Yemen and the COVID-19 Conundrum?
For more than five years, Yemen has been the scene of a multifacted civil war spurred by the takeover of much of the country and the ouster of its internationally recognized government, by Ansar Allah, popularly known as the Houthis, an armed group that fought a series of wars with the central government in the first decade of the 2000s. The conflict has pushed already impoverished Yemen’s fragile economy to the brink, spurring one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, which has only been deepened by the varied divides between different key conflict parties and their associated institutions.
In that sense, its unsurprising that the entry of COVID has struck the country hard. With a dearth of tests and the beleaguered nature of Yemen’s medical sector, it is a fool’s errand even to attempt to divine infection and mortality statistics; a trickle of testing kits have only just begun to arrive to the country. Nonetheless, even a cursory glance of Yemeni social media reveals the scale of the crises. Yemeni social media has become a marathon of digital dirges, as virus has struck down scores of Yemenis even from comparatively well-off backgrounds seemingly at random.
Yemen’s civil war may have yielded disparate zones of political and military control in the north and south of the country, but COVID-19’s spread has been nearly universal. Both Aden and Sanaa have been hit hard. Cases are increasingly appearing in comparatively isolated and rural areas. Regardless of conflict parties’ differences, the virus constitutes a shared threat: even if conflict lines in Yemen currently divide everything from roads to families, they have done little to halt the spread of the virus.
This sense of collective danger—and its associated appeal to a sense of collective responsibility—has served as a key impetus behind UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ ongoing diplomatic push. Piggybacking on UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres’ call for a global COVID-19-related ceasefire, Griffiths has engaged in the COVID-era equivalent of shuttle diplomacy- a barrage of videocalls with politicians, officials, and regional stakeholders, many of whom are themselves confined owing to widespread quarantine measures, aiming to do what he can to close the gaps between key figures—particularly the Yemeni government and the Houthis—and pave the way for another round of peace talks despite the less than ideal circumstances.
On the one hand, there has been some progress. On April 9, Saudi Arabia declared a unilateral ceasefire in line with Griffiths’ efforts. Various key parties have maintained engagement with the special envoy’s office, which he has publicly cast as fruitful. The International Initiative on Covid-19 in Yemen (IICY) has seen the UN team up with the Yemeni and international private sector partners to provide COVID relief, providing tens of thousands of test kits to the country.
On the other hand, however, fighting has continued on multiple fronts, and in some cases surged. The Houthis continue their offensive on Marib, one of the Yemeni governments key remaining strongholds in the north near Sanaa. Notably renewed push by the Houthis saw a return of repeated Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa and other parts of the country starting the week of the 15th, while the coalition has continued to provide logistical support to allied forces on the ground. The landlocked province of al-Bayda, south of Marib, has seen coalition-backed forces make concerted pushes across multiple frontlines, in an apparent attempt to ease pressure on Marib, while the Houthis struggle to sustain non-aggression pacts with local tribes aggrieved by their heavy-handedness in the area; fierce fighting has also continued to flare in the neighboring province of al-Dhale.
Meanwhile, the government continues to spar with the separatists the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Aden and Abyan. There has even been a bold—and, as yet, mysterious—assassination attempt targeting Faraj Salmayn al-Bahsani, the widely respected governor of the strategic province of Hadramawt. The pandemic may well have led to an exponential rise in infection rate, but this has not dampened aggression on the battlefield.
"Perceived failings in the implementation of the 2018 Stockholm agreement continue to shape Yemeni perspectives on internationally mediated deal-making. The Yemeni government remains deeply reluctant to engage in anything resembling Stockholm, which they cast as a piecemeal initiative"
This underlines the wider dichotomy of the COVID crisis. COVID has worsened Yemen’s dire humanitarian crisis, which was itself engendered directly and indirectly by the civil war. The pandemic adds yet another deadly threat to the lives of Yemen’s already impoverished and war-wracked population. It further stifles the country’s limited economic output, rendering even local marketplaces dangerous breeding ground for the virus. Still, it has not reshaped the lines of the conflict. By and large, the wider interests, aims and calculations of the key players remain the same.
Perceived failings in the implementation of the 2018 Stockholm agreement continue to shape Yemeni perspectives on internationally-mediated deal-making. The Yemeni government remains deeply reluctant to engage in anything resembling Stockholm, which they cast as a piecemeal initiative that failed to achieve what they saw as its core purpose: to restore the government’s sovereign authority over the port city. They argue that the deal has only served to further entrench the Houthis in the key port of Hudayda, and demand a comprehensive plan built around their legal authority.
The Houthis interpreted Stockholm as sustaining their control of Hodeida via local security forces, and also reject piecemeal initiatives as insufficient. They also demand a comprehensive settlement, albeit one that largely converts their de facto authority into de jure sovereignty. They also remain wedded to demands that the coalition and the government have not yet been willing to meet, most notably the lifting of blockages on air and sea travel into areas of their control. Despite the urgency of the crisis, these wider parameters have not budged.
In many regards, the COVID crisis has come to be seen by Yemen’s various conflict parties as doing more to demonstrate the near impossibility of cooperation with their adversaries rather than underlining a need to make the concessions necessary for peace. Indeed, if anything, the rhetoric on the pandemic underlines how flawed governance and weak public service provisions are transmuted through the prism of political polarization, despite efforts by the technocrats--including, for example, Prime Minister Main Abdulmalek—to prioritize stabilization and the rebuilding of key institutions.
Some observers expected that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE might rethink their involvement in Yemen given their own ongoing economic and health crises. But such a retrenchment is both unlikely and, for that matter, unlikely to bring about an end to the war. For Saudi Arabia, especially, achieving a favorable resolution of the war in Yemen remains a non-negotiable matter of national security. Key Yemeni power brokers, also, prioritize the war effort over confronting the virus, regarding their adversaries as a greater existential threat.
That’s not to say that belligerents have ignored the COVID-19 outbreak. The STC and the Yemeni government have traded blame regarding the dire situation in Aden, especially after the STC unilaterally declared “self-administration” in the south. The Houthi’s fumbling of the outbreak in Sanaa, similarly, has spurred a backlash. Many Yemenis have accused the Houthis of failing to adequately confront the epidemic. Houthi leaders publicly and privately griped regarding what they’ve claimed is insufficient international support or blamed Saudi Arabia for introducing the disease.
It’s an understatement to say Griffiths and his team have a tough road ahead of them as they aim to fulfill the UN Special Envoy’s mission of ending the ongoing conflict and returning Yemen to its long-scuttled, post 2011 transition. While COVID-19 may provide a potential entre point for talks, it has, not substantially shifted the calculations of key players in Yemen to the extent that they are demonstrably willing to make the concessions necessary to make peace or even to make the shift towards de-escalation. Griffiths may yet succeed in bringing Yemeni factions and their outside backers them to the digital negotiating table. But the differences not just in their aims for the present, but their visions for the shape of future Yemeni state, will make de-escalation, much less a full peace, an uphill battle.
Fellow, New America Foundation
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Bernstein Fellow, Washington Institute