TSC IntelBrief: Yemen Edges Closer to Collapse
Bottom Line Up Front:
• An outbreak of cholera in Yemen is pushing an already dire humanitarian situation to the brink.
• The cholera epidemic coincides with a developing famine and a looming assault by the Saudi-led coalition on Yemen’s most critical humanitarian corridor.
• There are signs of growing disunity among political constituencies currently aligned with the coalition fighting to re-install President Hadi, portending greater political instability for Yemen.
• U.S. strategy toward Yemen is narrowly and naively focused on military solutions to a political and humanitarian catastrophe.
The dire humanitarian situation in Yemen is quickly deteriorating as a cholera epidemic spreads across the country. The outbreak adds extreme stress to a health system that is already approaching collapse after two years of civil war and decades of neglect. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there have been 61,000 reported cases of cholera in the country since December 2016, including over 360 deaths. The rate of infection appears to be increasing exponentially; over half of all suspected cases occurred in the last month, and the WHO has suggested the possibility of up to 300,000 cases in the next six months. The country’s two-year-old civil war has already claimed the lives of over 10,000 Yemeni civilians and sparked a nationwide hunger crisis. The continuing humanitarian breakdown comes as the Hadi coalition is preparing for an assault on the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, one of Yemen’s most critical entryways for humanitarian aid. According to the UN, any attack resulting in the closure of the port—a likely scenario given the belligerents’ habit of targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure—would push the country to the brink of famine. On May 20, the International Committee of the Red Cross described Yemen as “the world’s single largest humanitarian crisis.” In this context, the injection of a cholera epidemic—especially if concurrent with an assault on Hodeidah—may prove to be the factor that conclusively pushes Yemen into the category of a ‘failed state.’
Yemen’s humanitarian collapse is compounded by the growing political division within the coalition fighting to reinstate Yemen’s internationally-recognized President, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. In late April, Hadi fired the governor of Aden province, Aidarous al-Zoubeidi, along with another senior cabinet minister, Hani bin Breik. Both of the officials are associated with Yemen’s southern separatist movement, which has served as one of the key political and military partners of the pro-Hadi coalition in southern Yemen. The officials’ dismissal has led to a resurgence in secessionist sentiment among southern Yemenis. Backed by massive pro-separatist rallies in the streets of Aden—the current seat of power for the Hadi government—al-Zoubeidi and bin Breik established the ‘Southern Transition Council.’ The body, whose declared purpose is to govern and represent the provinces of South Yemen, includes a number of southern provincial governors and government ministers, making it a clear challenge to Hadi’s claims to legitimate sovereignty over much of the territory it holds. The formation of the council—along with Hadi’s immediate condemnation of the move—exposes deep political divisions within Hadi’s support base, striking a blow to those seeking to maintain a unified Yemeni state by forcefully re-installing the Hadi regime.
The friction between key constituencies in the pro-Hadi coalition raises serious questions over the U.S. and Saudi-led strategy to stabilize Yemen by defeating the Houthis and returning the Hadi regime to power in Sanaa. Even if the threat posed by Iran-backed Houthi militants could be rolled back militarily—a questionable proposition given the current trajectory of the conflict—there is no reason to believe that the Hadi regime will have more success uniting the country than he did in his previous attempt at governance. Given Hadi’s lack of political capital on the ground, it is doubtful that any military effort that does not serve an overall political strategy can bring long-term viability to the Yemeni state.
Currently, neither the U.S. nor the Saudi-led coalition are seriously attempting to address the underlying political roots of the conflict in Yemen, or its resulting humanitarian catastrophe. Rather, the Trump administration’s policy toward Yemen remains focused almost exclusively on counterterrorism operations and military support for the Saudi-led campaign to defeat the Houthis. The recent $110 billion U.S.-Saudi arms deal reached during President Trump’s first trip abroad is a clear reaffirmation of that strategy. Such hi-tech weaponry in the hands of poorly trained Saudi pilots has been used to devastating effect against Yemeni civilians, yet has returned no marginal increase in the Hadi regime’s legitimacy among average Yemenis. Nor has it persuaded either side to meaningfully seek what is likely the only solution with a genuine chance of success—a negotiated settlement based on political compromise. Until the calculations of Yemen’s belligerents and their international backers are revised, al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State will remain the prime beneficiaries of the ongoing violence. Indeed, both groups—well-schooled in the art of exploiting power vacuums—are poised to continue reaping the benefits of chaos and tragedy in Yemen.
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