WASHINGTON - A United Nations official has told VOA that the organization is reducing its aid to areas controlled by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in northern Yemen because of the group’s restrictions on humanitarian operations in a country that is said to have the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
“We don’t go to an area and just give assistance; we do an assessment to know who needs that aid, and we are blocked from doing that. We also have to monitor the work that we do, and this is blocked, too. And if we can’t assess and if we can’t monitor, then we can’t manage the risks of operating in areas like northern Yemen,” a U.N. official told VOA.
Nearly five years of civil war has taken a heavy toll on Yemenis, with nearly 100,000 deaths and an estimated 4.3 million people displaced since the start of the conflict.
According to the U.N., with 80% of the entire population in need of some form of assistance or protection, there is no other country in the world where a higher percentage of the entire population needs help. The agency estimates 7.4 million Yemenis do not know where their next meal is coming from and are at risk of famine.
The U.N. official told VOA the decision to scale down U.N. aid will likely affect civilians in northern Yemen. But the official added that U.N. airlifting operations to transport several critically ill civilians from the Houthi-controlled areas will continue.
“Discussions have not always been easy, but it’s hugely important that modalities are now agreed by all sides,” the official said. “There are thousands of patients who need treatment outside Yemen. The solution to their plight is to lift all restrictions on humanitarian assistance, end the fighting and lift the blockades that have created so much suffering.”
Earlier this month, the first U.N. “mercy flights” evacuated a group of six chronically ill patients and their families from Houthi-controlled Sanaa airport for treatment in Jordan and Egypt. The operation was seen as a positive step toward establishing a form of trust between the warring sides.
Iran-backed Houthis in 2014 took over the capital, Sanaa, following failed negotiations with the Saudi-backed government. The group in 2015 took over the presidential palace, pushing the government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to resign. That soon was followed by the formation of a military coalition of Persian Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia against the Houthis. President Hadi afterward rescinded his resignation and moved his government to the interim-capital Aden.
Houthis and the U.N.-backed government in late September launched talks in Jordan with the hope of reaching an agreement to end the conflict. Several weeks of murky calm was welcomed internationally, but the conflict flared up again in late January after Houthi rebel missile strikes and the Saudi-led aerial bombardment resumed.
“Whoever started this renewed violence, it is unequivocally the case that there has been a huge rupture of confidence and a huge loss of life for the sake of uncertain territorial gains,” U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said last week.
Griffiths in a tweet asked both sides to de-escalate, adding “the Yemeni people deserve better than a life of perpetual war.”
The renewed fighting in recent days has concentrated in the three areas of Nehm near Sanaa, the mountainous district of Jawf in the north, and the province of Marib, where a ballistic missile in January hit a government military camp that killed more than 120 Yemeni soldiers. Houthis have rejected the accusation that they were behind the attack.
Helen Lackner, a Yemen analyst at European Council on Foreign Relations, said the ballistic missile attack was seen by the Saudi-backed government as a major blow by Houthis to a cease-fire. The attack, paired with stalled peace negotiations, ultimately triggered the renewal of war.
“A possible element of why the violence surged recently is that the Houthi doing their contribution to manifest [their] Iranian ally dissatisfaction after the Soleimani killing,” Lackner said, referring to the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in early January.
Lackner added that the renewed war has made a peace deal more complicated regardless of international attempts to reduce military operations in the past few months. An agreement to put down arms is still an option, however.
Some experts said Houthi rebels are seeking to gain more territory and consolidate their power ahead of any possible peace plan in the coming months.
Fatima Abo Alasrar, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the rebels are pushing to capture areas with strategic importance, such as Marib, which holds an important oil field and seaports, such as the port of Aden.
Abo Alasrar said the Houthis are aiming to expand their area in the past few months as the backdoor negotiation channels were opened, especially after United Arab Emirates and Sudan announced plans to reduce their troops in Yemen as a part of the Saudi-led coalition.
“Houthis seek to make as many victories as possible in the field, so they can use it as a leverage, and use it to negotiate from a powerful position,” she said.