‘Operation Decisive Storm’ was a moniker meant to convey a sense of speed but instead became a synonym for hubris and failure. The regional military coalition intervening in Yemen chalked up another anniversary this March – five years since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led the way into a war thinking it would take only weeks to force the armed Houthi movement to retreat and to restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government to power. How plans go awry. The end of March saw Houthi missiles flying toward Saudi cities from northern Yemen, Saudi airstrikes in the Houthi-held capital, Sana’a, the Yemeni government fraying and its troops battling to prevent the Houthis from overrunning one of the country’s most strategically important governorates – and everyone praying to be spared the new coronavirus that is surging around the planet. Meanwhile, the United States, which has backed and armed the coalition’s intervention from the start, reduced the humanitarian aid it provides Yemen. It would be easy to conclude there is no end in sight for the conflict today and that half a decade of war will only beget half a decade more. It may be more productive, however, to peer into the darkest of all things – a pandemic that threatens to be especially cruel to an impoverished, war-weakened and malnourished society – and recognize the only choice is to stop fighting each other in order to confront a greater, shared threat.
Despite some attempts to prepare for the virus’ near-inevitable spread in Yemen, the country’s already rudimentary healthcare capacities have been fragmented and eviscerated by the war, meaning many Yemenis will be left without medical recourse in the face of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That the coronavirus will have a terrible impact in Yemen seems beyond question – how catastrophic it will be is not foretold, however, with the difference being whether there is a coordinated and cohesive nationwide effort among local, regional and international stakeholders to fight the disease.
Simply put, the worst-case scenario is in no one’s interest, and cooperation between the warring sides is the only option to avoid such. Both the Houthis and the anti-Houthi coalition acknowledged this, at least tacitly, in announcing near the end of March that they would heed a United Nations call for a nationwide cease-fire to focus on combating the coronavirus. That hostilities continued to rage on numerous fronts at month’s end revealed that public commitments to a cease-fire are fleeting.
The United Nations – through the special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths – must put in place a meaningful framework to use this window of opportunity before it is lost completely to the country’s rapidly developing circumstances. The clearest and most realistically achievable step to gain momentum for deescalation is to start with a prisoner exchange. Today. Even before the coronavirus threat, both sides had backed the idea of a prisoner exchange for years but endlessly haggled over the prisoner lists. Now the potential for highly cramped prisons to become breeding pits for the virus has created an added incentive for the warring parties to release the thousands of prisoners they agreed to in February without any further delay. With the convergence of interests and necessity aligned, the moment is Griffiths’ to seize and Yemen’s to lose.
Importantly, the need for a collective response to confront a shared threat comes as Riyadh is also looking for a means to exit the costly quagmire Yemen has become. At the end of March, Saudi Arabia invited Houthi and Yemeni government representatives for peace talks inside the kingdom. A skilled mediator would leverage the moment and the immediacy of the coronavirus in his efforts to create a face-saving cover for the Saudis to escape the military fiasco they created. It is precisely because this pandemic is so dire that it can overwhelm the war’s established norms and radically alter the current course of events. For that to happen, however, the gravity and urgency of the current situation must be recognized not only by international mediators, but also the warring parties, whose actions, rather than words, are needed to end one catastrophe and blunt the impact of the next one coming.
This editorial appeared in Five Years Since Decisive Storm – The Yemen Review, March 2020.
Previous Sana’a Center Editorials:
- January/February 2020: Humanitarian Agencies as Prisoners of War
- November 2019: The Minefield of Combating Corruption in Yemen
- October 2019: Signing Over Sovereignty
- September 2019: The Brinksmanship of a SAFER Disaster
- August 2019: Where Coalitions Come to Die
- July 2019: The March on Al-Mahra
- June 2019: War by Remote Control
- May 2019: A Houthi Masterclass in Dystopia
- April 2019: Yemen’s Game of Parliaments
- March 2019: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Deportation Storm’
- February 2019: The Apology of Aid
- The Yemen Annual Review 2018: Beyond the Brink
- November 2018: Yemen’s War Profiteers Are Potential Spoilers of the Peace Process
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.