Yemen’s agony tops global crisis list

Special to

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS —The continuing crisis in Yemen, a country beset with tribal fault-lines, jolted by sectarian clashes, and magnified by a clash of cultures between Arab monarchies and the Islamic Republic of Iran, has shaken the Arabian peninsula to the core.

Now after five years of warfare between a teetering central government and Iranian backed rebels, an already battered and impoverished land has now emerged as the world’s leading humanitarian crisis.

Yemen slipped into chaos in Autumn of 2014 when the Houthi militants, seized the capital, and subsequently control of the government.

Earlier this year UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned, “Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. As the conflict enters its fourth year, more than 22 million people, three-quarters of the population, need humanitarian aid and protection.”

Tragically the situation has only worsened with punishing rounds of Saudi Arabian airstrikes on the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents. Civilians comprise the tragic collateral damage of a conflict which has expanded ever since 2011when the so-called Arab Spring triggered revolts.

According to the UN, seventy-five percent of the population, 22 million people, need some form of humanitarian assistance and protection.

Yemen slipped into chaos in Autumn of 2014 when the Houthi militants, seized the capital, and subsequently control of the government.

A lethal proxy war has emerged in fractured Yemen between the central government composed of largely Sunni Muslims supported by the Saudis and an Arab coalition and the Shiite rebels backed by Islamic Iran.

Yemen slipped into chaos in Autumn of 2014 when the Houthi militants, seized the capital, and subsequently control of the government.The rebels hold the capital Sanaa while the government holds the strategic port of Aden. The country remains effectively divided.

A recent Security Council briefing highlighted the depth of the humanitarian crisis. The Famine Early Warning Systems Networks, which is supported by the United States warned,
“Yemen faces the largest food security emergency in the world, and the worsening humanitarian outlook requires urgent action to reduce the likelihood of significant loss of life.” Yemen’s food security was characterized as facing a “Catastrophic deterioration.”

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator, told the Council, “From the two famines declared this century, in Somalia in 2011 and in South Sudan in 2017, a very painful lesson is that most fatalities occur before the famine is declared.” He added, “I am not saying that widespread famine has already taken hold in Yemen. But that is what we are trying to prevent.”

Nonetheless Mr. Lowcock advised, “It is abundantly clear that Yemen is already facing mass hunger and severe food insecurity.” He added, “The UN and humanitarian agencies are implementing the largest aid operation in the world, reaching nearly 8 million Yemenis across the country every month.”

Delivering humanitarian aid to the besieged civilians involves open ports, working infrastructure and a viable cease-fire or peace agreement among the warring parties.

UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Council that both the government and the Ansar Allah Houthi rebels are committed to working on a political solution. Both sides made assurances to attend peace talks, though such willingness often disappears as fast as the morning dew.

United Kingdom Amb. Karen Pierce remarked, “it again it bears repeating that only a political solution will actually bring this dreadful conflict to an end.”

Naturally a political compromise is difficult after a bloody knockdown civil war which is as rooted in sectarian Islam as in Yemen’s own quilt of tribal politics.

Interestingly the Sultanate of Oman has quietly served as an honest broker between the Saudis and Iran in this brutal conflict.

Back in the 1960’s former North Yemen was mired in conflict. In this case the Saudis, Jordanians and British backed a monarchist force facing a left wing insurgency supported by Nasser’s Egypt. North and South Yemen were unified only in 1990.

The former Obama Administration once presented Yemen as an shining success story in a turbulent Middle East. That was before the country fell into its current turmoil. When the
Saudi coalition became directly involved in 2015, the U.S. assumed the problem would soon be solved. The Obama Administration shifted to a haphazard hands-off policy.

The Trump team inherited the crisis but then too eagerly embraced the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia while supporting robust counter Al Qaida terrorist actions. But in light of the Saudi’s ham-handed handling of the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. has quietly reappraised policy towards an vital Middle East partner.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated in Washington, “The U.S. calls on all parties to support UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Yemen.” He stressed, “It is time to end this conflict.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]