Yemen – from a ceasefire to a lasting settlement?

By Steve Bell

On June 2nd representatives of Ansarallah (“the Houthis”) and the Saudi led Coalition agreed to a further two month extension of the nationwide ceasefire in Yemen. This follows the establishment of a truce from April 2nd. Clearly this is a welcome development, but will it lead to a lasting settlement?

Since April 2nd, there has been an end to Saudi air strikes on Yemen, and an end to Ansarallah’s drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There continues to be local skirmishes on the ground in Yemen, but generally on a much reduced level.

The original ceasefire was to be accompanied by measures to loosen the external siege imposed by the Coalition; and the internal restrictions on movement imposed by both the Coalition and Ansarallah. At the time of writing, some of these measures have been partially implemented. The Coalition was to allow 18 fuel ships to enter Hodeidah port, 12 so far have got through. The Coalition was to allow 2 civilian flights a week (16 in total) from Sana’a airport, 3 so far have taken off. The internal restrictions have not been lifted by either party.

Evidently, the situation at the start of the new truce is fragile. The UN is assisting in talks in Jordan between the Coalition, Ansarallah and the Presidential Leadership Council. These are focusing on lifting internal restrictions and further military de-escalation. However, what needs to be achieved to secure the peace is an inclusive political process which involves all the Yemeni parties and civil society in rebuilding Yemen. There is no sign of this yet.

The essential problem is that the Coalition, and the US government, are not yet prepared to accept that Ansarallah will have a substantial role in Yemen’s future. President Biden won his election promising to end the war, and make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”. But in power he has accomodated the Saudi regime. At the start of 2021 he stated that the US would end the sale of “offensive” weapons to the Coalition. By the end of 2021 he had put aside such concerns, with a sale of $650 million missiles to the Saudis in December.

As the siege of Yemen has continued, so too has the humanitarian crisis. According to the World Food Programme, out of a population of 32 million, 17 million Yemeni’s are food insecure, with this figure anticipated to rise to 19 million by the end of the year. The UN estimates it requires $4.3 billion for humanitarian assistance, yet has received pledges for less than a third. While the ceasefire certainly improves the conditions under which aid is delivered, it does not resolve the humanitarian catastrophe created by the siege and war.

The immediate danger is that Biden will prioritise the relationship with the Saudi regime over the needs of the Yemeni people. Despite US prompting, the Saudi regime has so far refused to increase oil production. Gas prices at the pump are at a record level in the US. Biden is suffering from a collapse of public support, and facing losses in the mid-term elections. He plans to visit Saudi Arabia in July. Not only does he want to see oil production increased, he also wants to bring the Saudis into the Abraham Accords with Israel. In these circumstances he is likely to be making concessions rather than pressing the Saudis to end the war.

One ray of hope here is that there is a serious move inside the US Congress to end US involvement in the war. On May 31st, Representative Peter DeFazio introduced a resolution that invokes the 1973 War Powers Act to end US military participation in the Yemen war. This is supported by the Congress Progressive Caucus, a bi-partisan group involving 50 representatives. Senator Bernie Sanders has made a commitment to introduce a companion resolution into the Senate, once it is back in session. Previously in 2019, when both houses passed a similar, if less stringent, resolution, President Trump vetoed it. Certainly the new resolution is placing pressure on Biden.

This week the Washington Post and Security Force Monitor published a joint investigation into US involvement in the war. It revealed that the US approved contracts for aircraft, munitions and equipment used by 38 of the Coalition’s 39 airstrike capable squadrons. If Congress can end US support for the war then the Coalition would lose their most vital instrument for sustaining the war.

What happens in the US is likely to be decisive for the truce. The UN is mediating talks but in reality has been unable to decisively influence events since the start of the war in 2015. This is because the US, with UK government support, secured a totally one-sided resolution, UNSC 2216. This directs Ansarallah, who control territory inclusive of 80 percent of Yemen’s population, to withdraw from all territory, disarm, and hand over governance to ex-President Hadi. This ultimatum has meant that no effective diplomacy has been possible in over seven years. The fact that ex-President Hadi is now under house arrest in Saudi Arabia, and facing a corruption trial, appears to have altered things not a jot.

The British government, as UN pen-holder on Yemen, has absolutely failed to progress peace in Yemen. Instead it has happily followed US foreign policy, while selling over £22 billion of military equipment to the Coalition. Unfortunately, since the change in the Labour leadership, it has faced no pressure to alter course. The Labour leadership has tagged behind the Tories in watching every hesitation and twist in Biden’s policy. Since the announcement of the first ceasefire, neither of the Houses of Parliament has found the time to debate Yemen. Waiting for the US reaction appears to be the height of British diplomatic wisdom.

In these circumstances, it is vital that the anti-war and anti-imperialist movement in Britain does what it can to highlight the need for a lasting peace in Yemen. This is best done by demanding an end to all British military and political support for the Coalition’s war.

The above article was originally published here in the journal Liberation.