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The President's Take

Rare glimmers of hope in Yemen and Nagorno-Karabakh

Our President Robert Malley's monthly column to accompany the CrisisWatch conflict tracker for October/November 2018 looks at how, amid growing tensions around the globe, there are new hopes for breakthroughs to peace in Yemen and between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

It is impossible to look back at the past month and not first think of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. His personal fate reverberated so widely because of who he was, where he worked and how he appears to have been killed. Attention only grew with every attempted Saudi cover-up, each one more clumsy and incriminatory than the last. There were questions, too, about how the tragic loss of one person’s life might shift geopolitical plates, for better or worse, whether regarding U.S.-Saudi relations, those between Europe and the Kingdom, Riyadh and Istanbul, or within the Gulf Cooperation Council itself.

Arguably the most welcome, unintended side-effect of the murder so far has been renewed interest in the war in Yemen – a country with the dubious distinction of regularly featuring in this column. The Saudi and Emirati-backed coalition has shifted its approach around Hodeida from a campaign to enter the port and city to an effort to surround its periphery and squeeze Huthi supply lines. But while that might spare the city’s inhabitants a bloody street battle, it’s hardly good news. It has produced different but no less alarming humanitarian concerns: the fighting threatens to cut access to the main supply roads that move goods from the port to the north, where conditions are direst. Humanitarian agencies also report increased fighting near major grain silos; should any of them be damaged, humanitarian consequences once again would soar. The UN already is warning of what could be the worst famine in a century and shocking images of starving Yemeni children are appearing on social media. In a positive sign of new U.S. pressure, Defence Secretary James Mattis called for a ceasefire within 30 days, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for an end to missile and drone strikes from Huthi-controlled areas into Saudi Arabia and UAE and for Saudi-led coalition airstrikes to cease in all populated areas. All those close to Riyadh should use this moment of increased leverage with the Kingdom to push for a ceasefire and support the UN envoy’s peace efforts.

Also of note this past month is Afghanistan, where attacks intensified in the run-up to the 20 October parliamentary elections. The polls took place, but the real test comes over the next few weeks as electoral authorities tally and announce results. How losing candidates and their supporters will respond is unclear. Instability and tensions could well rise at that time, which would bode badly for the presidential vote scheduled next April and risk detracting from the U.S. government’s welcome effort to restart negotiations with the Taliban insurgency. Those talks are as urgent and timely as ever as indications persist that both sides remain interested in talks.

Finally, two relatively good news stories: Armenia and Azerbaijan at long last established a communication channel designed to help prevent incidents along their international borders as well as along the Line of Contact in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict zone – perhaps a prelude to an atmosphere of greater trust and more substantive steps toward ending the conflict. And more from Ethiopia: despite rising ethnic violence, months of negotiations between the government and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an ethnic Somali rebel movement, culminated in a framework agreement that could end the insurgency in the Somali Regional State. Many challenges lie ahead for new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But those peace-making efforts, combined with the parliament’s election of Africa’s only sitting female president and Abiy’s continued steps to transform his country and its foreign relations, almost certainly make Ethiopia the most hopeful story of the year thus far.