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Yemen sees little hope for end to war in 2023

Kersten Knipp DW

During this past year, a cease-fire gave ordinary Yemenis some respite from violence. But warring parties did not extend their agreement and 2023 is likely to hold more violence and humanitarian disaster for the country.

It’s been difficult to find any kind of long-lasting peace in Yemen this year, despite the brief hope offered by a cease-fire negotiated between the two parties — the Houthis and the forces belonging to the internationally recognized government. The cease-fire, first agreed in the spring and extended several times, lapsed in October when the two sides couldn’t come to further agreement on it.

Despite the fragility of the agreement, it did give ordinary Yemenis some respite. According to the United Nations, there were no major military operations in the war and a 60% decrease in casualties.

Yemen at war since 2014
Saudi Arabia’s government is leading an international alliance against the insurgent Houthis, who control large parts of northern Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa. The Houthi rebels are supported by Iran, and what was originally a domestic conflict has evolved into a larger international struggle between the two geopolitical rivals in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The head of the internationally-recognized government, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, left power in a move orchestrated by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in April and was replaced by an eight-member Presidential Leadership Council. The new council was supposed to negotiate with the Houthi rebels on a comprehensive solution to Yemen’s civil war, which began in 2014. But this did not happen.

Damaged vehicles and Yemeni kids are seen after an attack.Damaged vehicles and Yemeni kids are seen after an attack.
More than 12 million children in Yemen are in need for food, water, shelter and medicineImage: Abdulnasser Alseddik/AA/picture alliance
Negotiations failed mainly because of the Houthis, said Jens Heibach, a research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, and an expert on Yemen. “They are in a strong position because of the way the war has developed up until now,” he told DW. “The Houthis were making maximalist demands. For example, they said the internationally recognized government should also pay the salaries for troops fighting on the Houthi side in the future. Of course, the government couldn’t accept that.”

The extent to which the war in Yemen is being fueled by external sources was shown at the beginning of December, thanks to the discovery of weapons on a fishing boat heading from Iran to Yemen, that was intercepted by the US Navy. Onboard, among other things, were a million rounds of ammunition, rocket fuses and fuel.

The fact that Yemen has turned into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran makes it difficult for anybody to reach an agreement, Heibach said.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s civilian population continues to suffer. More than 11,000 children have been injured or killed since fighting escalated in 2015, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund reported in mid-December.

A worker carries a sack of wheat flour outside a wholesale food shop in Sanaa, Yemen.A worker carries a sack of wheat flour outside a wholesale food shop in Sanaa, Yemen.
In 2021, an estimated 46% of Yemen’s wheat imports came from Ukraine and RussiaImage: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS
According to other UN figures, around 375,000 people, or 1.25% of the total population, have been killed by wartime violence since 2015. More still have died due to hunger or disease.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs continues to call the situation in Yemen the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, one that is further exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and resulting grain shortages. Until the start of the war in Ukraine, Yemen was importing almost half of its grain from Russia and Ukraine.

Little is likely to change in the near future in terms of the Houthis’ dominance, said Heibach. “They have consolidated their power in the north and that won’t change any time soon,” he said. “Everything the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has done has ultimately only led to a further expansion of the Houthis’ power.”

Heibach believes the war in Yemen will only end once external actors stop supporting the two sides inside the country.

Saudi efforts to defeat the Houthis have been mostly unsuccessful in changing the course of the war. In many cases, they have only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis inside the country. In fact, according to a report in Foreign Affairs magazine in December, the Saudis have only pushed the Houthis closer to their sponsor, Iran. That, in turn, has made the Houthis stronger as their military capabilities have increased.

According to an analysis by the European Council on Foreign Relations, this also makes it possible for

Iran to put more pressure on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their military ally, the US, via the Houthis.

Iran under pressure
So what can be done? According to the analysts at Foreign Affairs magazine, it is essential to bring together the representatives from both sides, along with other groups, such as those working for women’s rights or civil society actors. So far these have not been particularly well-represented in negotiations. Anything less would simply be repeating plans that have already failed, the writers argued.

Policemen inspect the site of Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen.Policemen inspect the site of Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen.
Analysts estimate around 24,000 people have been killed by air attacks in Sanaa aloneImage: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS
At the moment, Iran is coming under increasing international pressure because of the way the Iranian leadership is cracking down on pro-democracy protests inside its own country. It also faces censure because it is selling drones and missiles to Russia, in support of the war in Ukraine. The European Union has placed further sanctions on Iran as a result. And talks around the controversial nuclear agreement with Iran have stalled yet again.

However, none of this is likely to motivate Iran to end its sponsorship of the Houthis and therefore the devastating war in Yemen. As long as it goes on, the Houthis remain a tried and tested way for Iran to continue to put pressure on the international community.

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