A powerful country invades its neighbor. The conflict quickly becomes a brutal proxy war. A humanitarian crisis ensues. While much of the world’s attention has been on Ukraine for the past few months, it’s worth checking in on the civil war in Yemen, now in its eighth year. And it may surprise you to know that there is even some good news there these days.
The background, briefly. In 2014, the Houthis, an ultra-conservative Muslim religious group from northern Yemen that has long chafed at centralized rule, seized upon anti-government protests to storm the capital, Sanaa. They quickly took control of broader swaths of the country. The government accused the Houthis of being an Iranian proxy and invited Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with US logistical support, to lead a military coalition against the rebels. Ever since, the two sides have been locked in a brutal war marked by grave human rights abuses on both sides. The conflict has caused what the UN calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
The good news. The fighting has mostly stopped – for now. The two sides are largely respecting a UN-brokered ceasefire from April. Under the agreement, the Saudi-led coalition relaxed its punishing blockade of key Yemeni ports and permitted a limited number of flights to resume between Sanaa and other Arab capitals. But so far the two sides have not been able to agree on a third point, a plan for the Houthis to lift their siege of Taiz, a strategic, government-held city in the southwest.
Still, violence is at its lowest level since the war began. Civilian casualties fell by 50% in the first month of the truce, says Jasmin Lavoie of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sanaa. “When you go home at night, you aren’t afraid of hearing airstrikes,” he says, “and if you live near a front line, you are safer today.”
The bad news. Trust between — and even within — the various parties to the conflict is very low. The official Yemeni government is now run by a new, Saudi-backed Presidential Leadership Council that features a motley crew of politicians and warlords who don’t fully get along with each other.
The Houthis, for their part, are an insular group, who see themselves at war, separately, with their local Yemeni rivals and Saudi Arabia, which they consider a proxy of the hostile West. They have given few clues about what kind of post-war government they’d like to see in Yemen, and it’s not clear they’d accept a power-sharing agreement in which they aren’t functionally in control of Yemen.
A breakthrough on the specific issue of Taiz would go a long way to boosting trust, says Veena Ali-Khan, a Yemen specialist at International Crisis Group. But without that, she says, both sides may quickly decide that “going back to fighting is the best possible outcome.” The deadlocked battle for the vital, oil-rich province of Ma’arib — currently under tenuous government control — could quickly flare again.
A crude offshore timebomb. As if these challenges facing Yemen weren’t enough, an abandoned, badly rusting oil tanker off the Northwest coast threatens to break apart, spilling more than a million barrels of crude into the Red Sea. The warring parties have agreed to allow access to the ship, but the UN has been reduced to crowdfunding to raise the $80 million it needs to offload the oil before disaster strikes. A spill, which would be four times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, would not only wreak havoc on Red Sea marine life, it would send the Yemeni fishing economy belly up for a generation.
Even with the truce, the humanitarian situation is dire. Some 17 million Yemenis struggle to find food daily, says Lavoie. And that number could jump to 19 million by the end of the year as the war in Ukraine interrupts shipments of wheat that Yemen depends on. What’s more, international attention to Ukraine has drawn humanitarian resources away from Yemen and other non-European countries, he says, making it harder to finance aid missions there.
Still the scale of the destruction wrought by both sides — on infrastructure, hospitals, homes, and schools — is so immense that even if there were a lasting peace tomorrow, says Lavoie, “it wouldn’t mean the end of suffering for the Yemeni people.”