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Yemen: Caught between war hammer and coronavirus anvil

Apr 08,2020 - Last updated at Apr 08,2020

To concentrate the attention of global governments on winning the war against the coronavirus, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for ceasefires in armed conflicts the world over. His appeal has had mixed regional results: At least temporary success in Syria and abysmal failure in Yemen.

The Russian-Turkish ceasefire declared in mid-March in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib just happened to coincide with the declaration by the World Health Organisation that the coronavirus (COVID-19) is a global pandemic.

The ceasefire has held while the Syrian government and the province's armed anti-government factions focus on containing the plague. Since both Russia and Turkey have deployed ground troops in Idlib, it is also in their interest to prevent a major outbreak among the three million people who live in Idlib. The ceasefire has, however, been disrupted by skirmishes and shelling on the edges of Idlib. Russian aircraft and drones patrol the province's airspace, while Turkey continues to reinforce its bases and posts.

The Britain-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that the Idlib death toll of 103 during March was the lowest since unrest began in March 2011.  However, the observatory has said that the number of cases in the 70 per cent of Syrian controlled by the government has risen, hundreds have been quarantined and there are confirmed cases among Iranians and Iraqis.

Syrian Kurdish officials administering the northeasternQamishli area have received a government team of medical personnel to identify and assess virus cases there, as the Kurds, who have imposed a lockdown, have few medical resources to contain an outbreak. The Kurds are testing and quarantining both Syrian soldiers and civilians arriving in northeastern Hasakeh province.

Following Daesh rioting in Kurdish prisons last month, the US earmarked $1.2 million for the 100,000-plus Kurdish-held Daesh detainees, families and supporters in jails and camps but nothing for the general population. This sum is a drop in the bucket of massive need among Daesh prisoners, families and friends, whose horrendous accommodations make them vulnerable to coronavirus contagion.

Ankara has accepted a ceasefire and announced it is reducing troop movements in Idlib. However,   as it regards armed Kurds as enemies rather than Daesh or Al Qaeda-linkedfactions, Turkey has not halted harassment of Kurdish forces east of Idlib. Under international pressure, Turkey has restarted the Aluk pumping station providing potable water for 400,000 people in Hasakeh after halting operations for more than a week.

At the end of last month, Yemen's warring parties, fearing a country-wide pandemic, agreed to their first national ceasefire in four years. While no infections have been reported in Yemen, the World Health Organisation has warned that its people, whose defences have been destroyed by war and disease, are at high risk of infection and death.

Announced on the 5th anniversary of the intervention, theceasefire did not take hold despite the urgent coronavirus threat. Soon after the halt to hostilities was declared, Riyadh reported the interception and destruction of three armed drones flying over the capital and the city of Jazan in the kingdom. The rebel Houthis claimed the aborted attack, the first in more than a year, to which the Saudis responded by air strikes on the Yemeni capital, Sana'a and the port city of Hodeida, both controlled by the Houthis.

This ceasefire may have failed because the Saudis cannot break the stalemate in a war they launched in the belief they would win within weeks while the Houthis, encouraged by Iran, have seized strategic territory from pro-Saudi forces since January and believe they are winning.

Neither side is prepared to yield.

The rejection of the ceasefire is certain to deepen the misery of the already miserable Yemeni people, 80 per cent of whom survive on external humanitarian aid. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warns that Yemen "will face a new, merciless enemy that will be unbeatable if the armed conflict continues." A ceasefire at this time could enable the UN mediator, Martin Griffiths, to negotiate an end to the war and could "help prevent a COVID-19 outbreak" in a country where an already weak health sector has been "decimated" and development gains set back more than two decades.

Since Yemen remains a country at war, UNDP makes the point that the battle against the far greater danger of the pandemic cannot be won if Yemen cannot strengthen its health system as the “first line of defence” against the virus. Yemen must also carry out social distancing and quarantining once the virus appears, and provide for Yemenis until their economy can be rebuilt and jobs can be created. UNDP calls for urgent action on a ceasefire to ensure the virus does not plunge Yemen into another crisis.


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