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Yemen's ‘forgotten war’

Oct 02,2019 - Last updated at Oct 02,2019

The Arabs must press the main combatants to end the war in Yemen, the region's poorest country. Opportunities for peacemakers have been provided by rising tensions due to last month's drone and cruise missile strikes on Saudi oil facilities claimed by Houthi rebels but blamed on Iran, which rejects responsibility.

Although the Saudis have denied the Houthi claim of an assault on Saudi forces in northern Yemen, killing and capturing scores of pro-Saudi troops, reports of this engagement have refocused international attention on Yemen's "forgotten war".

The Houthis have ended drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and have called for a cessation of Saudi bombing of Houthi-held areas in Yemen, while the Saudis have proposed a partial ceasefire in the Yemeni capital and three other areas. The Houthis have rejected this proposition and have responded by demanding a total ceasefire throughout the country. They accuse the Saudis of carrying out bombings in the four areas meant to be covered by the ceasefire, killing 25 civilians.

The Houthis' offensive actions, which have included frequent missile and drone attacks on Saudi airports and other sites, have granted them the military advantage in the stalemated war, while their call for a comprehensive ceasefire has given them the politico-diplomatic initiative.

On the military front, if it happened, the Najran battle may have, for the time being, ended Saudi Arabia's threat to Saada Province, the Houthi heartland, thereby freeing up Houthi fighters to conduct operations elsewhere. The Houthis have always had the advantage on the ground because they can count on 100,000 veteran Yemeni fighters. The Saudis, whose army has not been widely deployed, have enjoyed domination of the air, but without effective ground forces, this advantage is short-lived. Furthermore, the Saudi partner in the conflict, United Arab Emirates, has withdrawn most of its troops from Yemen and separatists have seized territory in the south, challenging President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

On the diplomatic front, in addition to their unilateral halt to attacks on Saudi Arabia and call for a country-wide ceasefire, the Houthis have freed 290 prisoners, including three Saudis, in line with the UN de-confliction deal agreed upon in Stockholm last December. These initiatives have been praised by UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths, who hopes the Saudi-led coalition will reciprocate, thereby creating momentum for talks.

In an interview with a US television channel, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman welcomed the Houthi ceasefire and adopted a positive attitude toward ending the war in Yemen. He said, "Today, we open all initiatives for a political solution in Yemen. We hope this happens today rather than tomorrow."

While the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has the backing of the West and some Arab countries, the external forces have never had the moral advantage. The Houthis are defending the territory of their country as well as its independence. They are fierce fighters who have longstanding feuds with the neighbouring Saudis, and have often bested the Saudis in warfare. The global human rights community argues the war must end, as it has created the world's worse humanitarian disaster. At least 100,000 Yemenis have been killed, millions are displaced and 80 per cent of Yemenis have become malnourished since the end of March 2015.

While the UN and the international community have failed to convince the combatants to ceasefire, exchange prisoners and negotiate, the Arabs could play a positive role in this effort by making it clear to both sides that continuation of the war threatens the security of the entire region and global oil supplies.

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