Catching up: Yemen

Again, I’m trying to get back to some regular blogging after an extended break. But in order to do that, I’ve got to make some sense of what’s been going on while I’ve been away–for my own sake far more than for yours. This is part of a series of pieces in which I’ll try to do that.

When I started this series I figured it would take a week, tops, before I was finished and back to regular programming. But damned if it isn’t hard writing these recaps, and with other writing to do and family obligations, and on and on, it’s been hard to pump these things out there as quickly as I’d like. But we’re getting there. Be patient with me.

The state of Yemen’s civil war as of May 3 (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

Anyway, let’s talk about Yemen, which, like Syria was a couple of weeks ago, is currently in the midst of a ceasefire that hasn’t really resulted in the cessation of any firing:

The familiar thud of shelling echoed off the mountains that cradle this besieged and ravaged city. For a few terrifying minutes, a warplane circled over neighborhoods and humming afternoon markets before dropping a bomb that momentarily silenced the guns.

But the fighting never stops for long in Taiz, or across Yemen for that matter, a country that has endured 14 months of shattering civil war.

Yemen’s government and its main opponents, the Houthi rebels, have been negotiating for weeks to end the conflict, under intense pressure from the United States and from other Western nations alarmed that Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is gaining recruits, weapons and money in the midst of the country’s collapse.

A frenzied escalation of violence over the last few days is threatening a nationwide cease-fire that was supposed to build confidence for the talks. The bloodshed has laid bare the furious rivalries — between aging warlords, tribes, Islamist groups and regional powers — that are making Yemen’s hostilities almost impossible to stop.

The Saudi-led, American-enabled intervention to reinstall President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has gone in phases: initially it seemed to be accomplishing nothing but creating more carnage, but then some rapid gains on the ground restored the port city of Aden to Hadi’s control and led to his return from self-imposed exile. For the past several months, though, the fighting has bogged down around Taiz and the war has entered a very bloody, seemingly very intractable stalemate. The longer that stalemate persists, the more reports crop up about mysterious Salafi forces fighting in Taiz who may have ties–ideological if not operational–to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But despite the continued fighting, one thing that the Yemeni civil war has on the Syrian civil war is that there actually are direct, face-to-face peace talks going on right now in Kuwait between the Hadi-Saudi (government) and Houthi-Saleh (rebel) belligerents. Those talks started in mid-April, hit a snag at the beginning of this month when Houthi forces seized a Yemeni military base and the Hadi-Saudi side pulled out in protest, then got started again three days later. The two sides just within the past day have reportedly agreed to a major prisoner swap (“major” meaning “hundreds” of prisoners will be involved) that will take place within the next 20 days. That’s not an end to the fighting, but it’s not nothing, either. It’s the kind of diplomatic achievement upon which negotiators can build. But further progress in the negotiations is far from a sure thing. The immediate sticking point seems to be over the order in which things should proceed–Hadi wants the rebels to disarm and stand down before talks move forward, while the Houthis would like to hang on to their guns until after a new government has been formed, thank you very much.

As has been the case for most of the war and certainly since the Saudis got involved, the only party that can really be said to be “winning” this conflict is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Even they’ve suffered a major defeat recently, having lost the port city of Mukalla last month to Yemeni and Emirati troops. The capture of Mukalla was AQAP’s biggest win of the war, so losing it hurts. But where the loss of a big city like that would be a massive setback for an organization with explicit expansionist goals like ISIS, for AQAP losing a city just means they have to retreat back to the considerable territory they still control–and if they lose that territory, then they can just go back underground. The organization’s focus on providing desperately needed social services in areas under its control has meant that it has a deep well of public support in that part of the country, and that support enables it to survive losses that might confound a more reviled organization, like ISIS. In other words, AQAP isn’t going anywhere, and will continue to fight even after Hadi and the Houthis patch up their differences (assuming they ever do). AQAP’s overall position has strengthened enough that it was reported last Friday that American troops are now on the ground in Yemen providing intel and logistical support to the Saudi coalition to help it take on the terror network’s forces. They were involved in the operation to liberate Mukalla, for example. This is supposed to be a “short-term” deployment, which is good news because those never wind up spiraling out of control.

There’s probably a joke to be made about how the US, in order to salvage a more or less catastrophically bad (from the American perspective) intervention that couldn’t have been undertaken without American assistance in the first place, has now doubled down on said intervention rather than getting the hell out of it, but frankly nothing about the Saudi intervention is a laughing matter. Since the Saudis intervened last March over 3000 Yemeni civilians have been killed, the vast majority by Saudi airstrikes, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis are either starving or at risk of starvation, and 2.5 million Yemenis have been displaced. Through it all, despite the fact that Saudi actions here have materially harmed American national interests, the US has continued to sell weapons to the Saudis, to provide Saudi pilots with targeting information, and to throw its weight around at the UN in order to prevent any serious investigation of possible Saudi war crimes. Among those possible war crimes is the Saudis’ use of American-made cluster bombs, which are banned by treaty (a treaty that the Saudis and the US haven’t signed, go figure) because of the fact that they do most of their damage to civilian populations.


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