Hours before the start of a humanitarian pause in Yemen, Houthi shells and Saudi airstrikes continued to fall across the country, as observers expressed skepticism that a lasting ceasefire could be reached amid what is now among the world's worst humanitarian crises.
The United Nations-brokered pause, announced Thursday in New York, is scheduled to begin at midnight Saturday and last until the end of Ramadan on July 17. The goal of the truce, which was hashed together by UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh, is to allow humanitarian supplies to reach more of the country's estimated 21 million people in need of assistance.
On Thursday, spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said the UN had received assurances of cooperation from Houthi representatives, as well Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who has fled to Riyadh.
A Saudi-led coalition has bombed Houthi positions since late March, as the rebels reached the southern port city of Aden, with the professed goal of reinstating Hadi. Since then, the Houthis, who have enjoyed support from factions loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have doubled down on attempts to expand their territory. Reports in recent weeks of heavy civilian casualties from both the airstrikes and Houthi shelling and anti-aircraft fire had stepped up pressure for a pause, however brief.
On Friday, following strikes through the night, coalition jets continued to pound areas in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, while Houthi forces shelled residential areas in Aden and continued their advance into the eastern Hadramawt desert.
UN-led peace talks in Geneva collapsed earlier this month without reaching agreement, but Dujarric described the more recent truce as a "confidence-building step towards a durable cease-fire."
However, many analysts are less confident that it will lead to even a temporary halt to the fighting. Adam Baron, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE news that clashes may continue whatever the agreement reached by leaders. "This [pause] has been agreed at a higher level, but on the ground some fighters are going to say it doesn't concern them and that they'll continue to fight regardless."
"The hope of the UN, the US and other western countries is that this will be foundation for something else," Baron added. "But the situation in Yemen is so complicated and is getting significantly worse to the extent that it's hard to see how it will bring things forward. At best it's half of a step one."
On Friday, the AFP quoted a Saudi official as saying, "we believe that this pause will be useless."
"I believe the coalition has not received… any evidence of commitment of the other party," said the official, who was not identified.
Earlier this week, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, head of the Houthi's Ansarullah group, said in a televised address that "we don't have big hope in its success, because the success is linked to the commitment of the Saudi regime and its allies."
Even as Saudi airpower has hedged some of their advances, Houthi forces have proven resilient, and remain in control of much of the populated areas in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia alleges that the Houthis, who hail from a Shia minority in Yemen's north, have received financial and military support from Iran, something that Tehran denies. As they struggle to dislodge the Houthis from cities and towns, the coalition has maintained a virtual blockade of Yemen, which they say is meant to stop weapons and supplies from reaching the Houthis, but which has also effectively reduced commercial supplies of basic necessities to a trickle. Energy, food, and medicine prices have skyrocketed since March, causing hospitals and businesses to shut down. Humanitarian agencies, many of which evacuated foreign staff at the outset of the conflict, say they are at risk of not being able to operate at all.
Millions are now at risk of famine, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OCHA) and almost 13 million are classed as food insecure by the World Food Program (WFP). Dujarric said that a week's break in hostilities would allow aid agencies to replenish stockpiles and feed 1.2 million people for a month. In April, Saudi Arabia pledged $274 million to fund a UN humanitarian "flash" appeal for the country. None of that money has been delivered.
The US, which has lent logistical support to the Saudi coalition, has in recent weeks privately pressured Riyadh to cut down on the civilian toll of their strikes. On Tuesday, the UN's human rights office reported that 1,528 civilians had been killed in Yemen since late March.
"There is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen," US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said in a statement Friday. "The parties should continue engaging with the UN to take confidence-building measures toward a durable cease-fire accompanied by a disengagement of forces and the release of political prisoners."
Robert Jordan, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told VICE news the Saudi-coalition strikes had further disaffected Yemenis already weary from years of American drone strikes on alleged al Qaeda sites in the country.
"There was so much resentment of the US drone strikes that a lot of the tribes and the population started turning against the US and Saudi Arabia," said Jordan, referring to Sunni tribes that have in the past been supported by Saudi Arabia, and some of whom have taken up arms against the Houthis.
"Now we also have the catastrophe of so much civilian damage that the tribes may be more alienated that they were in the past — some may even see a path to lining up with the Houthis, or al Qaeda," he explained.
The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is the first military test for new King Salman bin Abdulaziz and the country's neophyte Defense Minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the King's son. The Saudi government and official press has invested heavily in promoting the Defense Minister, and analysts say he must come away from the Yemen intervention with the semblance of a victory — an interim government or at last a partial retreat on the part of the Houthis — lest public opinion turn against the royal wager.
Jordan said in lieu of a political resolution, the Saudis may be bunkering down for a "war of attrition" — waiting until the Houthis run out of rockets and other weapons.
Watch the VICE News documentary, "Yemen: A Failed State."
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