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The President's Take

The Human Cost of War in Yemen and Ethiopia

In his introduction to this month’s CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's Interim President Richard Atwood weighs what's needed to avert even greater humanitarian disasters in the ongoing wars in Yemen and Ethiopia's Tigray region.

I’ll use this month’s President’s Take to highlight two places where we’re worried things could fall apart further over the month ahead, at enormous human cost. 

First is Yemen. The UN calls the war the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. 

It has left almost a quarter of a million people dead, more than half from malnutrition and disease. Many millions more are starving, displaced or homeless. The UN’s humanitarian chief recently warned of the “worst famine the world has seen in decades”. Four hundred thousand children under the age of five are severely malnourished, he said, and “in their last weeks and months” of life. 

Things are poised to get worse. 

The Huthis, who already control much of northern Yemen, are pushing toward Marib city, the last northern stronghold of forces aligned to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A battle for the city would put at risk the estimated one million people living there, including many displaced from elsewhere. Aid agencies say they are ill prepared to deal with hundreds of thousands fleeing violence. The battle would compound Yemen’s food crisis, which is driven in large part by rising prices of staples. It would disrupt an important trade route through which basic goods pass north. Marib is a small but important source of fuel, so the offensive would likely further drive up oil and gas prices, in turn raising the cost of food and drinking water. It could prompt violence elsewhere, especially if anti-Huthi forces withdraw from a 2018 agreement that ended fighting around another key hub, the port city of Hodeida. 

Averting the offensive won’t be easy. As our statement last week outlined, it will probably require a nationwide ceasefire, which in turn likely entails the Hadi government and its external backers, most prominently Saudi Arabia, making concessions to the Huthis. These might include the lifting of restrictions on goods entering the Huthi-held port of Hodeida and resuming some commercial flights to the capital Sanaa’s airport, which Riyadh has prevented for four years. Neither Hadi nor the Saudis will be pleased, but the alternative is that the government loses its last toehold in northern Yemen. Ideally, a ceasefire would reinvigorate efforts to bring the parties back to talks. 

Since coming to office, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has taken positive steps. It lifted the Huthis’ terrorist designation, which humanitarian organisations argued would obstruct aid delivery. It ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign, including an air offensive that has too often killed civilians. Biden appointed a seasoned diplomat as Yemen envoy. U.S. officials say it’s a priority to end a war in which many feel complicit. 

Washington’s success in Yemen is, however, linked to its wider Gulf policy and relations with Iran – the Huthis receive support from Tehran, which hosts their ambassador as Yemen’s official representative – and Saudi Arabia, which backs Hadi. That policy is, to put it politely, still taking shape. 

For now, relations with both Tehran and Riyadh are fraught. The U.S. and Iran both say they want to get back to the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018. Yet neither wants to make the first move in reversing violations of the deal – on Tehran’s side, ratcheting up the country’s nuclear program beyond the deal’s limits while curtailing UN inspectors’ access and, on Washington’s part, the imposition of harsh sanctions. As for Riyadh, it eyes the Biden administration warily as it tries to, on one hand, recalibrate its relationship with the Saudis and, on the other, avoid a complete rupture. The release of a U.S. intelligence report which accuses Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of ordering Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder cannot have made relations easier. 

Extricating Yemen diplomacy from the bigger picture will likely be impossible. Riyadh and Tehran alone can’t end the war. As our Yemen expert noted in a recent article, there can be no lasting peace without buy-in from a broad range of the local actors who drive Yemen’s multifaceted war. But Saudi Arabia and Iran will need to play ball. Right now, it’s far from clear how Biden plans to make that happen, for all that the subject weighs heavily on many Obama-era officials’ consciences. As the war drags on, the UN’s ominous warnings about humanitarian catastrophe are all the likelier to come true.

The other war I’ll highlight is in Tigray, northern Ethiopia. 

Fighting there grinds on, an increasingly horrific picture of its human toll is emerging, and – as our briefing last month detailed – it risks becoming ever more protracted. The war was supposed to be a quick operation by the Ethiopian army to remove and bring to justice leaders from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who for years jointly ruled Ethiopia but fell out with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after he became premier in 2018. In January, the interim government appointed by Addis Ababa to run the region warned that some 4.5 million people – over two thirds of Tigray’s population – needed food aid. Large parts of the region remain beyond the reach of humanitarian agencies due to fighting and bureaucratic obstacles. As in Yemen, fighting threatens to provoke famine. Eritrean forces are also battling Tigray’s former rulers and are allegedly responsible for some of the worst abuses. Very little, if any, aid if getting into the northern areas of Tigray that Eritrean troops occupy. (Our Horn podcast last week covers the humanitarian catastrophe and Eritrean involvement.)

As more information comes to light on what’s happening on the ground, Abiy faces sharper criticism. On 27 February, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned atrocities committed by conflict parties and joined the European Union in demanding a unilateral cessation of hostilities. Abiy’s office recently struck a more conciliatory tone, accepting international support of investigations of alleged war crimes and promising humanitarian workers unhindered access. Still, his government and Tigray’s ousted leaders remain a long way apart, with Addis rejecting any form of ceasefire or negotiations. 

For now, the imperative is getting Eritrean forces out of Tigray and getting aid in. There may be military costs for Abiy in losing Eritrean fighting power but those forces provoke such local fury that the longer they stay the harder it will be to win any acceptance from Tigrayans for federal rule. Although Addis rules out a settlement with fugitive Tigrayan leaders, it could allow humanitarian agencies to negotiate with them access to the rural areas they hold. It should lift the obstacles humanitarian agencies still face in reaching areas that federal forces and their allies control. The UN Security Council, which is set to discuss the Tigray conflict today, should back calls for Eritrean withdrawal and a stop to fighting in order to facilitate emergency aid. 

With an internet blackout ongoing, it’s still hard to know exactly what is happening on the ground, but if things are even half as bad as reports suggest, it will be very hard for Abiy to recover his international standing. Tigray’s leaders shoulder responsibility for their part in taking the country back to civil war by defying federal authority. But that blame game seems increasingly irrelevant in light of the abuse Tigrayans appear to be enduring now, all the more so if large numbers people start starving to death. The premier’s Nobel Peace Prize already seems a distant memory. The sooner he can end the fighting, the better – for Tigray, for Ethiopia and for himself. 

I’ll end again with a word on our friend and colleague Michael Kovrig, still detained by the Chinese government despite doing nothing wrong. This month President Biden made a welcome pledge to work for Michael’s release and that of another Canadian, Michael Spavor, imprisoned at the same time. It’s long past time for Michael to come home. We’re thinking of you, Michael. We miss you.