The Yemeni authority had accepted an UN-backed peace agreement following talks held in Kuwait. The peace deal called on Houthi rebel groups to surrender as the war has been ongoing for more than 14 months with thousands of casualties.
Houthi rebels have been occupying most parts of the Yemen, including the capital Sana and big cities such as Taiz and Hodeida since September 2014. The peace deal urged the Iran-backed Houthis to free political prisoners as per the UN Security Council Resolution 2216 , and remove blockades imposed on Yemeni major cities within 45 days after the signing of the agreement.
The peace roadmap did not specify any issues of political reforms until the implementation is totally complete and the military conflict ends.
The peace deal will disband a political body established by the Houthis and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Kuwait is expected to continue hosting the talks based upon the request from the UN special envoy until August 7, 2016.
Despite the involvement of the UN and major Sunni powers in the region, the Yemeni conflict seems to be far from over after the Houthi-Saleh alliance strongly opposed the peace deal calling the peace draft a ”media stunt”.
While rejecting the peace deal, the Houthis insisted that they represent the country’s de-facto government and called for a new transitional administration before the discussion on withdrawal from major cities and before discussing any other issues. Yemen’s President strongly rejected the defiant stance of the Houthis, and insisted going ahead with implementing the peace deal.
The Forgotten War Which Is More than Just a Sunni-Shia Conflict As the world is pre-occupied with Syria, the ongoing bloodshed in Yemen took to the backstage, even though civilian casualties remained high. As of January 2016, the war had claimed at least 2,800 civilians, with a total casualty count reaching over 8,100.
Based on the UNHCR’s estimations, more than 2.4 million Yemenis have fled the civil war and 120,000 have sought asylum in other countries, including impoverished African countries such as Somalia and Djibouti.
Most displaced Yemenis have to deal with food shortage and inadequate shelter, while those who remain in the country are also suffering from lack of proper healthcare.
The humanitarian situation worsens as aid organizations are continually facing obstacles while delivering assistance in Yemen. The Iran-backed Houthis have blocked aid groups from delivering critical medical supplies in Taiz, while Saudi Arabia ordered aid organizations not to enter the rebel-seized areas due to the high risks faced by the medical workers.
Not just a Shia-Sunni War
International community often portrays the Yemen war as a conflict between the Sunni and Shia groups. However, facts on the ground indicates that the war is more complicated than what a simple sectarian divide could explain. In fact, intertwined geopolitical interests on Yemen coming from a group of competing regional powers has more to do with the Yemen war than sectarian conflict alone.
Despite being the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen is has geopolitical significance for Saudi Arabia and the West based on its advantageous location on the Bab al-Mandab strait which connects the Red Sea via the Gulf of Aden. This narrow strait is pivotal in global shipment of Middle Eastern oil. The Bab al-Mandab strait is considered as important as the Suez Canal for trading and maritime activities between Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The Houthis seized the Yemen’s capital Sana in September 2014, ousting the Saudi and U.S-supported president Al-Hadi. The Houthi rebels succeeded in achieving power sharing deals with the government, while the civil war raged on.
A Hotspot for Regional Competition
Yemen’s Sunni neighbor Saudi Arabia is increasingly wary of Iran’s influence in the country. Saudi Arabia set up a coalition of armies consisting of Arab nations to dislodge the Houthis in 2015. The coalition currently includes Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Bahrain, , Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal. Some of the coalition members have sent ground troops to Yemen, while the others mostly carried out air strikes.
The tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran intensified after the execution of a Shia Muslim leader Nimr al-Nim by the Saudi government, which also triggered an attack on the Saudi embassy in
Tehran by protesters.
Israel too has interests in Yemen given that a hostile government there can potentially block Israel’s access to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea.
Given a confluence of geopolitical interests and ruthless power play, any attempt at lasting peace in Yemen will remain a complex undertaking. The current set of peace agreements do not appear to be strong and stable enough in that regard.