After nearly nine months of war, a tentative week-long ceasefire in Yemen began on Tuesday, as representatives from the country's warring parties sat down for make or break peace talks in Switzerland.
Sporadic fighting continued to be reported after the ceasefire took effect at noon local time, including in the hotly contested city of Taiz, where some local forces resisting Houthi rebels refused to cooperate with the deal. But the Saudi-backed government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Houthis said they had agreed to temporarily cease hostilities, possibly providing a desperately needed window for humanitarian aid to reach the more than 20 million Yemenis in need of assistance.
It's war largely fought in the media shadow of other regional conflicts, Yemen has been ripped apart at the seams since late March, when Riyadh's coalition began bombing Houthi forces and their allies loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Nearly 6,000 people — about half of them civilians — have been killed since then. According to the UN and human rights workers, the majority of civilian deaths have resulted from coalition airstrikes, which are backed by American logistical and intelligence assistance.
"Our meeting this week in Switzerland comes at a crucial moment in which threats and dangers abound and challenges are increasing both locally and regionally," said Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN's special envoy for Yemen, in a statement. "The failure to reach a solution will have disastrous human and material consequences for the nation."
Though the Saudi-led campaign has been able to reverse some of the Houthi's advances, notably in the southern port city of Aden, recent months have seen the conflict settle into a grinding war of attrition. The internationally recognized government of Hadi exerts only a modicum of control in the country and is riven with its own internal strife. Fighters united in opposition to the predominantly Shia Houthi rebels, including Southern cessationists and jihadists, have grown increasingly fragmented. In the vacuum left behind by fighting, the Yemen branches of al Qaeda and the Islamic State have also become progressively more assertive. Earlier this month, the Islamic State claimed it carried out a bombing attack that left the governor of Aden dead.
"The fact that resistance factions in places like Taiz refused to cooperate with a ceasefire underlines the lack of control the central government has," said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. That, he added, only furthered the need to broker a deal now, rather than let the violence spiral into increasingly localized power struggles.
In New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon welcomed the talks in Switzerland, the exact location of which has not been disclosed.
"He urges all parties to adhere to this cessation of hostilities and work towards a permanent and lasting end to the conflict," said Ban's Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.
Heading into the new year, Yemen's armed groups and the Saudi coalition still have the capacity to keep fighting, said Baron. But doing so would render Yemen, by most measures, effectively destroyed.
"Yemen is very close to the breaking point, and if these talks fail there is no saying what abyss it will fall into," said Baron. "You're talking about Yemen absolutely collapsing as a state and society — as a place where people live and eat and raise families, on that most basic level."
Both sides of the conflict have been implicated in gross violations of human rights. The Houthis and their allies have routinely shelled civilian areas, and laid anti-personnel landmines as they retreat — likely in violation of international law. On Sunday, Human Rights Watch accused the rebels of shuttering a number of civil society organizations and arbitrarily detaining activists in the capital, Sanaa, which it still controls. The rebels, who largely hail from the a northern Zaydi Shia community, have also conscripted minors to fight.
The Saudi coalition, armed with billions of dollars worth of weapons — largely sold by Washington — has come under increased scrutiny in recent months after a litany of human rights reports implicated it in the killing of hundreds of civilians. The US, which admits to providing "targeting assistance," in addition to hundreds of refueling sorties over Saudi airspace, has in recent months attempted to distance itself from the coalition. Due to its involvement, Human Rights Watch has named Washington as party to the conflict, and said the US should carry out its own investigations into civilian deaths. The US does not consider itself a member of the coalition, in spite of its outsized and indispensable role.
Last Friday, in response to questions about civilian casualties, State Department spokesperson Michael Kirby repeated talking points that have been used by American officials for months.
"We've encouraged them all [the coalition's members] to investigate any credible accounts of civilian casualties resulting from coalition strikes; to provide a timely, thoroughly and objective accounting of the facts," said Kirby.
Pressed on whether he knew of any such Saudi inquiries, Kirby said, "I have seen no investigations."
In fact, perhaps the only time Saudi officials have admitted to striking a civilian target was when the country's ambassador to the UN told VICE News that it had accidentally struck a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Sadaa province in October. The next day, however, the ambassador claimed he was misquoted and denied any such attack had taken place.
The scale of Riyadh's intervention in its southern neighbor comes with little precedent, and it remains unclear what the Saudis feel they must get from the talks in Switzerland, which are being attended by 24 Yemeni representatives.
Since its passage in April, the Saudis have insisted that the Houthis abide by a Security Council resolution demanding the rebels and Saleh loyalists lay down arms withdrawal from all seized territory — including Sanaa. In the interim, the Saudis have tried their hand at funding the humanitarian response in Yemen, but even that turned into an awkward drawn out spectacle after Saudi officials exerted control over funds they promised the UN, angering officials. The Houthis have reportedly told UN mediators they are willing to abide by the resolution, but little came of those communications, which were brushed aside by Riyadh. Nor is it clear that the Houthis would back their words with actions on the ground.
Prior to the conflict, Yemen was already the Middle East's poorest country, and a Saudi blockade of its shores and borders since March has dwindled imports of food and basic necessities, including medicine. On Tuesday, the British non-profit Save the Children reported that one in three Yemeni children under five years of age — some 1.3 million — are already suffering from acute malnutrition.
"This week's talks are a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of children as every day the conflict goes on, we get closer to a man made famine," said Edward Santiago, Save the Children's Yemen director, in a statement. "Leaders at the talks hold the future of an entire generation in their hands."
Watch VICE News' documentary Yemen: A Failed State: