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Yemen Humanitarian Crisis: Piercing the veil behind battleground Middle-East

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By Gaurav Sharma

What was once the Happy Arabia (Arabia Felix) has now transformed into a ghastly war-zone. Caught in the crossfire of power grab, the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen has been ravaged by a series of humanitarian crisis since the past decade.

Photo Credit: travel.nationalgeographic.com
Photo Credit: travel.nationalgeographic.com

Soaring unemployment, declining oil prices and water resources, apart from being the favorite hunting ground for al-Qaeda’s most vicious branch (AQAP) have metamorphosed Yemen into the poorest nation in the Middle East.

At the same time, a raging battle from multitudinal sides has wreaked havoc in Yemen, tearing it further apart into ever smaller factions.

According to UN reports, more than 1500 people have been killed in the burgeoning humanitarian crisis and almost 1 million persons have been displaced during the pitched conflict.

What is the war all about?

The conflagration of violence is a fight between the supporters of the current leadership of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and loyalists of the Zaidi Shia rebels, popularly known as the Houthis.

President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Photo Credit: ewn.co.za
President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Photo Credit: ewn.co.za

Loyalties have been sharply divided between the two forces. While the Sunni south region (particularly the tribesmen and militias) pledges allegiance to President Hadi, other units including ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a popular but polarizing figure in Yemen, vouch for the Houthis.

The battle is not just two-sided. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a deadly faction of the global terror group, assumes command in the south and the south-eastern regions of Yemen. It has launched several attacks including on several mosques apart from planning and undertaking the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France.

To make the grim situation more complex, Islamic State, the most barbarous of all al-Qaeda offshoots, has launched its own string of attacks against Shia Houthis. The terror outfit has warned that these attacks “are only a part of the impending flood”, highlighting the ethereal state of affairs in the country.

What about the rest of the Middle East?

The current restiveness in Yemen has implications for the rest of the middle east. Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab nation in Western Asia, has already launched widespread air strikes against the Houthis in view of the precarious situation.

Mideast-Yemen_Beau-1024x683In this regard, the conflict assumes a sectarian character. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim nation whereas the Houthis are predominately Shias. After the Houthis swept the capital city of Sanaa in 2014, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, and African nations including Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and Egypt became wary of the potential rise of Shia Islam in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Moreover, in light of the boost received by Iran through the nuclear deal, the Gulf states suspect the hand of Iran behind the sudden rise of Houthis. (Iran is a Shia dominated country)

Growing more and more circumspect with the rise in Iranian ‘proxies’, the Saudi palace organized a 10-nation coalition to check the rise of Houthis and restore power in the hands of its ally, former President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The reason for declaring war on the Houthi rebels in Yemen follows from the contention that Iran is looking to expand its footprint in the Middle East. According to the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), up to 5,000 Iranian and Iraqi trainers were present in Yemen, before Saudi Arabia launched its offensive.

Are there other reasons for the conflict?

The sectarian hues and ideological differences notwithstanding, strategic considerations assume paramount importance in the battle for Yemen. The Bab al-Mandab strait, a channel between Yemen in the Arabian peninsula and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, provides a crucial link between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (a passage through which bulk of the world’s oil shipments pass).

Naturally, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, (along with the rest of the world) suspects a Houthi hijacking of the region, which would severely undermine free passage of goods and services to the other part of the world.

Another unlikely factor which led to the eruption of the political upheaval in Yemen is the dire ecological condition of the region. The groundwater situation has never been handled appropriately by the successive governments.

From 30 meters below surface in 1970’s to more than 1000 meters below surface in 2012, the groundwater condition has only deteriorated. There are reports doing the rounds that Yemen might claim the distinction for being the first country to run out of water. Lack of sufficient water means deficiency of food crops, thereby aggravating the situation further.

In the midst of the arid ecological future awaiting them, the Yemeni people had no option but to flee the country or to fight amongst each other small battles which sometimes, if not more often than not, assume epic proportions.

How did Yemen end up where it is today?

Apart from being a possible location for the Biblical kingdom of Sheba, Yemen acted as a conduit (spice route) to the Middle East for African, Asian nations.

Yemen Conflict. Photo Credit: http://www.newsweek.com
Yemen Conflict. Photo Credit: http://www.newsweek.com

The modern state of Yemen propped-up in 1990, after the unification of the communist south Yemen and the traditional northern region. In 1994, a civil war ensued between the south and the north quelling the southern separatists.

However, in 2009, Shia Houthis and the government troops clashed resulting in the massacre of scores of innocent civilians along with the displacement of thousands. Two years later, at the peak of the Arab Spring, protestors revolted against the more than 30-year-old rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, resulting in his overthrowing.

During the transformation phase, Yemen became the hotspot for Islamic militants even as the western powers launched a clampdown on al-Qaeda activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Houthi rebels used the fragile governance landscape to their advantage and reemerged as the harbingers of revolt.

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U.N. Agencies Running Out of Money for Essential Relief Activities, Yemen’s Children Continue To Suffer

Meanwhile, U.N. humanitarian operations in Yemen are at risk of running out of money in the coming weeks.

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A nurse looks as he weighs a malnourished girl at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen, Oct. 7, 2018. VOA

The United Nations said Monday that the five-year-old conflict in Yemen has taken a “devastating toll” on the country’s children, with thousands killed, maimed and recruited to fight since the war began.

“The impact of this conflict on children is horrific,” Virginia Gamba, U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, told a meeting of the Security Council. “All parties to the conflict have acted and reacted militarily to events resulting in the use and abuse of children in multiple ways.”

Since monitoring began in Yemen in April 2013 (before the conflict fully erupted) until the end of the 2018, Gamba said more than 7,500 children have been killed or maimed and more than 3,000 have been verified as recruited or used, and there have been more than 800 documented cases of denial of humanitarian access to children.

Gamba said children reportedly have been forcibly recruited from schools, orphanages and communities to fight on the front lines, man checkpoints, deliver supplies or gather intelligence.

FILE - A 17-year-old boy holds his weapon in High dam in Marib, Yemen, July 30, 2018.
A 17-year-old boy holds his weapon in High dam in Marib, Yemen, July 30, 2018. VOA

Last year, over half of the children recruited were under the age of 15. During that period, the U.N. says more than 200 were killed or maimed while being used by the warring parties.

Gamba called out the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels for recruiting the majority of the children, followed by the Popular Resistance, Yemen Armed Forces and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

“The numbers I present to you today represent a mere fraction of violations committed against children in Yemen,” she told council members.

In addition to harm to child soldiers, Gamba said of the more than 7,500 children killed or maimed between 2013 and 2018, nearly half of the casualties were caused by Saudi-coalition airstrikes.

Another 40 percent of such casualties came in ground fighting, including shelling and mortars. Gamba said Houthi rebels were largely to blame, followed by Yemeni government forces, among others.

It is not the first time the U.N. has called out the Saudi-led coalition or the Houthis for harming Yemeni children. But while both sides say they avoid harming civilians, the toll continues to rise.

Redeployment of forces

The U.N. has been working to end the conflict. On Monday, special envoy Martin Griffiths offered a glimmer of hope that the parties might be ready to take a first step away from the battlefield.

He told council members that both the Saudi coalition-backed Yemeni government and the Houthis have accepted a detailed redeployment plan to begin moving their fighters away from the crucial Red Sea port city of Hodeida.

FILE - Houthi militants patrol a street where pro-Houthi protesters demonstrated against the Saudi-led coalition in Hodeida, Yemen.
Houthi militants patrol a street where pro-Houthi protesters demonstrated against the Saudi-led coalition in Hodeida, Yemen. VOA

“We will now move with all speed toward resolving the final outstanding issues related to the operational plans for phase two, redeployments and also the issue of the status of local security forces,” Griffiths told the council in a video briefing from Amman, Jordan.

The parties committed to the plan at talks in Stockholm in December, but efforts to implement the agreement have failed. Griffiths expressed some confidence that they would go forward now.

“When — and I hope it is when and not if — these redeploys happen, they will be the first ones in this long conflict,” he said.

Griffiths acknowledged that the “the war in Yemen … shows no sign of abating,” and said there needs to be real progress on the military redeployments before the focus can shift back to the political track.

U.S. Acting U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen welcomed Houthi acceptance to phase one of the withdrawal plan and said Washington would be “watching closely to see if they make good on that agreement.”

Funds urgently needed

Meanwhile, U.N. humanitarian operations in Yemen are at risk of running out of money in the coming weeks.

In February, international donors pledged $2.6 billion for Yemen relief operations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — who are prosecuting the war against the Houthis — pledged an additional $1 billion.

FILE - A girl sleeps on a bed at a cholera treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen, Aug. 4, 2018.
A girl sleeps on a bed at a cholera treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen, Aug. 4, 2018. VOA

But U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock said that nearly four months into 2019, the response plan has received only $267 million in actual funding.

“U.N. agencies are rapidly running out of money for essential relief activities,” he warned.

The country, which is facing a cholera epidemic, could see 60% of its diarrhea treatment centers close in the coming weeks if money is not received. U.N. food programs, which provide emergency food assistance to more than 9 million people every month, would also be impacted.

“Closing or scaling back such programs — at a time when we are struggling to prevent widespread famine and roll back cholera and other killer diseases — would be catastrophic,” Lowcock said.

He also warned that a potential environmental disaster is brewing off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

Lowcock said that an oil tanker used as a floating storage and offloading facility, and which is 8 kilometers off the coast at the Ras Isa terminal, is old and has not received any maintenance since 2015. It has about 1.1 million barrels of oil on board.

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“Without maintenance, we fear that it will rupture or even explode, unleashing an environmental disaster in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes,” Lowcock said.

A Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing Houthi rebels in support of Yemen’s government in March 2015. Since then, the U.N. estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed, mostly due to coalition airstrike. (VOA)