The internal war and outside intervention in Yemen appear to go on unabated under the neglectful eye of the Arab world and the international community. The recent armed struggle for Socotra has left the Southern Transitional Council (STC), supported by the United Arab Emirates, in charge of the island. A UNESCO-declared world heritage site, Socotra has been trampled by troops, armored trucks, and tanks, much to the detriment of its fragile ecosystem and historically peaceful population. Battles continue to rage just east of Aden, where STC fighters remain in a stand-off with troops loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government for control of neighboring Abyan province—as part of the overall struggle for the entire south of Yemen. Farther north of Abyan, Houthi/Ansarullah troops are pursuing a months-long attempt to enter the capital of Marib and secure all oil and gas facilities there. To the west of Marib, a tense front still exists around the city of Hodeida, a strategic port for the importation of humanitarian assistance and potential export of oil via the Red Sea.
Of course, all this is aside from the main war between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, which is being conducted by air, land forces, and rocketry over the capital Sanaa, the Houthis’ capital Saadah, and Saudi Arabia’s southern border at al-Jawf governorate. Added to that complex geopolitical picture is a pandemic that is sweeping over all without distinction as to party or regional affiliation. Indeed, there is a clear and full tragedy unfolding in Yemen.
The devastating impact of war, disease, and poverty on the people of Yemen has been compounded by a now widespread epidemic for which the country was ill-prepared. At first, COVID-19 looked like it had somehow spared the country as one Middle Eastern country after another fell prey to the virus in early March. Although lacking reliable information from Yemen itself, international agencies now report that virus-related deaths have very likely exceeded the death toll from the war raging in the country since 2015.
Although lacking reliable information from Yemen itself, international agencies now report that virus-related deaths have very likely exceeded the death toll from the war raging in the country since 2015.
The alarming spread of COVID-19 in Yemen is cause to seriously doubt the sincerity—and even the sanity—of those who pursue victory through war instead of negotiations. This critique includes all sides to the conflict as they continue to give priority to improving their strategic positions on the ground. Numbers vary widely depending on the source of information, but a million infections is not an unreasonable estimate at this point. One thing is certain however: the spread of diseases has overwhelmed the country’s inadequate public health institutions. Instead of dramatically building up Yemen’s capacity and encouraging a coordinated regional and international effort to mitigate the spread of the deadly virus, the Arab coalition fighting the Houthis continues to prosecute the war directly from the air and via proxy forces on the ground. The vast sums being spent on the war primarily by the Arab coalition, if diverted to public health, could save millions of lives currently at risk. The fault, however, belongs to all those trying to fill the void at the center caused by the 2011 revolt, which led to the departure and ultimate demise of the late president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, and his replacement by a weak-to-nonexistent legitimate authority.
Yemeni, Saudi, and Emirati sins
Yemen has fallen into chaos because of the mistakes of an otherwise strong president, the late Ali Abdullah Saleh, who could not find it in himself or his advisors to listen to the protesters and invite them to help transition the country from authoritarianism and corruption into a more democratic and less corrupt system of government. War and chaos also resulted from the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in 2014, reflecting the clumsy efforts of the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council to patch together a new social contract among the various Yemeni factions and regions. None of this was helped with the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s intervention in the country in 2015, ostensibly to repel the Houthi takeover, derail what the Saudis perceived as a growing Iranian menace on their southern border, and restore the internationally recognized government of President Hadi to power. Five years of this war have achieved quite the opposite: the entrenchment of the Houthis in Sanaa, a growing Iranian influence bucking up the Houthis, an increasingly divided country, and a marginalized Hadi government.
Five years of this war have achieved quite the opposite: the entrenchment of the Houthis in Sanaa, a growing Iranian influence bucking up the Houthis, an increasingly divided country, and a marginalized Hadi government.
Whatever the agenda of the Saudi and Emirati leadership, it could not have been pursued without the willing participation of Yemeni militias and armies on the ground. To start with, the Hadi government, living in the lap of luxury courtesy of the Saudi government, has been fighting for a secure foothold inside Yemen and has sought to keep control of Yemen’s central bank holdings. However, it has been unable to do that in either Sanaa (which was taken over by the Houthis) or Aden (where the STC challenges it). Hadi loyalists have been fighting in Marib, trying to fend off Houthi attacks to remain in control of oil and gas facilities in the area. The Hadi forces have also complained of inadequate support from Riyadh, especially because they have to fight on at least two fronts: north with the Houthis and south with the STC and other UAE-supported forces trying to form a separate state there. There are reports of the Saudis’ unhappiness with Hadi’s leadership, that they may be searching for alternatives. Indeed, everyone now questions the Hadi government’s legitimacy as well as the efficacy of continuing to vest this honor upon him when he, like every other major player in Yemen, is struggling to hold on to land and resources.
In fact, the Riyadh Agreement, purportedly a plan to merge the STC with the Hadi government and put an end to bloodshed and chaos in the south, has been suspect in the eyes of Hadi as well as analysts who see it as an abandonment of Hadi in favor of the STC. The hostile takeover of Socotra Island is the most recent example of the STC trying to assert southern independence with clear support from the UAE and suspected connivance from Saudi Arabia. There is no military value to the island for the STC, save that of adding territory to what it already controls in the south, in addition to how the island might help the UAE’s maritime ambitions in the Arabian Sea. It represents, however, a significant defeat for the Hadi government and a further squeezing out of their forces from the south. What is noteworthy here is the withdrawal of the small Saudi force that had gone to the island in 2018 after the UAE sent an expeditionary force, ostensibly to mediate between UAE forces and the island’s population. STC leader Aidarous al-Zubaidi had recently returned from a visit to Riyadh to confer with the Saudi leadership, leading to speculation at the time that the Saudis were lending legitimacy to his desire for an independent southern state.
If the reported Saudi offer of a Riyadh Agreement part II is true, it would shed even more doubt on Saudi intentions and add credibility to reports of their discontinuing support to President Hadi. This offer evidently suggested the STC withdraw its troops from Aden and into Abyan, with no mention of where Hadi’s forces would be deployed. If implemented—and there is no chance of that happening, in any case—it would mean an expansion of STC influence into Abyan, a contested governorate not currently under their control.
Under the best of circumstances and assuming good intentions, Saudi and Emirati leaders are under intensifying pressure to cut their losses in Yemen, given the increasing cost of the war, lower revenue due to the depressed prices of oil, and the vulnerability of their own countries to rocket attacks and land incursions in southern Saudi Arabia. The management of Yemen, as administered territory, also seems too much of a challenge for the Arab coalition, unless one wants to assume the worst and conclude that the prevalent chaos is exactly what they wanted to achieve.
The management of Yemen, as administered territory, also seems too much of a challenge for the Arab coalition, unless one wants to assume the worst and conclude that the prevalent chaos is exactly what they wanted to achieve.
The Houthis, whose motives in capturing Sanaa in 2014 were never transparent, stopped short of taking over Aden due to local resistance and the military intervention by the Arab coalition. They have alternated between trying to hold on to northern territory they control and pushing to expand their area. This lack of transparency has become a hallmark of Houthi rule; most recently, the Houthis were legitimately accused of hoarding information about the spread of COVID-19, brazenly declaring that revealing accurate information on the spread of the disease only causes panic among the population. Information has also been withheld on how they collect and spend their revenue. Specifically, concern has been voiced about widespread corruption within the disbursement of international aid, both by the authorities in Sanaa and by the UN agencies directing and monitoring the process.
The sins of the international community
Since 2011, three successive UN special envoys have failed to stitch together an agreement to reconcile the various parties in conflict and to get the permanent members of the UN Security Council to put their weight behind an effort to end the war. The latest of the envoys, Martin Griffiths, wasted two years trying to secure the neutrality of the vital Hodeida port while the real war raged elsewhere in Yemen and Yemeni and regional parties continued to fundamentally disagree on what a final agreement would look like.
The United States, guilty by association in the launch of the war in 2015, has failed to fully engage its diplomacy in the service of peace, continuing instead to fuel the fighting with huge arms sales, training of fighter-pilots, and putting in place a missile defense system in an extensive but futile effort to guard against rocket attacks against sensitive targets inside Saudi Arabia. Democrats in Congress have repeatedly urged the Trump Administration to suspend arms sales to the region, arguing that peace and stability in Yemen are in the best national security interests of the United States. The latest legislative effort, by Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), does not seem any more promising than previous attempts—at least while the Republican majority continues to block such moves.
Yemen needs Yemenis
Young men and women from Yemen are now spread far and wide across Europe, the United States, and Asia. Through their various engagements and contributions, they have demonstrated the ability of a new Yemeni generation to launch a rebuilding of their country and lead it into the future. Oil and gas potential is very promising and could well support such efforts once the war ends. If the international community seems incapable or unwilling to stop the bloodletting, it remains incumbent on Yemeni leaders themselves to use the good counsel of their youth to patch up their differences and enable a positive and constructive transition into the future.
Nabeel A. Khoury is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. A retired foreign service officer, he most recently served as director of the Near East South Asia office of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
keep readingShow less
Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
keep readingShow less
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.