Saleh Talks Offer Signals The Right Moment To End The Yemen War

In an interview with the TV station Yemen al-Youm on this Saturday, former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh indicated that he is ready for a “new page” in a relationship with the Saudi-led coalition if the latter stops fighting in his country. As he said, “I call upon the brothers in neighbouring states and the alliance to stop their aggression, lift the siege, open the airports, allow food aid and we will turn a new page by virtue of our neighborliness.” In addition to that, Mr. Saleh blamed the Houthis rebel for besieging the homes of several officials who serve in the Congress under Saleh’s leadership.

Following the interview, Saleh’s change of stance was welcomed by the Saudi-led coalition. In a statement made by the Saudi-owned Al-Hadath channel, the coalition said it was “confident of the will of the leaders and sons” of Saleh’s party to align with Saudi Arabia. Saleh’s successor Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi also made clear that he is willing to work with Saleh to fight against the Houthis. According to Hadi’s statement, “The meeting forms a broad national coalition that will lay the foundations for a new era and unify everyone against the coup militia.” In response, the shocked Houthis rebel accused Saleh of betrayal, and it declared to continue the fight against the Saudi-led coalition.

Indeed, the clashes between Saleh’s supporters and the Houthis rebel have intensified in recent days. Local residents reported hearing loud explosions overnight across the city on this Saturday. They believe it is more like a “street war,” with ambulances busy ferrying the wounded to hospitals. Until now, there has been no official casualties regarding the various clashes, but the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) claimed that dozens were killed and hundreds were wounded. Meanwhile, shortly after Saleh’s interview, broadcasting of Yemen al-Youm abruptly stopped, and anonymous officials at the TV stations reported that Houthis raided their headquarters. Regardless of what happened later, Saleh’s move signals a pathway to potentially end the fundamentally tragic war that has been going on for nearly three years.

To fully understand the situation, it is necessary to trace back to what happened several years ago. After leading Yemen for more than 30 years, former president Saleh was deposed amid the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. A new draft constitution proposed a federal system split between northerners and southerners. However, the Iran-backed Houthis rebel rejected the constitution on the grounds of inequality. It complained that its region got few resources and no access to the sea. In 2014, Saleh joined the unsatisfied Houthis in an attempt to jointly drive his successor Hadi out of the capital. In the end, Hadi was ousted and forced to flee to Aden. In response to that, Saudi Arabia gathered around various Arab states and local militias in March 2015, with an aim to retaliate. The country plunged into worse chaos. The U.S. sided with Saudi Arabia and supplied Western warplanes and munitions. Moreover, U.S. satellites helped guide its bombs. Despite all the efforts made by the Saudi-led coalition, it failed to force the Houthis to retreat, and the battle-lines have not moved significantly throughout the years. In other words, the Houthis are too weak to control the whole country but too strong to be defeated. During these years, more than 10,000 people are killed by the war and with the crumbled economy, Yemen has become one of the poorest countries on earth.

There is little doubt that the Houthis are responsible for starting the war, but hardly can we say the Saudi-led coalition is totally justified. What is clear is that Yemen has become the pawn in a regional power-conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In checking Iran’s power, the Saudi-led coalition has done things similar to war crimes. Saudis are accused of dropping bombs at schools, markets, mosques and hospitals. In order to reinstate Saleh’s successor, former vice-president Hadi, the Saudi-led coalition has been imposing a blockade on the country and it only allows limited, occasional humanitarian access. It is widely suspected that the Saudis are using food as a tool of war, and the consequence is disastrous. In a statement released by the UN, 7 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine. Every day numerous children with severe malnutrition flock to hospitals for treatment, but less than 45% of Yemen’s medical facilities are still in function. Most have closed due to a lack of funding or bombardments by airstrikes. To provide context, local hospital Al-Thawra treats roughly 2,500 people a day, which is more than 3 times as it did before the war. As a result, aid agencies have repeatedly warned that if no action is taken, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis could become a “nightmare scenario.” UN aid chief Mark Lowock also stated that if the restrictions imposed by Saudi-led coalition is not lifted immediately, Yemen will soon witness “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims.”

In addition to famine, Yemen is also grappling with the worst cholera outbreak in its history. As is reported by UN, there are more than 900,000 suspected cases and over 2,190 people are dead. Luckily, with new cholera treatment centres being set up, the rate of infection began to slow down in September. However, if the restriction on aid supply continues, it is likely that the improvement will be short-lived. For example, a Red Cross shipment of anti-cholera tablets has been stuck on the Saudi Arabia side of the border with Yemen for five days.

No matter which side eventually controls the country, it is crucial that the Saudi-led coalition lift its blockade and let international charitable organizations come in and help the innocent civilians out of severe danger and suffering. Following international pressure, the major ports of Aden were reopened last week, which allowed commercial traffic and food supplies to come in. Nevertheless, humanitarian aid agencies are still forbidden from entering the country. Saudi Arabia did not fully ease the blockade because its priority is still to fight against the Houthis, instead of saving the people before it is too late. The prolonged Yemen war seems again to end in deadlock, but now Saleh’s interview could imply that the balance has been tipped. Previous peace talks failed because neither side had a significant advantage over the other. Houthis did not agree to surrender because it still had enough support. But with Saleh’s “betrayal,” its chance of ruling over the country becomes increasingly unlikely. Despite that, it is not recommendable for the Saudi-led coalition to launch an all-out attack because civilians typically bear the brunt. Instead, peace talks should be restarted. With fraying support by the public and internal split, the Houthis would be more willing to strike a deal with Saudi Arabia. For instance, a neighbouring country like Kuwait could be the mediator in the negotiation. After Houthis pulls out of the war and retreats, Saudi Arabia has no reason not to lift the blockade. As always, to crack the Houthis, peaceful talk is more effective than bombing. Also, Western powers should actively facilitate the process, because if it ignores Yemen at its peril, the country would become another failed state like Somalia, which is now a hotbed for terrorism. Moreover, since Yemen lies at the Bab al-Mandab strait, it is essential to make sure that the Suez Canal is free from terrorism. It is thus in the interests of all other countries to stop the war, save the Yemenis from famine and disease, and help rebuild a new inclusive, tolerant, and democratic Yemenis government.