A 'pause' is not a ceasefire in Yemen war

A 'pause' is not a ceasefire in Yemen war
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The world’s next humanitarian crisis is delayed — but perhaps only by a week or so. The level of fighting in the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah has abated temporarily. Forces of the internationally-recognized government, led and supported by the United Arab Emirates, are observing a unilateral “pause” in their advance on the strategic port through which much of the country’s vital food imports pass.

Since June 23, the UAE has been giving United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths a chance to make peace. Foreign governments have been told that the “standstill” lasts for “seven to 10 days,” implying until June 30 through July 3. So far, there has been no breakthrough. The UAE is insisting the Houthi tribesmen who seized power in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2014 give up control of Hudaydah. The Houthis, backed by Iran, are showing no willingness to do so.

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At stake is the well-being of around 20 million people, the bulk of Yemen’s population who live in the Houthi-controlled part of the country. Most are dependent on food imports, if not humanitarian aid. Aid agencies have warned that as many as 250,000 people could face starvation if the crisis worsens.

 

Latest reports from the front line suggest a messy situation. The Emirati-led forces continue to control Hudaydah’s airport on the fringes of the city but are contested by Houthi fighters holed up in the adjoining suburbs. The “standstill” is not a “ceasefire.”

According to a video report by the Middle East correspondent for the London Times, UAE officials initially saw the Hudaydah operation as lasting six weeks. The operation to seize the airport took a week, implying another five weeks to go, now delayed by the standstill. The UAE’s challenge, assuming no Houthi concessions, is to advance from positions to the south of the Red Sea port to either seize Hudaydah port, which lies on the northern side of the city, or cut off the road inland towards the capital.

Reality is often different from self-perception. The UAE military basks in its “Little Sparta” description once offered by James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Air Force outlines plan for biggest force since end of Cold War | Trump admin slashes refugee cap | Mattis accuses Russia of meddling in Macedonia's NATO bid It’s long past time to tie the president’s hands Mattis warns of Russian meddling in Macedonia's bid for NATO: report MORE before he became U.S. defense secretary. A contemporary rating awards a more nuanced level of competence, although still better than the performance of the Saudi military, the UAE’s allies in Yemen. Notionally, Houthi forces are being confronted by a “Saudi-led” coalition, although Saudi forces, other than air strikes of questionable accuracy, apparently are absent in the current operation.

We are not apparently on the cusp of any resolution to the Yemen crisis. The Houthi tribesmen are judged as being breakable from their Iranian links, but not this time around. The UAE and Saudi Arabia appear to be continuing their demand of forcing the Houthis out of the capital and back to their traditional stronghold of Saada in the hills to the north.

Meanwhile, the Iranian dimension continues to loom. Last Sunday, Saudi Arabia reported another two missiles targeted on Riyadh, its capital, from Houthi-controlled territory. The missiles were either Iranian or Iranian-modifications of Yemeni stock, seized by the Houthis when they first took Sanaa. Either way, it is not good, although governments that track such events, and have the capabilities to do so, say only one missile actually may have fired. The videoed fireworks of the event, and the missile wreckage that landed on the Saudi capital’s diplomatic quarter, may have been the result of the U.S.-supplied anti-missile Patriots falling to earth. (American protocol is two Patriots for each incoming missile. The Saudis appear to have launched five.)

Where is the Yemen war heading, and what can the United States do to solve it? It started as a regional confrontation, as a consequence of Saudi intervention regarded as impulsive. It now is a “perfect storm” involving the regional adversaries of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran.  The non-Yemeni parties want defeat and/or humiliation of their rivals.

Washington’s concerns have two dimensions. Congress is concerned about American munitions causing civilian casualties. The Trump administration wants to support its Saudi and Emirati allies, which are useful — even critical — to other aspects of U.S. Middle East policy.

The ultimate ending of the crisis has several crucial ingredients: secure borders for the countries in the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula, the end of Iranian meddling, and much reduced concern about the humanitarian situation. UN Special Envoy Griffiths is the lead in trying to narrow the differences, but nobody should hold their breath that he will succeed anytime soon.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.