As the coronavirus spreads globally and the international community is preoccupied with the pandemic, some sides within Yemen’s ongoing war are taking advantage of the moment to reopen battlefronts. No matter how widely the virus spreads across Yemen, the fighting between the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government; the Iranian-backed Ansar Allah group, known as the Houthis; and the United Arab Emirates–backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) has continued and even escalated in some fronts in the last two months despite the recent announced ceasefires. Even more troubling, all parties are already using the pandemic as a chance to advance their own agendas.
Last month, after UN Secretary General António Guterres and others called for a global ceasefire during the coronavirus pandemic, a two-week ceasefire announced by the Saudi-led coalition was received with high optimism by the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and other international representatives. They viewed it as a step toward establishing a conducive environment for a lasting nationwide ceasefire. However, the Houthis did not consider it to be a ceasefire, and they said “they will continue to fight.” In the meantime, they published what they call a “comprehensive vision to end aggression,” in which they put forward several maximalist conditions.
Two weeks before Saudi’s truce announcement, the Houthis and Yemen’s government welcomed the UN’s call for a global ceasefire. But soon after releasing their statement, the Houthis launched an offensive in several districts of the northeastern governorates of Marib and Al-Jawf, erupting massive military confrontations with government forces. They also fired two ballistic missiles at the Saudi cities of Riyadh and Jizan, marking the first Houthi assaults inside the kingdom since their twin strikes on Saudi oil installations in September 2019. Saudi air defenses intercepted these new strikes; in turn, the Saudis conducted multiple airstrikes on Yemen’s Houthi-held capital, Sanaa. In the western city of Hodeida, clashes broke out between Houthi and government forces. Meanwhile, in the south, tensions escalated between the Saudi-backed forces and the STC fighters in Abyan and Aden. This reflects that the reality on the ground has nothing to do with those political declarations. The warring parties released official statements to improve their own images and shift the blame for the conflict onto their adversaries, and at the same time their ongoing battles on several fronts have only intensified in recent weeks. There is no indication that the warring parties are truly committed to implementing the ceasefire so far, despite the UN envoy’s “virtual” consultations with all actors. Each party is convinced that the war is still incomplete. None of them are ready to pursue peace before achieving their wartime objectives, even when the coronavirus threat is at their door.
Meanwhile, five years of warfare have nearly destroyed Yemen’s public health system, compounding suffering among a desperately poor and hungry population. The World Health Organization has provided some support to medical centers in Aden, Sanaa, and Mukala to respond if a case is confirmed. Up to now, there has been just one reported case of the coronavirus; however, many health activists doubt this for two reasons. First, Yemeni medical facilities are not equipped to test suspected cases. Thousands of Yemeni travelers returned to Yemen in the past month from affected countries, including Egypt and China, without being tested at the country’s ports. Second, the warring parties are all eager to hide suspected coronavirus cases, because they hope that low numbers will show their capability to contain the pandemic in their respective areas. For example, two weeks ago, after news began to spread about the discovery of coronavirus cases in multiple countries, the minister of health in Yemen’s government-in-exile gave a televised speech reassuring his viewers that Yemen is free of the virus. However, he did not provide details on what steps his ministry is taking to curb the pandemic, and he gave no explanation about what (if any) testing procedures his ministry has followed to sustain his claim.
Even more troubling, some factions view the pandemic as an opportunity to recruit more fighters. For instance, some Houthi activists state in their media discourse that “it is better to die a martyr in heroic battles than dying at home from the coronavirus,” and suggest that “being in a battlefront is safer than being at risk in crowded towns.”
All parties are also using the pretext of pandemic prevention and response measures to make money or push their objectives. In some areas, they use the excuse of pandemic prevention to extort money from civilians hoping to be allowed to pass through local checkpoints. Another key source of revenue, aid provided by international nongovernmental organizations, has been instrumentalized in the struggle between the STC and the internationally recognized government in Aden. STC forces held essential coronavirus-related equipment, sent by the WHO, in the port to prevent government medical staff from accessing it. By compelling the international community to deal directly with the STC, the council hopes to gain recognition for its ongoing de facto rule of Aden, which it has been fighting to maintain since last August.
The current escalation during the coronavirus echoes the cholera catastrophe of the past three years, an experience that the warring parties have kept in mind. Even as that highly communicable disease affected more than 1 million people and caused thousands of deaths, the fighting continued, and armed actors exploited the crisis to make money from international aid flows. All sides will most likely use the same approach with the coronavirus, demonstrating their indifference toward victims and the gap between civilian concerns and militia interests.
As the war in Yemen enters its sixth year, hopes for peace seem elusive, and the virus will compound the already deep humanitarian crisis. The pandemic diplomacy that the UN envoy has attempted to utilize to bring the actors to the negotiating table is not being taken seriously. In previous years, hostilities continued despite the high number of casualties, caused either directly by the armed confrontation or indirectly through diseases and famine. There is little reason to expect that the warring parties will deviate from this approach. Neither external mediation nor the virus can stop this war if none of the Yemeni factions are willing to end it.