formation of the Council.  She could not resist attacking Russia for making the situation in Yemen “even worse” because of the rise in wheat prices from the war in Ukraine.  She did not refer to the US role since 2015 in maintaining the siege and war on Yemen. Barbara Woodward, British ambassador to the UN, praised the creation of the Council, and ex-President Hadi for facilitating the “peaceful transfer of power”.

This warm glow doesn’t merely fog over the tensions within the Council.  More importantly, it also passes over entirely the failure of UN, US, EU and UK policy since 2015.  Not only is Hadi’s “legitimate” government not restored. But also this figurehead is now under arrest in Riyadh while material is being put together for a corruption trial.  A Saudi committee has been set up to investigate Hadi family holdings in Saudi banks and the National Bank of Egypt, apparently in preparation of confiscations.

Some obvious issues appear. Given the vast resources available to the intelligence services of the coalition and its backers, why have they just discovered their leader of choice is corrupt?  He has been resident in Riyadh since 2015, and his government was never popular enough to be stabilised inside Yemen. Equally, and perhaps more importantly, what is the legal basis for the coalition’s continuation of the war, given the evident redundancy of UNSC Res 2216 from 2015?

It is most likely that the supporters of the war in the US, EU, UK and elsewhere will seek to oppose a trial. But really, can we envisage a more ignominious end to the “UN backed” military action? Aren’t the people of Yemen, and elsewhere, owed an explanation for all the lives lost in trying to empower a failed, corrupt politician?

Certainly the anti-war movement must step up its support for ending the war in Yemen. We must continue to demand a ban on all arms sales to the Saudi/UAE coalition until a successful peace process is established in Yemen. Such a process must be agreed and engaged in by the Yemeni people – not figures in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Washington and London.


Old City of Sana’a in Yemen. Copyright: “UNESCO” under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO

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