Yemen’s Houthis Maintain Upper Hand, as Peace Talks Proceed
Monday, July 22, 2019
GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.
Conditions seem to be ripening for the war in Yemen, which has ravaged the country since 2015, to come to an end. The US is the largest provider of arms to the Saudi-led coalition that is waging the war, and the US House of Representatives voted this week to halt arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. The US is the main supplier of munitions and intelligence to Saudi Arabia in this war effort. Also, the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, announced last week that it will withdraw its forces from Yemen where it was providing a majority of the ground forces fighting against Yemen’s Houthi ethnic group, which controls most of the country.
On Sunday, representatives of the Yemen government, which is supported by the Saudi coalition, met with Houthi officials on a ship off the coast of the city of Hodeidah under UN mediation. The two sides agreed to withdraw forces from the port city, which plays a key role in allowing aid shipments to enter Yemen to sustain the population with food and medicine. However, six months ago, a ceasefire had been reached before, which was rapidly violated. But even if the Hodeidah port is reopened, will there be enough food for the population? UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Rodney Hunter, spoke on Thursday about Saudi Arabia and the UAE withholding much-needed aid from Yemen. Here’s what he said.
RODNEY HUNTER, SENIOR US DIPLOMAT At the high-level pledging event for this year’s Humanitarian Response Plan, which the Secretary-General convened in February, so six months ago, donors pledged $2.6 billion. Twenty-seven of the 40 donors who pledged have paid more than 75% of their pledges, and 20 of those donors have paid 100%, and in some cases even more. But those who made the largest pledges— Yemen’s neighbors in the coalition— have so far paid only a modest proportion of what they promised. And as a result, the response plan is currently just 34% funded compared as I said to 60% this time last year.
GREG WILPERT Joining me now to discuss the latest developments in the Yemen war is Patrick Cockburn. He’s an award-winning journalist and longtime correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He’s also the author of several books on Middle East politics. The most recent one being, The Age of Jihad. Thanks for joining us today, Patrick.
PATRICK COCKBURN Thank you.
GREG WILPERT So how stable is the new limited ceasefire in your opinion? There was a report in the Chinese media the other day that it had already been broken, and that five Houthi and three pro-government soldiers were killed. But the UN says that the ceasefire continues to hold. What’s your perception of what’s going on?
PATRICK COCKBURN Yeah. There is a ceasefire, but it’s a ceasefire in the middle of a very messy war, you know, with groups, sort of, very close together with a front line that extends a very long distance. So it’s a ceasefire, which means there’s a lot less violence. It doesn’t mean that there’s no shooting at all.
GREG WILPERT Now, the Houthi rebels have been able to maintain their side of the war and their territory against the much better equipped Saudi-led coalition forces. Now that the UAE is withdrawing its ground forces, can one say that the Houthis are actually winning this war? And what role are the Sudanese forces, which are said to number 30,000, playing in all of this?
PATRICK COCKBURN Well, the Houthis haven’t lost, which is the main fact about this. Remember that in 2015 when Crown Prince— well, now he’s Crown Prince— Mohammad bin Salman started this war, he was the Saudi Defense Minister at the time and was bidding to become the effective ruler of the country. He expected and they said they expected an immediate victory. He had himself pictured in military uniform. This was to be a victory that was to assist him in his grab for power and it’s never happened. They’re still there four years later despite pressure from Saudi Arabia mainly in the form of aerial bombing. We’ve had 90,000 people killed in Yemen. We have millions of people on the edge of starvation. We have an enormous cholera epidemic, which is worse this year. Half a million people have it, more than last year.
So the Houthis have managed to survive although they’re pretty isolated. They’re often referred to as the Iranian-backed Houthis. But in terms of military equipment, there’s very little backing from Iran, the place the weapons come from. Yemen has always been a very big arms market. They buy the weapons. So they’ve, sort of, won by not losing. The UAE, the United Arab Emirates, has achieved its war aims largely, and it’s also just fed up with being caught up in this stalemate. So they are withdrawing or have withdrawn already.
GREG WILPERT Well, that’s an interesting question that you bring up. I mean, you said that the UAE achieved its war aims. What were those aims?
PATRICK COCKBURN Well, they wanted to get substantive control of the Port of Aden, one already big port at the mouth of the Red Sea. They’ve sort of done that. They wanted to get—Yemen used to be two countries with South Yemen and North Yemen up to 1990 when they united, but they later fought a civil war when the south tried to secede. But it looks as though the south will be a pretty independent entity in the future and will be quite likely as a protectorate of the UAE, the United Arab Emirates. They also got the island of Socotra off the coast, which gives the United Arab Emirates another position. There hasn’t actually been any war there, but the UAE landed forces there have taken over the island. So Aden, substantial control over most of the southern half of Yemen, and Socotra— those are the things they were after from the beginning and they’ve got them. So I think they just don’t want to be in this quagmire with Saudi Arabia, which they don’t really need to be in the future.
GREG WILPERT And is there anything you can say about the Sudanese forces? I mean, they’re supposed to be something like 30,000. And of course, now with a possible transition happening in Sudan towards civilian rule, these could possibly be withdrawn. That is, if there is an actual transition, which is still a little bit shaky. But if that were to happen, I mean, what role are these Sudanese forces playing?
PATRICK COCKBURN Well, they were basically paid to go there by Saudi Arabia. And so, really that’s, you know, cash down and the Sudanese forces went. The US seems to have assented to this and made various concessions to Sudan. But with the turmoil in Khartoum, with a democratic uprising against the military who’ve been misruling it for so long, obviously that’s in doubt. The presence of the Sudanese forces is in doubt.
GREG WILPERT Now, as I mentioned in the introduction, the US Congress voted this week to block arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition forces. But Trump will probably veto the resolution and it’s unlikely that there will be enough votes in Congress to override his veto. And earlier in last April, Congress already invoked the War Powers Act to stop US support for the Saudi war effort, but Trump vetoed that too. But if by chance Congress were able to block US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, what effect would that have on the war? Would the Saudis be able to continue it?
PATRICK COCKBURN They probably would, but I think it’s already had an effect. You shouldn’t underestimate that. The Saudis would look to the US to take the place of the United Arab Emirates in that coalition fighting the Houthis in the northern part of Yemen. And it seems to me doubtful that Trump could do that. Not only ignore or veto what Congress has said about the Yemen War, but actually increase US involvement. So that doesn’t seem to be a goer, so that’s going to have a significant effect. Although, Saudi Arabia really had this war on the cheap. Not financially, but it’s been mainly dropping bombs. It’s been—There’s good evidence that they’ve been targeting Yemeni fishing boats, off shore farms, water sources, that they’ve launched an attack on the civilian infrastructure, but they haven’t had ground forces or many of their own troops on the ground in Yemen. So there’s a vacuum left by the Emirates forces withdrawing, so they might have looked to the US to help them there. But because of the pressure in Congress that’s to some degree bipartisan with Republicans involved as well as Democrats, you know, this will make it more difficult for the US to increase its engagement. So I think that is an important factor.
GREG WILPERT Now, the UN strategy seems to be to go from a ceasefire to an actual peace treaty. Do you think that a peace treaty is realizable in the foreseeable future?
PATRICK COCKBURN It may be pretty difficult because this war, you know, has quite a number of fronts. The Yemen government is called really a stooge of Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are a very, sort of, military movement. They won’t necessarily be [inaudible] for peace at this moment. So I think it’d be difficult to do. Also, you know, you’ve got forces all along the line engaged with each other, are very suspicious of each other. So we’ve seen that in Hodeidah where there was a, sort of, withdrawal by the Houthis, but the Saudis and others said they’d left allies behind. There’s still fighting going on there. So it could be a very difficult ceasefire or peace agreement to police.
GREG WILPERT Okay. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Patrick Cockburn longtime correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. Thanks again, Patrick, for having joined us today.
PATRICK COCKBURN Thank you.
GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.