Unstable Stability in Yemen is Unfamiliar, Welcome Territory

Unstable Stability in Yemen is Unfamiliar, Welcome Territory

As a fortunate consequence of the all-around unfortunate Jamal Khashoggi debacle, the United States appears to be finally committed – like, actually committed – to relinquishing their role in the Yemen conflict that will, regardless of who “wins”, have no winner. 

As of December, 17,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed as the result of fighting between the Saudi-led coalition – who have had varying levels of support from the U.S., until now – and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The fighting has come at the total expense of those caught in the middle, with both warring factions essentially vowing to continue to the death. The result has been not only death, but displacement into living conditions that are squalid even for a nation already as impoverished as Yemen.

Even before the war, Yemen was the poorest nation in all of the Arab world, with 41% of Yemeni civilians struggling to find a meal on a daily basis. One in five Yemeni girls are married off before the age of 15. Roughly half of Yemeni women are illiterate. Roughly half of all Yemeni children are stunted because of malnutrition. Again, these sad facts were all true before the war broke out. It is reasonable to believe that all of these figures – perhaps with the exception of marriage rates and illiteracy – have been worsened due to the constant shelling and threat of violence that Yemenis have lived under for four-plus years. 

When the government of Yemen officially fell, the nation fell from tentative misery into complete and utter chaos. Women resigned to refugee camps are too malnourished to breastfeed, and children are constantly being shuttled in and out of ill-equipped medical facilities. Since the outbreak of the conflict, a dire situation has worsened to depths previously unimaginable, with an estimated 85,000 children dying from starvation due in large part to poverty exacerbated by the warfare. 

There were few reasons to believe that the plight of dying children would lead either Saudi Arabia or Iran to stop funding the conflict. Both sides are in a constant struggle for influence in the region, with the sworn enemies valuing land more than lives – as proven by the continued fighting despite worsening conditions on the ground. And, until recently, the United States and other Saudi Arabian and Iranian allies had no claim to innocence in the matter. But the tides appear to be changing, which is a massive sign for optimism, even if it is very, very tentative optimism.

In November, amid the Jamal Khashoggi controversy, the United States’ public admonishment included a commitment to end refueling missions for the fighter jets that are a part of the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen. Though the decision was presented as a mutual agreement made possible because Saudi Arabia had increased its own military capabilities, observers pointed out that limiting refueling would hamstring the distance Saudi jets can travel and how heavy a payload they can carry. Considering the timing – international pressure to condemn the Crown Prince remained high – it’s fair to see the decision as one of distancing. And also, as a step in the right direction.

More positives remained on the horizon with respect to the conflict in Yemen. On December 12th, the United States Senate voted to withdraw support for the Saudi Arabian coalition. While it is a shame that it took the death of an American journalist to tip the cup in the camp of withdrawing support – not the tens of thousands of dead children who had died in the interim – it constituted progress.

Mild progress, at that. It was, at the end of the day, a message, and little more.

‘While setting up a clash between the Senate and Trump administration, the resolution is unlikely to affect U.S. military policy in the region. 

“It’s important to send a message,” Mr. Sanders told reporters before the vote, adding that it could come up next year. “My very strong expectation is that in January, with Democratic control over the House, it will succeed.”’ (Wall Street Journal)

Even with these positive steps, any real move towards tentative peace would have to be spearheaded, or at least agreed to, by the warring forces doing the actual fighting. And, in December, that is what happened – to the shock of many.

‘Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels agreed Thursday to a cease-fire in an embattled port city… a result of the first direct talks between the sides in two years…The Houthis agreed to withdraw troops from the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, a conduit for 70% of Yemen’s imports and a major source of rebel income, where fierce fighting has complicated efforts to get food to the country’s starving population. The United Nations will oversee the cease-fire.’ (WSJ)

Tentative, to be sure. But progress; the most tangible, promising step towards de-escalation that the region has seen since the outbreak of the war in 2014. Those who doubt that peace will be established or last are not skeptical, they’re realistic. Yemen’s war-torn past and present are a testament to this. 

But, the idea that anything resembling a string of positive occurrences with respect to Yemen would be occurring in 2018 was beyond the realm of plausibility only months ago. Yet, that is what appears to be happening. The wounds of war don’t just go away. Child soldiers don’t simply return to playing in the schoolyard unaffected. And food isn’t going to just start growing out of the barren desert sand once the shooting starts. 

But, when it comes to Yemen, we have to take whatever straws of progress can be grasped. Hold on tight, they could slip away at any moment. 

Just shy of two weeks into the month of December, a tentative ceasefire was reached between the warring coalitions.