Fighting in Yemen has intensified in recent days, threatening to unspool a stalled peace process and deepen what aid groups call the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.
Clashes have escalated around the port city of Hodeidah, where the Saudi-backed government and Iran-supported Houthi rebels struck a cease-fire deal in late 2018 that was meant to pave the way for a broader accord to end the nearly six-year war.
Yemen’s war erupted in 2014 when the Houthis stormed the capital San’a. They are a tribal militia from the country’s north driven by a nationalist resistance to foreign intervention and ideology, particularly from Saudi Arabia, and have since expanded the territory under their control. Saudi Arabia views their presence on its southern border—and Iran’s support for the movement—as a dangerous expansion of Tehran’s regional footprint and formed an international, U.S.-supported coalition to fight it.
This past week, Hodeidah saw the worst escalation in violence since the truce two years ago, according to international observers and both warring sides. The clashes included airstrikes from the Saudi-backed coalition and rebel shelling, which has also continued elsewhere in the country.
The number of civilian casualties nationwide in September was the highest since last November, with 67 killed and 123 injured, according to the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, which collects data on Yemen’s armed conflict.
Surging violence risks worsening the widespread man-made hunger crisis in Yemen, where two-thirds of the population are in need of food aid. The U.N.’s World Food Program, which on Friday won the Nobel Peace Prize, runs its largest emergency program in Yemen.
The WFP received the peace prize for its fight against “hunger as a weapon of war.” Throughout Yemen’s war, the ruling coalition and the Houthis have disrupted food and water supplies as a method of warfare in violation of international law, according to the U.N.
The coalition has imposed an air, land and sea blockade on Houthi areas around San’a, with imports subject to coalition approval, driving up prices. Coalition airstrikes have destroyed hundreds of fishing boats and torched farmers’ fields, aid and human rights organizations say. Disruption of operations in Hodeidah, the main port entry in the north, will further increase prices. A rapidly depreciating currency hasn’t helped.
“At the outset, the Saudis expected a short war and thought that inflicting extreme hardship using a blockade was preferable to fighting the Houthis on the ground,” said Alex de Waal, author of “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine.”
“This turned into a relentless effort at destroying the economy of the Houthi-controlled areas, including attacks on many of the necessities for sustaining life,” he said.
Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi political official, said: “The effects of the blockade are worse than the aggression itself, and that is why we always say that both a cease-fire and lifting the siege are required to start the peace process.”
The Houthis, Mr. de Waal added, “have instrumentalized the suffering of the Yemeni people” as well to attract and profit from humanitarian assistance.
Within San’a, the Houthis have impeded distribution of international assistance by attempting to levy a 2% tax on aid in their areas. WFP last year accused the Houthis of diverting aid, and threatened a phased suspension of assistance altogether. The Houthis have also laid siege to the country’s third-largest city, Taiz, in the southwest.
The coalition has indiscriminately bombed food transports, marketplaces and water facilities, while Houthis shell civilians, making shopping for food a dangerous endeavor, according to international aid agencies.
Such tactics are a “reckless pursuit of military, political and economic objectives that knowingly cause starvation as a predictable outcome,” said Mr. de Waal, who is also executive director of the Massachusetts-based World Peace Foundation. “Knowing that Yemen was already so vulnerable, it is doubly reprehensible to wage a war of starvation there.”
Some 7.4 million Yemenis don’t know where their next meal will come from, and more than 12 million are in acute need of assistance to obtain drinking water, according to the U.N. Two million children require acute treatment for malnutrition, which can cause stunted growth and affect mental development.
Covid-19 has exacerbated the crisis, although Yemen has reported only some 2,000 cases due to limited testing capacity and poor reporting in Houthi areas. In some areas, the cost of the minimum food basket has risen by as much as 35% since the pandemic began, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, also due to the currency crisis.
Meanwhile, as U.N.-brokered peace efforts falter, the Houthis have opened three new fronts in the Marib region east of San’a, advancing on the last stronghold of the internationally recognized government, which was evicted last year by separatists from the southern city of Aden. Capturing Marib would hand the rebels control of one of the country’s largest oil and gas fields.
The offensive in Marib has emboldened the rebels to ramp up attacks in Hodeidah, said Brig. Gen. Sadiq Dwaid, spokesman for coalition-backed National Resistance.
The Houthis accuse the coalition of breaching the truce as well. Mr. Bukhaiti, the Houthi political official, said the coalition had escalated attacks on Hodeidah to pull Houthi forces away from Marib. The Houthi-run SABA news agency on Saturday reported the coalition had carried out 24 airstrikes in Hodeidah and four other provinces since Friday.
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at email@example.com
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Appeared in the October 12, 2020, print edition as ‘Yemen Clashes Mar Peace Process.’