by Neville Teller
Even in the midst of a war forced upon it, Israel cannot forget that not so far way people are actually starving to death through the malign actions of the self-same enemy that bolsters Hamas – Iran. That Yemen could soon become an outpost of the Iranian empire is within the bounds of possibility. If the Houthi organization, in hoc to Iran for its military and financial support, consolidates its already considerable grip on the country, Iran’s so-called Shia Crescent will have been extended right down to the south of the Arabian peninsula. Such an outcome would represent a major political triumph for the Iranian regime, and a boost to its ambition to dominate the region.
October 2, 2023 marked a year to the day since the Houthis, controlling a large part of Yemen including the capital, Sana’a, refused to renew a UN-sponsored truce. Painstakingly put together by UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg, the armistice between Yemen’s internationally recognized government (IRG) and the Houthis came into effect in April 2022. Extended twice, it resulted in the longest period of stability in Yemen since the start of its civil war.
So on October 2 that negative anniversary was marked by no less than 48 organizations, struggling inside Yemen to cope with what the UN has called “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”, publishing a long, heartfelt plea for action from those involved, and the world, to help relieve the situation and resolve the conflict.
Their document describes Yemen’s economy as “on the verge of collapse”. It says growing inflation, combined with the collapse of public services, especially in IRG-controlled areas, is making life “unbearable”. Since Yemen’s refineries are not operating, say the civil society bodies, “power stations are shutting down due to a lack of fuel… power outages in Aden are reaching 17 hours per day, amid soaring temperatures.”
The UN believes the nine-year civil conflict has left 80 percent of the population – some 24 million people, including almost 13 million children – in urgent need of aid and protection. More than 14 million people in Yemen are in acute need. Starvation is widespread. UNICEF (the UN’s Children’s Fund) reports that as 2022 ended, around 2 million children under the age of 5 were experiencing starvation-induced wasting, severely in more than 500,000 cases.
Meanwhile the Houthis and the other major player on the scene, Aidarus al-Zoubadi, head of Yemen’s breakaway Southern Transitional Council (STC), continue their ruthless pursuit of power. The Houthis are intent on defeating the IRG and gaining control of the whole of Yemen, Zubaidi and the STC are determined to establish an independent state in the south of the country.
Zoubadi has a highly equivocal role in Yemeni politics. He is vice president of the country and therefore a member of the IRG based in Aden, but he is also the leader of the STC which advocates seceding from the IRG. Vice president though he is, Zoubadi is on record as believing that real power in Yemen now rests with the Houthis, and on September 22 he announced that he intends to negotiate with them over the creation of a separate nation state of South Yemen comprised of eight governorates in the south of the country, including Aden.
Zoubadi’s comments came shortly after a marathon five-day round of talks between Houthi and Saudi officials in Riyadh. Houthi negotiators, together with Omani mediators, returned to Yemen on September 19. Word from the discussions was that they were negotiating a potential end to the conflict in Yemen, and that some progress was made, including a timeline for foreign troops to leave the country and a mechanism for paying public wages.
Some sources link the progress to suggestions that the US has pressured Saudi Arabia to end the war, perhaps linking its request to the complex US-Saudi-Israel normalization negotiations currently in progress.
An agreement would allow the UN to restart a broader political peace process involving other parties to the Yemeni conflict, including the Yemeni government and the STC.
Aware that the head of the IRG, Rashid al-Alami, was due to address the 78th session of the UN General Assembly in New York and that he was far from supportive of the STC, Zoubadi decided to visit New York himself. His aim: to meet as many world leaders as possible and press the case for an independent state in south Yemen. While there, he told an Associated Press reporter that the Riyadh talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia were still at an early stage, and that his STC was planning to participate later.
“We are asking for the return of the southern state,” he said, “with complete sovereignty, and this will happen through beginning negotiations with the Houthis… This is the goal of our strategy…”
On his return to Yemen, Zoubadi issued a release to the media under the auspices of the STC. Designating himself “President of the STC”, the release begins: “President Zoubadi stated: My inaugural visit to the UN General Assembly has been a deeply impactful and meaningful experience. I have had enlightening and informative dialogue with leaders from around the world. My message was the same to every person that I met: the only viable solution to the conflict is an inclusive and comprehensive political process under the UN’s auspices. This process must include a mechanism for the Southern people to determine their own destiny, as is their right under international law.”
While these power games are being played out, the condition of the people of Yemen continues to deteriorate. In their appeal to the world, the 48 humanitarian bodies struggling to cope paint a heart-breaking picture of what existence has degenerated to for large numbers of the population throughout Yemen. To quote from just one section:
“Across the country, women and children are disproportionately impacted. Women often eat least and last, giving priority to children and other family members…Girls are at increased risk of early marriage to reduce the number of family members to feed, and as a source of income. Increasingly people in Yemen are being forced to…[beg] for food and money, while children are at increased risk of child labor and begging…”
In fact the situation is intolerable. Negotiations aimed at ending the civil conflict need to be conducted with a great deal more urgency, while Yemen undoubtedly merits an internationally backed humanitarian rescue effort.