It is a sad testament to how desperate the humanitarian crisis has become in Yemen that a partial truce affecting one city, and which depends on the good faith of two warring factions backed by antagonistic and unreliable outside regimes, is being heralded as a major breakthrough.
When things are as dark as dark can be, even the smallest slice of light is welcome.
The truce in Hodeidah, brokered by the United Nations and announced in Sweden last Thursday, has temporarily brought peace to the port city and hope to Yemeni civilians – at least, those who haven’t already been killed in indiscriminate bombings by Saudi Arabian warplanes, or haven’t already starved to death.
The fighting continues elsewhere though, and broader peace talks won’t take place until the new year. In the meantime, all eyes are on Hodeidah, which until the truce, saw some of the most intense fighting in the war.
The ceasefire includes a prisoner exchange and an agreement to allow a humanitarian corridor to Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city. Most importantly, it reopens a major port and allows desperately needed food and medical supplies into the country.
One aid group estimates that 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death since 2015, the year civil war broke out between Sunni government forces and Shia rebel forces, known as the Houthis.
Another 2.2-million children are said to be severely malnourished. Unicef has said that one child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen from preventable causes
The bombings, carried out by coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have destroyed many of the country’s hospitals and other critical infrastructure. The UN stated flatly in a report in August that the bombings, which have also indiscriminately targeted residential areas, markets, funerals and weddings, are among a litany of war crimes committed by the Saudi/UAE coalition.
The same report said the Houthis had also committed war crimes, such as torturing prisoners and blocking civilians' access to humanitarian aid.
The two sides have shown a sickening disregard for civilians, leaving the country on the verge of economic collapse and mass starvation. Yemen is now ravaged by a cholera outbreak that has killed at least 2,000 people and infected 500,000 more. The Saudi/UAE coalition has closed the international airport in the capital city of Sana, making it impossible for people to seek treatment in other countries.
So, there is no question that the Hodeidah truce is a welcome development. All combatants are supposed to leave the city in 21 days, a process the UN will oversee.
But both the coalition government forces and the Houthis, who have received arms and other support from Iran, say the truce should not be seen as the end of the hostilities, or even as the beginning of the end.
The world cannot allow this opportunity to be squandered. What is needed at this critical moment is an international effort to support the ceasefire, and to press the warring sides to expand on it and come back to the table for real peace talks.
Saudi Arabia is certainly vulnerable. It is already under pressure in the wake of the torture and killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi – a murder that the CIA and other intelligence agencies say was personally orchestrated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Some observers believe last week’s truce came about partly as a result of the Saudis wanting to do damage control.
As well last week, the United States Senate voted to end the U.S. military support for the Saudi/UAE coalition and to blame the Crown Prince for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. It was a symbolic act, because President Donald Trump will veto it if it ever reaches his desk, but it sends the right message to Riyadh.
Iran, too, needs to be pressured into ending its support for the Houthis. As long as Tehran continues to back the rebels, who, similar to the majority of Iranians, are Shia Muslims, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies will agree to end their support for Yemen’s Sunni-led government.
Yemen is the worst kind of conflict – one in which a proxy battle between repressive states is being fought on top of the bodies of some of the poorest people in the world. The Hodeidah truce is a chance to bring peace and hope to people who can’t remember either. The world must not let them down.