Tomorrow, it will be five years since the onset of Yemen’s ongoing civil war. Since 2014, the Houthi rebels, an Iran-backed insurgent group, have launched an assault on Yemen's internationally recognised government. It seized the capital Sanaa in January 2015, forcing the President, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, to leave to Aden and later move to Riyadh. The rebel attacks escalated into a full-out war in March 2015. The chaos that ensued provided fertile ground for other extremists, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, to take root.
The danger of having a militia-run Yemen was too large for the country and the entire region. Yemen's neighbours came to the aid of its embattled government in March 2015, within the framework of the Saudi-led Arab Coalition, which included the UAE. The war has been costly, particularly for Yemen's citizens, but the Houthis have refused to work towards its end. With international support, the government has been able to regain control of nearly 80 per cent of Yemeni territory, but instead of negotiating a political solution, the Houthis have opened new fronts, and repeatedly launched offensives beyond Yemen's border.
In September of last year, the rebels claimed an attack on Saudi oilfields in the eastern town of Abqaiq. All indicators are that the attack was actually launched from Iran, but despite the Houthis' hostility, Saudi Arabia has tried to negotiate with the group in hopes of finding a settlement and easing the suffering of the Yemeni people. After five months of relative quiet, renewed Houthi aggression on government-held territory at the end of February pushed the prospect of peace further out of reach.
Earlier this month, the UN's special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths urged warring parties to relaunch a peace process they had initiated in December 2018, but which was trampled by the Houthis. "The initial positive responses I had from the parties must turn into immediate action on the ground", he said. It is high time the Houthis heeded his call. The people of Yemen deserve a second chance at life, so that by this time next year, we may be commemorating the end of a brutal war instead of marking yet another anniversary.
And now Yemen faces an even greater danger. As the Houthis advance towards the oil-rich Marib province there are fears that the coronavirus pandemic may have already reached the country, although authorities there have not reported any cases so far.
An outbreak of coronavirus in Yemen, which is already home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis according to the UN, would be nothing short of a tragedy. Since 2016, the country has witnessed a cholera outbreak, with a suspected 1.3 millions cases recorded. Seasonal spikes in cholera cases are expected to rise for years to come because of “ongoing conflict and a fragile health system", according to the UN. And now, the World Health Organisation has placed its Yemen teams on high alert for signs of the coronavirus, as it urges the international community to provide more help for the nation’s healthcare system, which is only functioning at half of its regular capacity.
Although it closed its borders to contain the pandemic, Riyadh has flown in medical equipment and vital supplies to Sanaa and Aden. This comes in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars in aid given by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Yemen.
Instead of protecting civilians from a major health crisis and working to achieve peace, the Houthis have continued their offensive. Even worse, the rebels appear to be taking advantage of the pandemic to persecute minorities and recruit child soldiers. Yemenis have reported that schools were closed in rebel areas, supposedly as a precaution against the virus. But training camps where children are reportedly being brainwashed and recruited as soldiers have opened instead. And on Sunday, a 2018 verdict that called for the leader of the Bahai minority to be sentenced to death was confirmed, despite international outcry.
As Yemen goes into another year of war, all efforts must be made to support the Yemeni people and continue to pressure the Houthis to take an alternative path to certain destruction.