Thousands of people killed and millions on the run. It’s not Syria but the other conflict in the Middle East where powerful regional interests are colliding in a daily grind with no end in sight: Yemen.
After the country’s leader Ali Abdullah Saleh lost power on the heels of the Arab Spring, Yemen has become a battlefield between the Houthi militia – allegedly backed by Iran – and the internationally-recognised government led by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition.
It is a chaotic war confounded by tribal loyalties and old unresolved domestic conflicts that date back many years.
But because of the involvement of the main regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, what happens in Yemen matters to people across the Middle East.
We sit down with Abdul-Malek al-Mekhlafi, the Yemeni foreign minister, on Talk to Al Jazeera to discuss his government’s strategy going forward, and whether there can be a way out of the bloodshed in Yemen.
“We need to reach peace. We have gone to many places in our search for peace. We went to Geneva, and we spent 115 days meeting in Kuwait. The problem is not on our side; it’s on the other side. We agreed to all proposals from the UN secretary-general’s envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and the international community,” he says.
“We signed an agreement for peace, but the other party refused to sign. Now, the international community has to force the Houthis to accept peace. Otherwise, the government will proceed militarily with its plans to subdue them. We don’t want this solution, and the government never wanted a military confrontation. But it was compelled to fight back in self-defence.”
We discuss Iran’s role in the civil war and how a UN verification mission hasn’t found much evidence of arms going into Sanaa from Iran.
Al-Mekhlafi refutes this, saying the Hadi government plans to “file a formal complaint against Iran, supported with evidence, as we have information about new arms smuggled lately to the Houthis, which might have enabled them to launch some rockets and escalate military actions against Yemeni liberated areas and Saudi borders.”
Due to the Iranian position on the conflict, the Yemeni government has cut diplomatic ties with Iran, he says.
“Iran is constantly declaring its support to the Houthis. After the Houthis took over the capital, Sanaa, the Iranians said that this is the fourth capital falling in the hands of Iran. They meant Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, then Sanaa. They said that the Persian Empire is rising now after occupying Sanaa. They don’t hesitate to say that they have an army undergoing training and that they will fight everywhere, including Sanaa. The Iranian support of the Houthis is obvious and clear … They now brag about being representatives of the Houthis and a party to the internal Yemeni equation.”
According to the United Nations, over 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s 19-month-old civil war and over three million have been forced from their homes. At least half of the population suffers from malnutrition. Twenty-one million people, in a country of 28 million, are in need of humanitarian aid.
Human rights groups say civilian homes, hospitals, schools, markets, weddings and power plants have been attacked. The UN’s office for human rights concludes that some of the coalition air strikes may amount to war crimes.
We speak to al-Mekhlafi about the human cost of this war and ask him if the coalition has made mistakes.
“This is a war. There is no such thing as a clean war. All wars have consequences. The question should be: Who opted for war? If we exaggerate and amplify the mistakes of the coalition, we will only be left with the option of surrendering. The consequences of caving in to a militia are much worse than war. Caving in will bring Yemen into a war that will last for many years to come. Now, we have accomplished the better part of our objectives, and we can accomplish the rest of them,” al-Mekhlafi says.
He says the Arab coalition has formed missions of inquiry to investigate the mistakes, and they are “committed to mending all the errors”.
“What bothers me, though, is that the majority of the reports you’ve mentioned only mention the air strikes mistakes. They ignore the overall cost of war which was imposed on us by the militias. The number of people killed by the militias is much higher than those killed by air strikes. The majority of those killed as per your figure, which is higher than the real figure, were killed by the militias, not the air strikes.”
But the UN says the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for 60 percent of children’s deaths and 50 percent of the attacks on hospitals and schools.
Al-Mekhlafi maintains that the Hadi government and the coalition “spare no effort to abide by the highest standards of international laws”.
The Yemeni foreign minister adds that international reports do not properly take into account the violations of the Houthi militias, which he says have “no moral qualms” and use hospitals and schools as hiding places during air strikes or as weapons storage facilities. He claims 80 percent of fighters are children aged between nine to 17. In 2014, the UN found the Houthis had recruited 140 boys.
“All of this doubles the human cost of war since this militia has no moral values and do not abide by international laws,” he says. “As for us, the coalition and the Yemeni government, we are committed to the international laws, and we will make sure that any wrongful act will be investigated and dealt with properly.”
Increasingly, the UN Human Rights Council is asking for an international commission of inquiry.
Al-Mekhlafi says a national committee of inquiry has compiled a report detailing violations.
“We hope that reporting the facts to the public and the decision makers, here, in the US and Britain, will be done in a fair manner,” he says.
After peace talks broke down in August, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for renewed talks with the goal of forming a government of national unity.
“We welcome any solution which restores security, peace, and stability to the country, as a settlement compromise,” al-Mekhlafi says. “Our only condition is that the state monopolises weapons, that there be no militias because the existence of militias means no peace.”