(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • WATCH LIVE: The future of the UN's agency for Palestine refugees

    Join us at the Graduate Institute in Geneva or through a livestream via the link below on Tuesday, 29 January at 18.30 CET.

    IRIN Director Heba Aly will be in discussion with Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees).

    Watch on YouTube

    WATCH LIVE: The future of the UN's agency for Palestine refugees
  • Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar

    What next in Venezuela?

     

    The crisis in Venezuela has bubbled away for months, demanding media attention only when protests flare or the sheer number of people fleeing the freefalling economy and increasingly authoritarian state becomes difficult to ignore. Not now. Since President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in two weeks ago for a new six-year term, things have escalated quickly. No sooner was a revolt by members of the National Guard quelled than protesters took to the streets demanding he step down. Opposition challenger Juan Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself leader and has since been recognised as such by the United States and a clutch of regional powers. No one knows what will happen next. Talk of a US military intervention seems to be just that for now, but there’s no sign either that Maduro – still backed by Venezuela’s armed forces – is prepared to accept any offer of amnesty and leave quietly. If he does go, it won’t cure Venezuela’s ills overnight, but it would provide the change in government some argue is the only long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis Maduro has long denied – one that has left his people desperate, hungry, and sick. A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal this week indicates that infant mortality rates have risen back to 1990s levels.

     

    “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede”

     

    Around 9,000 Nigerians who say they fled armed clashes involving Boko Haram are “shuttling” back and forth in the Cameroon border area, a UN official said in Geneva. The group was pushed back after trying to take refuge in the neighbouring country, with Cameroonian officials admitting that insecurity forced the government to take exceptional measures, despite its supposed "open doors" policy. UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon Allegra Baiocchi told a press conference "the right of asylum is being tested". She said many of the group were women and children. Cameroon’s director of civil protection Yap Mariatou told IRIN that a recent attack on the border town of Achigashia by an armed group had put the authorities on edge. “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede,” she said. The UN is appealing for $299 million to help 2.3 million people in Cameroon, including about 100,000 refugees from Nigeria and more than 400,000 internally displaced by an ongoing separatist rebellion.

     

    Mediterranean crossing just got even more dangerous

     

    The EU’s troubled naval mission against people smuggling in the Mediterranean faced yet another setback this week as Germany announced it was suspending participation, a decision MPs said was the result of Italy’s consistent refusal to allow rescued migrants entry at its ports. The removal of Germany’s ship leaves the mission, Operation Sophia, with only two vessels. Meanwhile, migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean – 201 so far this year – including in two recent shipwrecks, one off the coast of Libya, the second between Morocco and Spain. Many of those rescued are being brought to Libya, and Médecins Sans Frontières says it has seen a “sharp increase” in the number of people held in crowded detention centres there – conditions are dire, with shortages of clean water and food. Human Rights Watch said EU policies, including the decision to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return people, are contributing to a “cycle of extreme abuse” against migrants in the country. For a forensic examination of one Mediterranean incident in 2017 in which at least 20 migrants died, check out this film, “How Europe Outsources Migrant Suffering at Sea”, from Times Insider.

     

    Forwarding hate

     

    There’s increasing scrutiny on the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. This week, messaging app WhatsApp announced a five-recipient limit for message forwarding. WhatsApp messages – which can be rapidly distributed through group and broadcast features – have been linked to a spate of lynchings in India and a pre-election flood of false news in Brazil. Sri Lanka also temporarily shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, and others after anti-Muslim violence last March. WhatsApp recipient limits were recommended in a “human rights impact assessment” commissioned by Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. That report focused on Facebook usage in Myanmar, where UN investigators say the company was ”slow and ineffective” in stemming hate speech on its platform amid the violent 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. But hate speech on WhatsApp could prove even tougher to contain: the company may enforce “community standards” on Facebook, but WhatsApp messages are encrypted.

     

    Overheard in Davos

     

    Sure, the mood at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was generally sombre, but there was a bright spot for some: the increasing spotlight on social issues, including humanitarian response. Humanitarian topics included sessions on private sector investment in fragile states and the use of artificial intelligence in crises. The WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to promote so-called humanitarian investing – the private sector working to boost economies in crisis-affected areas in order to help people get back on their feet and avoid becoming dependent on aid. The IKEA Foundation pledged 6.8 million euros to help create livelihoods for refugees in Jordan. Still, investors were honest about the constraints of putting capital into fragile states at scale. On the tech side, AI was front and centre with discussions on its use in crisis zones. It has huge potential – from predicting famines to chatbots that help refugees further their education to facial recognition for identifying family members separated by war. But what happens when AI-aggregated data falls into the wrong hands? Or when machines reinforce political or human biases in the data? Many agencies, one observer noted, are pushing ahead with pilot projects and thinking about due diligence later. For more from Davos, see our roundup on IRIN’s event, “Meet the new humanitarians changing the face of aid.”

    In case you missed it:

     

    Central African Republic: Talks aimed at ending CAR’s long-running conflict began in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, this week. Brokered by the African Union, the negotiations involve representatives of the government and 14 armed groups. Aid officials say a successful peace accord is critical to ensuring the ongoing humanitarian crisis doesn’t deepen.

     

    Indonesia: Dozens of people were killed after heavy rains battered Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province this week, leading to floods and landslides. Local authorities say the rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating homes and forcing more than 3,000 people to evacuate.

     

    Philippines: A majority voted to ratify a long-awaited peace deal in the conflict-torn Mindanao region, according to unofficial results from the first stage of a referendum held this week. A vote in favour will expand autonomy for Mindanao’s Muslim community.

     

    Yemen: After just a month on the job, the retired Dutch general overseeing the not-yet-implemented ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah is reportedly about to step down. It’s not clear why. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen thinks the deal is make-or-break for peace negotiations: read our interview with him to find out why.

     

    Zimbabwe: Half-a-million government workers have gone on strike across the country, adding to uncertainty after fuel protests and a violent crackdown by security forces left several people dead and hundreds arrested. Accusations that protesters were raped by members of the military have been accompanied by warnings that social unrest and instability are spiralling out of control. Look out for our full briefing next week.

     

    Weekend read

     

    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria

     

    No, as we flagged in our 10 crises to watch in 2019, the war in Syria is not over. The focus towards the end of last year was on the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe if President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved in to retake Idlib. While this risk hasn’t gone away, especially as al-Qaeda-linked fighters cement control over parts of the northwestern province, our weekend read takes us elsewhere. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces is trying to snuff out the last pockets of so-called Islamic State in Syria. This photo feature takes us inside their operations as they intercept a convoy of people escaping what remains of the militant group’s territory. But with IS members disguising themselves as civilians to make last-gasp attacks, how do you tell who is who? Those fleeing – nearly 5,000 in just two days this week – are hungry and exhausted. Some say there’s no food at all in areas under IS control.

     

    And finally…

     

    Top Libyan photographer dies in crossfire

     

    Libyan freelance journalist – and occasional IRIN contributor – Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed last Saturday while covering militia clashes in the capital city of Tripoli, prompting demonstrations by his colleagues denouncing violence against journalists. Ben Khalifa was 35, and is survived by his wife and young daughter. A well-respected photographer who covered the often violent instability that has plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Khalifa was known for his sensitive portrayals of the migrants whose bodies washed up on Libya’s shores, including this 2015 IRIN piece. His death “is a reminder of the utter lack of protection for journalists in Libya, as well as the dangers of photojournalists in the battlefield,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The week of fighting in Tripoli left 16 people dead (including Khalifa) and 65 injured, and rival militias have since agreed to a new ceasefire deal.

     

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    Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot
  • Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria

    As Kurdish forces advance on the last pockets of territory so-called Islamic State still controls in Syria, thousands of people are taking flight, and some of them say they have been living with extreme food shortages for months.

     

    Earlier this month IRIN was with the Syrian Democratic Forces – a Kurdish-led alliance of militias fighting IS – when they intercepted a convoy of cars, trucks, and tractors carrying exhausted, hungry, and sometimes injured civilians. They had travelled overnight through the desert from villages in rural Deir Ezzor province, taking a long route to avoid landmines and fighting.

     

    They are among thousands to have fled IS territory in the past days and weeks – a mass displacement that is ongoing.

     

    This Monday and Tuesday alone around 4,900 people fled a small enclave north of the Euphrates river where remnants of IS are holed up, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Those fleeing included what the Observatory said were 470 members of IS and many of their family members.

     

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says some 25,000 people have been displaced in the past six months by fighting and airstrikes in Deir Ezzor province, joining the more than six million Syrians who are still internally displaced.

     

    In the past few weeks, the SDF – backed by a US-led coalition but also facing an American withdrawal and the threat of a Turkish invasion – have taken key IS holdings including the town of Hajin and nearby villages like al-Shaafa, al-Sousah, and Abu Badran.

     

    Fadwa Baroud, a spokeswoman for the UN in Syria, told IRIN that as of late last week, some 12,000 people had fled the Hajin area since the beginning of December. She said the UN believes those who remain in IS territory “are in urgent need of protection, food, medical assistance, clean water and other support.”

     

    As they flee, they are likely to need more of the same.

    A dangerous escape

    1._injured_1920.jpg

    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    Some of the recent escapees arrived with injuries and said they had no access to adequate medical care under IS.

     

    “I lost my two legs after I stepped on a mine laid by Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for IS] when we tried to escape from al-Shaafa 10 days ago,” 17-year-old Ammar said, as his father Ahmed drew back the blanket covering his legs, both blown off below the knee.

     

    Ahmed stood outside his pick-up truck trying to draw attention to Ammar, who begged for help from the driver’s seat. “Look at what they did to him! Bring an ambulance,” Ahmed cried. “Doctor, doctor!”  

     

    “We didn’t have access to a hospital, so I had to prepare his bandages at home, with salt and water,” explained Ahmed. His youngest son, sitting in the back seat, lost his legs in the same escape attempt.

     

    “I thank God we managed to flee at last,” Ahmed said. “But why did my sons have to go through all this pain?”

     

    Food shortages

    2._famine_1920.jpg

    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    Some soldiers handed out soda cans and snacks to the new arrivals. Fatma (pictured second from left) said the last few months in besieged IS territory had been marked by extreme hunger: “There is no food and no water left in Da’esh territories, nothing,” she said.

     

    A few cars down, Khaled Jamal Mjayet said al-Shaafa had effectively been besieged for five months. “We were all starving there,” he said.

     

    Ahmed, Ammar’s father, said even when there was food, there was no way they could afford it because prices had soared during the siege: “How could we have paid 5,000 Syrian pounds [$10] for a kilo of flour?”

     

    The threat from the air

    airstrike_alternative_1920.jpg

    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    Some of those in flight said they had to leave home because of airstrikes by the US-led coalition, like the one above in al-Shaafa.

     

    “I was living as a civilian in my village of Abu Badran, but I had to flee because of the coalition’s airstrikes,” 56-year-old Abu Abdullah said with anger.

     

    The coalition has relied heavily on airstrikes in its campaign to retake the Deir Ezzor countryside from IS. As the campaign ramped up in November, monitoring group Airwars said it tracked the highest civilian casualty count from airstrikes in Syria since the October 2017 fall of Raqqa, the group’s former capital. Airwars estimates that between 221 and 631 civilians were killed that month in coalition strikes, most of them in Deir Ezzor province.

     

    IS supporters among those fleeing

    While some people had risked their lives to flee IS and were outspoken in their criticism of the group, others remained vocal supporters.

     

    “Of course we enjoyed living under Da’esh, they treated us very well. We only left because of the airstrikes and hunger; we would have stayed otherwise”, said Hanin (pictured on the left).

     

    “When the airstrikes intensified and food became scarce, their behaviour towards us changed. We weren’t as happy there as before,” she added.

     

    Hidden fighters

    Both SDF soldiers and people in the vehicles like the tractor above said there were IS fighters hiding in the convoys.

     

    “Sometimes civilians cooperate with us to arrest fighters hiding in the convoys; they think they will receive preferential treatment if they do,” said Aram, an SDF fighter. “But their information is helpful; we’ve already arrested several Da’esh high commanders trying to slip through the net dressed as civilians these past weeks.”

     

    Brivan, a 23-year-old soldier with the mostly Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), a part of the SDF, described the interception of the convoys as a “dangerous assignment”.

     

    “When we intercept these convoys, we don’t know which ones amongst them are civilians or fighters,” she said. “What we do know is that Da’esh wants to spread its sleeper cells to other areas in the region. You can be sure there will be fighters disguised as civilians in this convoy today.”

     

    The following day, an IS fighter dressed as a civilian in a convoy shot and wounded an SDF soldier at the same location.

    Foreign wives and children

    7._uncertain_fate_2_1920_blur.jpg

    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    Among the arrivals were Russian, Uzbekh, and Kazakh women who were said to be the wives of IS fighters, although language barriers meant none were able to effectively communicate with the soldiers or journalists.

     

    The foreign women and their children (pictured above) were separated from the group, and the SDF said they would be sent to a camp in northern Syria. Foreign fighters were sent directly to prison.

     

    Sent for screening

    9._additional_photo_3_1920.jpg

    Constantin Gouvy/IRIN

    A YPJ soldier speaks to members of the convoy as they arrive. Syrians and Iraqis were also moved from the vehicles they had arrived in, with women and children separated from men, and both put in trucks. The SDF said they would be sent for screening by Kurdish intelligence, and that those who were not arrested would eventually be sent to displaced persons’ camps in the region.

     

    The UN says most displaced people from Hajin are currently staying in al-Hol camp, in Hassakeh province. In a statement earlier this month, UNHCR said many of the new arrivals to al-Hol are “exhausted, having fled on foot, and are clearly suffering.”

     

    “The dangerous and difficult journey and the conditions inside the enclave are reported to have led to the deaths of six children – all under 12 months,” the statement added. “Tragically, most have died after arriving at al-Hol, too weakened to survive.”

     

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    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria
  • Transcript of interview with Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen

    This transcript has been edited for clarity

     

    Q: You were in Stockholm… There was a lot of optimism after the negotiations, after the agreement about Hodeidah, and now it seems [to be receding]. How do you see things playing out on the ground?

     

    A: Actually I think [retired Dutch] General Patrick [Cammaert] is starting to do his job. I think the UN and General Patrick should start to implement the agreement. They did a good job, to start. Yes, there is a delay. And we hope this delay is just to build… the relationship with the two parties, and also to re-organise themselves, or even start to organise themselves, because there is no entity there [at the port], with Mr Patrick. I think what I heard from [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths is that they will start this week to implement the ports, then they will go to phase two, to prepare withdrawal from the city.

     

    Q: Does that mean there is now agreement between the parties on what “local security forces” means? That has been a point of contention.

     

    A: There are still discussions between the Yemeni government, the Houthis, and General Patrick. But I think they will solve it.

     

    Q: Is there agreement on who should do security in the port?

     

    A: I think this is clear, but there is a difference on who the people should be. There are security units, and police units, and also Red Sea port authorities, and they will be responsible for the ports. But it is about the names - who they will be. I think they will depend on [who was in the port authority] before September 2014, before the Houthis controlled the ports.

     

    Q: But are most or many of those people, from the Red Sea port authority, not gone?

     

    A: No… I think the military and security people, part of them left. But the Red Sea Port Authority, maybe 95 percent of the people are still there. Because they are civilians, they are doing their job, the Houthis brought new supervisors and they appointed a new director. So the change will not affect the port’s operations.

     

    Q: So at this point you would be comfortable with the Red Sea Port Authority running the port, but it’s a question of who is on the list?

     

    A: I am not in the negotiations. I am just following the negotiations. [The talks on implementing Hodeidah] are between General Saghir Aziz from the Yemeni government, and General [Ali al-] Mushki from the Houthi side. I will be be honest with you: Mushki was a general before he joined the Houthi side. And that’s good… Yes, he’s working with a militia. But his background, he’s not a militia guy. And that’s the difference. Yes, he’s working with the Houthis because they’re paying his salary and they’re taking care of his family. He has his reasons to work with them, but actually he is a general.

     

    Q: You have been at various attempts at talks, including Stockholm. Does negotiating with the Houthis legitimise their role… in Yemen?

     

    A: It’s clear to everyone. The Houthis are still a militia. And we do not deal with them as a party, because they are not a party… and they do not call themselves a party… They say “we are Houthis, we are Ansar Allah.” But who is Ansar Allah? Are they a political party? No. They are a militia. Now, I think if they start to negotiate with the Yemeni government and the other political components, they will find themselves among the other Yemeni components and they can participate in any government in the future like any other party. But [right now] the Houthis are still a militia. They themselves believe they will continue as a militia. And this is not acceptable.

     

    Q: So you feel it is ok to negotiate with them at this point, but at some point you would like to see them transition into a party?

     

    A: Do you mean Saudi Arabia or the Yemeni government? Because Saudi Arabia will not negotiate with a militia. We negotiate and work with governments. And our main goal is to restore the legitimate government. It is about the state, rebuilding the legitimate state. And our program here at the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, one of our main goals is to rebuild the state.

     

    Q: One criticism of how the UN has structured the talks is that there are only two sides: the Yemeni government, and the Houthis. As you know well, Yemen is much more complicated than that, with various other groups including the southerners, Islah, and others. What do you think of the two-sided approach?

     

    A: Yemen is complicated. If you look at the south, there is a complicated issue in the south [with a long history], what they call the southern issue. They discussed it in the Yemen National Dialogue [Conference]... Yes, the issue isn’t solved 100 percent, but they agreed on the outcomes... Also the Saada issue was solved, they have 35 representatives [in the NDC]. The Houthi side participated in the Yemeni national dialogue…. The Houthis destroyed all this. They destroyed the national dialogue outcomes, they destroyed the state, they destroyed institutions, they destroyed the army, the security, even hopes. Now we should solve the main problem… It’s not easy to solve in one day, and in one day sign an agreement. But [the UN talks] have opened the way to a roadmap to solve all Yemeni problems. And they will not be solved in a military way. They will solve it by talks, by discussing the issues at the table. I think we should start with the main problem, which is the key to solving the other problems. That is that the Houthi militia controls the state, they control the institutions. You will not find in history a militia that controls a ballistic missile or fighter jet. Please, give me an example.

     

    Q: Hezbollah?

     

    A: No. They bring it from outside but they cannot control the Lebanese jets. They bring them from Iran and build them.

     

    Q: So you do think that the two track approach is right for now to solve the main war?

     

    A: Yes, and then the Yemenis should be at the table in Sana’a, talk to each other, about their future. South, north, if you look at the Yemenis who have suffered from the Houthis, they will not accept this happening again. If you are in Taiz, if you are from Hodeidah, or even from Saada or Marib you will think about your future or your kids’ future. You will say, “look, how can we stop anybody from repeating this.”

     

    Q: But there are many different groups part of your alliance - they don’t necessarily take orders from who they are supposed to and they don’t have the following of the local population. So if the big war ends, is there a possibility that Yemen will become a series of smaller wars?

     

    A: Don’t try to imagine more and more. Make it simple, because we know Yemen before [President] Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Let’s talk about Ali Abdullah Saleh’s time [as president]. He just controlled three cities: Sana’a, Taiz, and Hodeidah. And sometimes Aden. The other cities, he didn’t control. The local authorities, the local tribes...  that’s what controlled these provinces. We know 100% Ali Abdullah Saleh did not have a strong government. He just controlled by establishing fighting between the tribes. And trying to cause differences between the people. After the war, yes, the situation will not be good. But it will open doors for everybody to speak out about his issues. And then we will start, all of us - the Yemeni government, GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, and the international community - to support this government to build their capacity, to expand to control all of Yemen. And that will take time.

     

    If you look at Iraq as an example, the USA was there. The USA spent billions of dollars [on reconstruction], but also Iraq has a lot of resources - the government has oil, rivers, and agriculture. But because nobody supported the government in political competence, they lost it [control of the country]. We will not [let this happen] to Yemen. All Yemeni parties - Houthis, southerners, Taiz - should participate in the government, and should work together on a roadmap. They will need time. They need two, three or four years to start bringing their country back.

     

    Q: Speaking of time, we’ve heard the next round of talks will be in January… There is a very limited agreement for Hodeidah, the Taiz part is not going anywhere, do you really think there is a prospect for a political solution at this point?

     

    A: I think the UN and some other countries would like to have a round two tomorrow, not at the end of January… but I think the most important thing is the implementation in Hodeidah. If there is implementation in Hodeidah, from two sides, especially from the Houthis, as they are controlling the ports and city… if they withdraw and start to implement the agreement, that will open a big door to a comprehensive political solution.

     

    Because Yemen does not belong to Hadi or the Houthis. There are a lot of Yemenis [parties] [lists GPC, southerners, Islah, others in the government alliance]... Some of them don’t care about Hadi himself. They care about the project of Hadi, which means the legitimacy of Hadi, the legitimacy of the state. If you have a president, you should keep him until you transfer to another president in a peaceful way. This is what Yemenis are looking for. Even if they are with Hadi now, they are not [all] with Hadi himself, they are with this project. In Yemen there are two main projects. One is the state project, which still now is in the hands of Hadi. And there is the militia project, which is mainly in the hands of the Houthis.

     

    If you can convince the Houthis to accept engaging with the state project in a roadmap: to handover their weapons, to stop using military means… then we will have a new government with all Yemeni components to control Yemen. Then everybody can support this state, which is still fragile. And we will work to support them, to unite them, to build security.

     

    I think there is no effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented. Maybe they say “ok, we will go to Jordan, or Kuwait, or Germany, or wherever [for further talks].” But they will not do any good. And [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths will find himself at a wall. Because everybody will blame him because he did not do anything at Hodeidah. That is the negative. The positive is, if I am Yemeni, a Yemeni political figure, if I saw with my eyes that Hodeidah was implemented, I would put pressure on Hadi to accept the framework, to accept a comprehensive political solution which sometimes might even hurt Hadi’s authority. That means, if the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.

     

    Q: Speaking of pressure, before the Stockholm talks there were warnings Yemen was about to fall into famine, the killing of [dissident Saudi journalist Jamal] Khashoggi, there was a lot of pressure on Saudi Arabia and a lot of press attention on Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. How did that affect the negotiations?

     

    A: Look. Everybody repeats that, you are not alone. But I will explain it to you in a different way. Let’s talk about Kuwait [in 2016]. We were there, and we supported the Houthis engaging in good faith. We invited them to come to the south of Saudi Arabia in a city they call Dahran al-Janoub. We spent two weeks there with them. We sent ten convoys to Saada to support them. We released Houthi prisoners and they released Saudi soldiers. And also we met with [Houthi negotiator] Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah, myself I traveled with him five times to Kuwait. And also I engaged myself to talk to the Houthis, to convince them to engage with Yemeni parties.

     

    And at the end of these talks Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the ex UN envoy to Yemen, introduced what they called his initiative. It consisted of two parts: a security arrangement, and the a arrangement. He said we should first sign on the security arrangement and then we can go on to sign another one. The security arrangement [talked about withdrawal from “Zone A.” The  Houthis were to withdraw from [that zone, which was] Taiz, Sana’a, and Hodeidah - just the cities, not the provinces. There was a High Yemeni Committee for Military and Economy, which was going to be responsible for Hodeidah. In the beginning the Houthis accepted. But before the talks finished on the 17 of Ramadan 2016, Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah traveled to another country for two days and he came back, and he said no. And Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in front of the Security Council, said clearly that in Kuwait we succeeded until the last days. And the Houthis refused. And you can review what he said in the Security Council exactly.

     

    If you look at what happened in Stockholm, it’s the same thing. The Houthis will withdraw from the ports, and will open the siege on Taiz... In this agreement in Stockholm, in Taiz they will open corridors, and they will have a ceasefire for the city and they will demine there. Now if you look at the situation now it is the same as Kuwait, it is the same goal.

     

    Yes, it’s talk time... but what we asked for at [previous rounds of negotiations in] Kuwait is happening now, because of [pressure on] the Houthis, not because of us. Everybody says maybe because of those pressures [we are ready to deal], they make connections with the timing. That’s not true. The truth is we succeeded in our diplomatic efforts. We used political means to satisfy our goals to restore legitimate institutions and government to Yemen.

     

    If we finish in Hodeidah and Taiz, we have just Sana’a [to negotiate]. And that will be easy for the Houthis and for us.

     

    Q: To make an agreement on? Why would the Houthis want to withdraw from Sana’a, when that would basically leave them with just Saada?

     

    A: There are different kinds of withdrawal and it is a complicated issue... If they would like to stay in Sana’a without weapons, this is possible.

     

    Q: So you still consider UNSC Resolution 2216 the framework?

     

    A: Yes, we [can] apply it in a different way. Let’s say if we are out of Hodeidah, 100 kilometres away, because in Kuwait [the plan] was 150 kilometres… We were surrounding the Houthis from three sides. The Houthis were under pressure. They knew in the next days we would take over the ports and city [of Hodeidah].

     

    Q: So you are saying there was more pressure on the Houthis than on you?

     

    A: Sure. The Houthis would not agree to come to the table without military pressures.

     

    Q: But was there not pressure from your allies?

     

    A: Yes, there was pressure on us. But even with this pressure, we satisfied what we are asking for.

     

    Q: Surely your allies, like the Americans, must have given you a push.

     

    A: No, it’s not a push. Think about it. If we attacked the port, if we attacked the city, and we… destroyed the city, what would happen to the US government, UK, our allies there? It is clear. They would find themselves in a bad position. So they had two choices: to listen to their people, and that means they would hurt us. Or they hurt themselves, and they would lose their authority [with their own people]. So they would go with the first option, to hurt us, which would hurt our relationship between the governments. So that meant wanted to help them, and they wanted to help us [by making a deal in Hodeidah].

     

    And they have given us good advice from the first day of the war. And we discuss it, we… discuss and debate. It’s not about orders, it’s about their interests, and our interests.

     

    Q: You brought up public concern about the war, and I think there is a growing awareness in the US and other countries about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Was this part of the pressure, or as you say, discussions with your allies?

     

    A: No. The humanitarian situation is a pressure on everybody. Because nobody, even us, we don’t want to see kids in Yemen in a bad situation. We do not just say that for you or for the media. They [Yemenis] are our brothers. And we are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis. We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation. And we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy. Yes, maybe the Houthis and some people under the Houthi control or some people who don’t understand the situation, but most Yemenis know that Saudi Arabia is there to support them.

     

    And yes, we’ve made mistakes, like other countries do, during the war. But we did a lot of things for the Yemeni people. For the humanitarian [side] we spent [billions of dollars]… And we are also very upset by the humanitarian situation…. We have our YCHO [Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations] plan. We did that. It’s not about pressure. It’s about the situation in Yemen. We are there to help them, to bring hope...The Houthis are very aggressive and they use the humanitarian situation and try to escalate the situation by different means.

     

    Q: How do they do that?

     

    A: They continue to violate the humanitarian convoys, they take the convoys sometimes. They steal relief and humanitarian staff… But we have a lot of evidence of this, and we’ve sent it it to the UN organisations... The Houthis put pressure on [aid workers], and if you are there in Sana’a, and you are with UNICEF or WHO, who will protect you? Nobody will protect you. Yes, your organisation will be very upset. Your organisation will try to save you. But nobody will protect you if they kill or hurt your friend. But if somebody in Saudi Arabia or the coalition hurts someone in the UN organisation, we are responsible state. We will be responsible to respond to these people, to the courts, to the states. But in Yemen, nobody will hold them accountable.

     

    Q: What about your accountability to civilians? Coalition airstrikes are considered to have caused the majority of civilian deaths on the ground. JIAT has investigated and said it will pay compensation in some cases, has this been paid?

     

    A: Yes, they started.

     

    Q: How many people have been compensated?

     

    A: I don’t know exactly but I know they started with the Yemeni government, who as a part of the coalition, are responsible for its people. They sent us a list and there is a fund responsible for that. And they started to do it. I think we are trying to accelerate this mechanism, and it will work more and more, because it just started a couple of months ago.

     

    Q: On the humanitarian situation, the coalition has been blamed for delaying ships coming in, particularly to Hodeidah.

     

    A: This is all a story, and it has been solved. There was misunderstanding and miscommunication between the UN, the special envoy, and the coalition. As YCHO we met with different UN organisations like UNVIM, WFP, and OCHA. And we have a good mechanism to ensure clearance in less than 24 hours, 24 hours maximum. And… if you look at any statement it doesn’t mention anything about the clearance, even [UN resident coordinator in Yemen] Lise Grande and [UN relief chief] Mark Lowcock, when we talked to them, they said “thank you for that. Thank you for your mechanism for the ships going to Hodeidah.” I am sure about that.

     

    Q: In the war at large, airstrikes have hit civilians, healthcare facilities and infrastructure in Yemen and contributed to the humanitarian crisis. What’s your answer that Saudi aid and reconstruction efforts are just a PR effort, trying to fix your image?

     

    A: It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us. But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for the UN organisations, King Salman [Humanitarian Aid and Relief] Center, Saudi Development and Reconstruction Plan for Yemen, and for the economy.

     

    I will give you an example. When we deposited 2.2 billion dollars to the Central Bank, is it PR? No. It is 2.2, just for the Central Bank. When we provided $60 million US dollars in oil derivatives for electricity power stations, is it PR? When we issued $350 [letters of credit for] businessmen to import basic food to the Yemeni people, is it PR ? They are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support Yemeni government and Yemeni people also.

     

    But… they still say it is PR.

     

    About the damage that you mention. I am sure 100 percent the coalition is implementing IHL [international humanitarian law]. And we are responsible countries - we are twelve countries [in the coalition] - and we implement NATO standards. And also we investigate in each accident and sometimes they say yes [we were wrong], and sometimes no, they clarify their position. And they continue to investigate… This is war and some things happen because of the war. I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us. Because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.

     

    Q: You talked about reinstating the state, and you have talked about reconstruction. How do you plan to reconstruct a country during a war? How can you plan for what people need when a war is still going on?

     

    A: First of all, this connects to your previous connections about existing in Yemen. This war is for two main things: to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security. Yemen is a poor country. Before the war, Yemen’s rank in terms of poverty was 138. The Yemeni government budget is less than around $10 billion. It’s nothing for a big country like Yemen with 26 million people.

     

    Our strategy in Yemen is to develop and reconstruct, and these are two different things. Development - there was no development in Yemen before the war and we are trying to develop now areas that are out of the war, like Mahrah, Hadhramaut, Socotra, Marib, Jawf [provinces]. They are safe, so we can start there. Because we spent time to push, to convince, to urge the Houthis to come to the table and accept a deal... so we will start where there is security and stability and there is no war there... And we have convinced the Yemeni government to work with us. And I think in 2019, we will have a lot of projects in Yemen, in different provinces in Yemen, from Saudi Arabia, from Emirates, from Kuwait, and also from the Yemeni government. And I am sure America will engage, and Europe will engage, because they will not wait for the Houthis to engage. Yemenis are dying. Yemenis are in a bad situation. Not because of the humanitarian cases, because of the economy.

     

    Q: But I think it’s the same thing. The economy is so bad that you can’t buy food.

     

    A: So we can start. Now in Saada, Amran, Hajjah, how do the people live there? In all Yemen, 70 percent of Yemenis depend on agriculture, and fishing. This is a big field, we can work on the agriculture, we can work with the fisherman to give them a chance to live. To grow food, sell it in the markets, also to export it to Saudi Arabia. We will have a mechanism to support all Yemenis everywhere, through different access. We are not in Saada, we are not in Amran, we cannot go to Sana’a, but we can work with institutions, private and semi-governmental like the social fund, workers’ fund, villagers’ fund, and private sector. And also we can work easily in some areas controlled by the Yemeni government.

     

    Q: What specifically are you doing to revitalise the economy. I know you deposited money in the Central Bank, but it is not for use, it is for shoring up the currency. What else are you doing?

     

    A: For the Central Bank we are working with the governor - not just Saudi Arabia, the quad - US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, and with IFC [International Finance Corporation] and also the World Bank to build and support the Central Bank in Aden. We deposited the $2.2 billion, and we are urging other countries like the Emirates to also deposit another billion to the Central Bank. That will help the economy, and it will help the rial. Also if you look at the $60 million dollars [in oil derivatives] that we gave to the Yemeni government to operate power stations, we cut that from the Yemeni budget. So now they have in their hands $60 million they can use to, say, bring services. We urged them to do it. And that will help people. Any amount in Yemen, it makes a difference.

     

    Q: What about encouraging the Central Bank to issue more letters of credit to importers?

     

    A: We are doing it. Saudi Arabia has issued more than $350 million letters of credit and they will continue to do so. Last week we issued more than $50 million letters of credit from Saudi Arabia’s central bank. We received the orders from them [Yemen’s Central Bank], because there is a mechanism [for letters of credit to go through Saudi Arabia] - the Houthis and previous Central Bank governor spent our [previous deposits] for nothing. We have to be sure the Yemeni government or Central Bank will be used to help Yemeni people.

     

    Q: So the letters of credit that were issued just now are to Yemeni importers?

     

    A: Yes, to Yemeni importers only.

     

    Q: One of the biggest issues in Yemen is poverty. It’s not necessarily there isn’t enough food in Yemen, it’s that people don’t have money to buy it. What else are you doing for that?

     

    A: All UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden. They are ignoring Aden port, I don’t know why. Maybe I can guess. They would like to save Hodeidah, they are afraid to mention Aden port and say it’s a good port, they are afraid somebody will attack Hodeidah port.

     

    If you look at Aden, it is the biggest port in Yemen. We can give you the numbers to clarify our position. Last week we provided two cranes to Aden port and we helped Aden port authority to govern and try to increase the capacity of the procedures, of importing. Also we provided one crane to Mukalla. And we will open another port from al-Khadra in Najran, so there will be two land ports [from Saudi Arabia into Yemen].

     

    Q: But international organisations say Aden is at capacity and doesn’t have the capacity to store and mill grain like Hodeidah. Is that something you would look into in your reconstruction plans?

     

    A: That’s not true. Aden is the biggest port and can receive millions of tons from different kinds of food or commercial shipments. It is about the location of Hodeidah. They are trying to hurt Aden port to save Hodeidah. Hodeidah is the second port of Yemen, and we know the figures before the war.

     

    But I agree with them if they close Hodeidah, there is seventy percent of the people of Yemen in the north and it is not easy to bring the food from Aden to the north.

     

    Q: It is very expensive to do this if you consider…

     

    A: It is very expensive, it is very risky, there are a lot of issues… and because of that they say a lot of false, wrong information. In 2016 [former UN Relief Chief] Stephen O’Brien said in of the Security Council said Hodeidah port is receiving 80 percent of the imports to Yemen. We have 21 ports to Yemen. This guy is crazy.

     

    Q: Could he have made a mistake?

     

    A: No he meant it. I will give you know another number and you can check it yourself. The UN and other international organisations now repeat the number that there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salary workers. Did you see that before?

     

    Q: I’m familiar with the issue of the salaries.

     

    A: How many people?

     

    Q: I don’t have an exact number in front of me.

     

    A: The last tweet from the ICRC two weeks ago, they made it emotional. It’s PR…[They said] that in Yemen there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salaries for more than two years.” That’s not true.

     

    Q: Ok, so what is true?

     

    A: The truth is that 650,000 [government employees] receive their salaries.

     

    Q: Every month?

     

    A: Every month.

     

    Q: Paid by whom?

     

    A: Paid by the Yemeni government, through the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance.

     

    Q: Is that only people in government controlled areas?

     

    A: Yes and also civilian workers everywhere. If he works in Sana’a and goes to Aden to do his job there he will take his salary.

     

    Q: And what about a teacher who lives in Sana’a?

     

    A: They do not receive anything. That’s true. But when you repeat the number 1.2 million just to convince the people to give you money, it’s just not true.

     

    Q: You mentioned the UN and international organisations several times. Do they back your reconstruction plans? Are they involved?

     

    A: No, we talked to WFP, we talked to the World Bank, we talked to Islamic Bank, and also we talked to Mark Lowock and Lise Grande, we briefed them and invited them to come and participate any time.

     

    Q: So they are not involved?

     

    A: World Bank yes, we will work with them. Islamic Bank would like to engage and work with us. USAID, DIFD, are engaging and would like to work with us. And also the French visited.

     

    Q: So this support is still in discussion?

     

    A: Yes, because we started only five months ago.

     

    Q: I understand it is early days. I saw the presentation [on the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen al-Jaber heads] but a lot of it appears to be what is going to be built in the future. Is there an actual plan now?

     

    A: We hit the ground, we are there.

     

    Q: In some places, yes. But is there a larger plan other than the PowerPoint, are there more than feasibility studies?

     

    A: Yes.

     

    Q: The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about [the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen’s] projects in Mahra in which locals objected to the Saudi presence there. What’s your response to the argument that redevelopment and reconstruction is just part of the military effort, that it is a continuation of the war and and effort to keep Saudi Arabia’s power in Yemen?

     

    A: Mahra is the gate for smuggling. Before the war, during the war, and after the war. And we have a strategy in Yemen: secure, stable Yemen.

     

    And our goal won’t end if the Houthis come into the government. We should keep supporting the Yemeni government with or without the Houthis. If the Houthis participate in the government, we will support this government. Even if the prime minister is a Houthi, we will support this government. Because it is not just about Yemen. It’s about our national security. When they smuggle drugs from the Arabian Sea [from Mahra] they don’t want to bring them to Yemen, they want to bring them to Saudi Arabia. If they smuggle weapons [they are headed to Saudi Arabia]. Because the price in Saudi Arabia is different. A [handgun] gun in yemen is $500. If you smuggle it to Saudi Arabia you can sell it for $5,000 dollars.

     

    Another example: drugs. Nobody in Yemen uses drugs, except for qat. But in Saudi Arabia there are a lot of people… kids… they will use it. And that has a high cost. Now in Mahra the coast is 50 kilometres. There were no coast guard soldiers there. Zero. Nobody was protecting this area.

     

    Also from Omani territory there are some smuggling networks that are continuing to do their jobs from before the war, using the weakness of the Yemeni side... We talked to our brothers in Oman, and they are now doing a good job to protect their side. But from the other side there was nothing, from the coast or from the land. What we are doing there is training the security and the coast guard. And we are also doing development and reconstruction for the people of Mahra. Because if I am a Mahra citizen and you said, “Ok, I will bring the coast guard and I will bring the border guards and there will be no security and new arrangements,” but there is no income, how will I work? But if we develop, and provide the security… and also education and also schools - we started to build eight or nine schools - and hospitals, [school] busses, agriculture, fisheries, and boats and airports that means Mahra will be strong enough to continue to work. Even if we withdraw from Mahra after the war, it will be a strong province.

     

    And look, Mahra and Hadhramaut...We already transferred the power from the Saudis and Emiratis to the Yemeni side.

     

    Q: How is that working?

     

    A: It’s working. Because we are still there to supervise and train. They need somebody to lead them… it’s complicated. If they work, let’s say, we will decrease the smuggling… unless those people work with the smugglers, as a mafia. Those people in Mahra and Hadhramaut are good people. They don’t want to work with the smugglers, they are ashamed to work in smuggling… now we finished in Hadhramaut and Mahra we will continue to support the Yemeni government in places like Abyan and Lahj [provinces]… also with terrorism - al-Qaeda and Da’esh [so-called Islamic State], after Syria, they might decide to go to Yemen. If we are not ready to fight them in Yemen before they enter we will find ourselves after this war fighting al-Qaeda and Da’esh.



    Q: So you do see development as part of a security strategy?

     

    A: Yes. We built also an anti-terrorism center there.

     

    Q: What does that mean?

     

    A: That means there is no center to fight al-Qaeda. If we build this center in Mahra airport that means all countries, all allies who are fighting al-Qaeda, they can find themselves in a good place to support the Yemeni government in fighting al-Qaeda or Da’esh… It’s preemptive… we are trying to prevent Yemen from falling into the hands of Da’esh or al-Qaeda after this war.

     

    Q: Is [the presence of Da’esh or al-Qaeda] something you are worried about?

     

    A: Yes, we are very worried. Because after this war, some people in Yemen would like to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, especially the Houthis, they are very happy to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, to continue fighting, saying “I am here to fight al-Qaeda and Da’esh.” They said that in 2014 when they controlled the north of Sana’a and Amran... They said “we are here to fight al-Qaeda.” And they will continue to repeat that. And that means some people, some tribes in the middle and the south also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.

     

    Q: As you suggested, people and groups officially allied with the coalition are working with al-Qaeda because they want to fight the Houthis. Is this a concern?

     

    A: We are afraid of that. We have a lot of Zaidis [the sect the Houthis belong to] fighting with the Yemeni Hadi government: military leadership, tribal leadership, political leadership, half of the people fighting the Houthis are Zaidi. Because it is not about Zaidi or Sunni or Shafi’i[the Sunni majority in Yemen]; it’s about security and stability.

     

    Q: I’m going to ask you about another media report, the New York Times report that there are child soldiers from Sudan fighting with the coalition. What is your response? Are there child soldiers fighting with the coalition?

     

    A: It is false. How did this guy go to this Sudan, make a report, find some kids and say let’s make a story about Saudi Arabia and the kids. Why not come to Aden, Jezzan, Saada, Hajjah, or anywhere…

     

    Q: Well, it’s not easy to go there.

     

    A: You can go. A lot of journalists visit... i think some people are working for some countries or organisations that would like to hurt Saudi Arabia and [they] say “let’s keep Saudi Arabia in a bad situation” because of Khashoggi’s case. They would like to use different cases to make Saudi Arabia out as a bad country. We are clear: There are no kids fighting with us, from any country, from Yemen, from Sudan, from any country. And anybody who would like to be sure, who would like to… report, he is welcome to come, meet, and go there... but don’t try to play games [and write] bad things that are not accurate.

     

    Q: In your opinion, what responsibility does Saudi Arabia have for the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

     

    A: Actually are the ones who make it lower. The Houthis are increasing the humanitarian situation. We are the ones who are trying to facilitate humanitarian and commercial shipments to Yemen, through Jeddah and Jizan through our land, through Wadiyah, from everywhere.

     

    At the same time we are the ones who support the UN organisations with money to fund them, from 2015. From 2015 we are the ones who covered the UN pledge. Yes, there is a war. But that doesn’t mean that this war, we can stop it, because the Houthis want to control the country. We are trying to make a balance between security, stability, and restoring the legitimate government. At the same time we are trying to avoid Yemenis from the humanitarian situation.

     

    If we look at this war Saudi has a main strategy, the main track is the political track, which did not start now, it started in 2011. If the analysts would like to be fair they should think about that. Saudi Arabia started the political process in 2011 when we introduced the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] initiative. Which is a Saudi initiative, although we call it the GCC initiative because our brothers participated in it.

     

    From 2011-2014 we spent $7 billion to support the Yemeni government: $3.2 billion in oil derivatives; $1 billion to central bank $450 million for the social fund; $3 billion for infrastructure and social service projects.* Electricity in the north of yemen, 80 percent of the electricity power stations there are Saudi-funded, it’s not Yemeni or international, it’s Saudi funded. [Look at] Marib 1 and Marib 2 [power stations], and we are ready start with Marib 3, which will increase the capacity of the power stations.

     

    In 2014 when the Houthis took over Sana’a, we did not engage, nobody engaged, because the Yemenis found themselves with a partnership agreement that gave Houthis six seats in the government, and when it changed from Saleh to Hadi government, we did not engage in a war. We tried to take the Yemenis from civil war to the political track. Then the Houthis continued to attack, and Hadi himself escaped to Aden, and when he escaped to Aden, we did not bring our troops there. We were waiting and trying to convince the Houthis and other parties to stop fighting. And Hadi, his first statement, when he arrived to Aden, said “please, Houthis stop the war, we are ready to engage back and talk at the table.” The Houthis and Saleh refused. Then the war came, and then it was a war of necessity not a war of our choice. We supported the talks in Geneva in 2015, we supported the Kuwait talks in 2016, and we are the ones who supported the talks in Stockholm and that is what Mr Martin Griffiths said clearly to the media and the Security Council. And we will continue to support Mr Martin Griffiths to find a solution… we will support the political process. This is the main track.

     

    We have another two tracks. The military track: the main aim of the military track is to support the political track to force the Houthis to come to the table. And also to restore the legitimate [government], to restore the state… We will not accept Yemen to become a Somalia, and we will not accept another Hezbollah in the south of Saudi Arabia. We are not Israel, and they are not Hezbollah. They are Yemeni, they are our brothers, we have the same culture, the same traditions and we help them and will continue to do so.

     

    The third track is the humanitarian track, and please go back to 2013 and look for the UN HRP [Humanitarian Response Plan] 2013, it is 10.2 million people in Yemen need help. You can read it again.

     

    This is the fourth track: it is economy, development, and reconstruction. We are the ones who support the economy. Nobody [else] supports the Yemeni economy. We saved the rial, we saved the Central Bank, we saved the electricity power stations, we saved the private sectors and we are trying to support everybody. This, my friend, is the Saudi strategy to support Yemen.

     

    When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government and we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.

     

    *IRIN could not independently verify these or other figures

    Transcript of interview with Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen
    9 January 2019
  • Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts

    A political solution to nearly four years of war in Yemen is possible as long as the shaky ceasefire deal for the northern port city of Hodeidah takes hold, Saudi Arabia’s influential ambassador to Yemen has told IRIN.

     

    Mohammed al-Jaber, who is the public face of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and is said to have a direct line to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, suggested the Hodeidah deal could lead to further fruitful UN-backed peace talks if it succeeds but might be their undoing if it doesn’t.

     

    “I think there is no [next] effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented,” al-Jaber told IRIN in an interview in his Riyadh office. “If the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.”

     

    The next round of what the UN officially calls “political consultations” are expected later this month, but warring sides are still at odds over the finer details of the Hodeidah deal and there are fears it might soon collapse. Aid groups warn of a spiral towards famine if fighting restarts around the city – a key entry point for commercial imports and humanitarian aid, especially for parts of the country under Houthi control.

     

    Hashed out at December negotiations near Stockholm but still to come into effect, the ceasefire deal is supposed to see both Saudi-led coalition forces and Houthi rebels withdraw from Hodeidah city and eventually Hodeidah province, with “local security forces” taking over and the UN playing some role in managing the port.

     

    While the ambassador was quick to emphasise that he is not an official party to the negotiations – Saudi Arabia’s position is not to negotiate with the Houthis and the UN process is two-sided, between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels – he was in Stockholm and recounted locations, attendees, and results (or lack of) past talks in detail.

     

    ‘A clean war’

    IRIN sat down with al-Jaber at a pivotal point in the 46-month war. The conflict has left tens of thousands dead and millions without enough to eat, while decimating a health system that has been unable to cope with two waves of cholera and destroying the country’s already weak economy.

     

    Away from the debate over Hodeidah, the broader war is ongoing: a Houthi drone hit a Yemeni military parade the day after IRIN spoke with the ambassador, fighting in the southern city of Taiz continues, and the coalition has been pounding the capital city of Sana’a with airstrikes.

     

    In a wide-ranging interview in his Riyadh office, al-Jaber said his country is waging a “clean war” in Yemen, is doing all it can to lessen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, and is already planning for its redevelopment and reconstruction despite ongoing fighting.

     

    A military strategist by training who heads up two bodies that focus on humanitarian, development, and restronstruction aid to Yemen, the ambassador strongly dismissed the idea that any of this assistance was an attempt to polish his country’s tarnished public image.

     

    “It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us,” al-Jaber said. “But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for [funding] the UN organisations, [with its own relief projects], and for the economy….[Yemenis] are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support [the] Yemeni government and Yemeni people.”

     

    The view in Riyadh

     

    Saudi Arabia’s public position on Yemen has been fairly consistent since March 2015, when it began airstrikes along with a multi-country coalition to support the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee the country by Houthi rebels and their allies, including fighters who sided with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

     

    Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as an Iranian proxy and a threat to its borders and says its mission in Yemen is to restore Hadi’s government.

     

    Few expected the war to drag on this long – in fact, the coalition said it was ending the initial military operation a month into its bombing, officially swapping it out for “Operation Restoring Hope” – a peacebuilding effort aimed at forging a political solution in Yemen and shoring up Saudi Arabia’s national security.

     

    Al-Jaber, appointed to his job in late 2014, also used the word “hope” when discussing the Saudi role in the war.

     

    “We are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis,” he said. “We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation, and we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy.”

     

    He said he remained “100 percent sure” that the coalition was waging the war in line with international humanitarian law.

     

    “We are responsible countries,” he said. “We are 12 countries [in the coalition] and we implement NATO standards… I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us, because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.”

     

    Saudi Arabia’s air campaign has been blamed for the majority of the nearly 7,000 violent civilian deaths the UN has been able to count in the war.

     

    In August, an airstrike hit a bus full of children in a rebel-held northern part of the country, killing a reported 40 children and 51 people total – one of several civilian atrocities that rights groups say violate international law. A UN group of experts has said it believes individuals on all sides of Yemen’s conflict may have committed war crimes.

     

    In response to questions about such strikes, as well as hits on civilian infrastructure like hospitals, al-Jaber admitted that Saudi Arabia had “made mistakes”, much as “other countries do, during war.”

     

    “We investigate each accident,” he said, referring to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, or JIAT – a body set up to look into “claims and accidents” in coalition operations but whose members are not disclosed to the public.

     

    Findings are usually only released in summary press releases and can be hard to track, but an August report by Human Rights Watch said JIAT investigations were inadequate and that the watchdog was “unaware of any concrete steps the coalition has taken to implement a compensation process or to hold individuals accountable for possible war crimes.”

     

    Al-Jaber said the coalition began the compensation process “a couple of months ago” but that he didn’t know how many people had been compensated so far. “I know they started,” he said. “The Yemeni government… sent us a list [of names] and there is a fund responsible for that… we are trying to accelerate this mechanism.”

     

    Aden, Hodeidah, or both?

     

    The international community says there’s no alternative to Hodeidah for avoiding mass hunger in the country, not only because of the port’s overall capacity – including to store and mill flour – but also because it is in the north of the country where 70 percent of the population lives (and Houthis are in control).

     

    In November 2018, the Saudi-led coalition closed most air, sea, and land entries to Yemen for two weeks after a Houthi rocket was fired at Riyadh, causing aid agencies to warn of imminent catastrophe. Even before that, aid groups said the coalition had delayed and diverted the entry of crucial supplies, including fuel.

     

    Al-Jaber said the “humanitarian situation was pressure on everybody”, but that he believed the importance of Hodeidah had been exaggerated and that “UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden port”.

     

    The Saudi-led coalition has been pushing for increased use of Aden, but UN relief chief Mark Lowcock said earlier this month that the southern port has a “severe congestion” problem. Trucking supplies from Aden to the north adds cost and can be risky, which al-Jaber admitted.

     

    In a briefing on 9 January at the UN Security Council, Lowcock said that fuel imports are now rising and more ships are trying to get to Yemen’s ports, but commercial food imports were still at their lowest since the UN began monitoring in 2016.

     

    Al-Jaber said the coalition had been unfairly accused of deepening the humanitarian crisis through delays in allowing shipping to reach Yemen, particularly Hodeidah. What he called a “misunderstanding” is now resolved and the UN and the coalition have a mechanism to ensure ship clearance at Hodeidah in “24 hours maximum”, he added.

     

    If anything, al-Jaber said, Saudi Arabia is lessening the humanitarian crisis. It has contributed $901 million to UN-led humanitarian appeals for Yemen between 2015 and 2018, according to UN funding data, and he also mentioned the $2.2 billion Saudi Arabia had deposited in Yemen’s Central Bank and $350 million in letters of credit to Yemeni importers he said had recently been issued (a number IRIN could not independently verify).

     

    Looking forward

     

    While all eyes remain on Hodeidah, al-Jaber was also keen to talk about development and reconstruction – an approach he said feeds into the two main aims of the war: “to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security”.

     

    Al-Jaber said the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, which he has been working on for the past few months, is already being rolled out in parts of the country the government controls.

     

    IRIN wasn’t shown the overall plan but was given a PowerPoint presentation on projects that have begun – new school buses, textbooks, and beefing up power stations by shipping $60 million in oil derivatives each month – as well as some that are still in the works, like new hospitals and an airport.

     

    But how do you reconstruct a country you don’t completely control, in the midst of a war?

     

    Al-Jaber, who said he had briefed the UN about his plans and invited them to collaborate, anticipated support from other organisations, including the World Bank, and said it’s best to start in areas the coalition controls as “they are safe”.

     

    His strategy also involves beefing up borders to clamp down on smuggling, and making sure al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State (Da’esh in its Arabic acronym) do not take hold in the country.

     

    He said he was “very worried about” this, both because the Houthis could use their presence as an excuse to continue fighting and because “some people, some tribes in the middle and the south, also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.”

     

    The disparate nature of the coalition Saudi Arabia heads, and the loose and often tense alliances that support Hadi’s government, mean Yemen’s war could yet fracture into a collection of disastrous smaller conflicts.

     

    Al-Jaber was candid that several parties currently on side with the government, including southern separatists and the powerful Islamist Islah party, may not fully back Hadi. Rather, he explained, they agree with the “Hadi project” – that is, the legitimacy of his government.

     

    “When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government,” the ambassador said. “And [then] we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.”

     

    For the full interview, read the transcript here.

     

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    Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

     

    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

    It has been a tragic week in East Africa, as militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack in Kenya and was accused of kidnapping 60 schoolchildren in the Bakol region of southern Somalia. The commissioner of Tiyeglow district said the children were taken on Monday in a raid on a village and most likely recruited as fighters – a common al-Shabab tactic. On Tuesday, the al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a 19-hour siege on an upmarket Nairobi hotel, which left 21 civilians dead. Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It could also be retaliation for Kenyan and US military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. The hotel attack took place on the eve of a verdict in the trial of men alleged to have been involved in the 2013 siege on Nairobi's Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead. Militancy is an ongoing threat across Africa, a trend we continue to watch in 2019.

     

    Swine fever threatens food security

    A highly contagious disease with a near-100 percent fatality rate for pigs and wild boars could have “devastating consequences” for food security over large swathes of Asia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned in a report this week. The FAO says African swine fever threatens to spread from China, where the virus has hit at least 24 provinces since it was detected there in August. The disease is not transmissible to humans, but pork is a key source of animal protein in China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, while China produces half the world’s pigs. The FAO says the risk of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders represents “an imminent threat for the pig population in this region” and could damage livelihoods and food security. There is no vaccine. This week, Chinese agriculture officials announced the culling of more than 916,000 pigs, Mongolia reported its first outbreak, and Australia said it had found traces of African swine fever in six pork products seized at its airports. Since the virus was first discovered nearly a century ago in Kenya, there have been outbreaks in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil, including ongoing cases in parts of eastern Europe.

     

    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

    Days after President Trump said he had begun withdrawing troops from Syria, in part because so-called Islamic State had been defeated, the group claimed a suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Manbij that killed 19 people, including four Americans (two soldiers, a contractor, and a civilian defense department employee). The pullout was already controversial, not to mention confusing – nobody seems to know how or when it is happening – and Wednesday’s attack raised further questions about the wisdom of the move. In northeastern Syria, where some 2,000 US troops plus civilian contractors offer support to Kurdish fighters taking on IS, humanitarians are concerned about the  uncertainty (A Turkish invasion? New alliances? Shifting front lines?) and how it will impact their ability to deliver aid. Read Aron Lund’s latest timely analysis for an understanding of the many possibilities, and what they mean for the estimated two million Syrians in areas under Kurdish control.

     

    Voting on peace in the Philippines

    On 21 January, parts of conflict-hit Mindanao in the Philippines will begin voting on a long-awaited peace deal that will grant more autonomy and a new homeland for the southern island’s Muslim population. The proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of years of negotiations between Philippine authorities and multiple iterations of Muslim armed groups on Mindanao. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a peace agreement with the largest Muslim armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The upcoming referendum, which continues on 6 February, is the next step to putting the law into effect. Recent polling suggests large parts of existing Muslim-majority areas on Mindanao support the law, which would create a new territory, known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater control of resources and taxation. But it’s uncertain whether adjoining areas like Cotabato City, wedged in the middle of an existing region, will vote to join. If the referendum passes, Mindanao still faces a challenge building peace. Authorities must oversee the decommissioning of thousands of armed fighters. But other armed groups continue to clash, including extremist fighters that have in the past drawn from the ranks of disaffected MILF members.

     

    Sexual harassment at the UN

    One in three UN workers has been sexually harassed in the past two years, according to survey results published this week. More than 30,000 UN agency staff and contractors took part in the online survey conducted in November by business advisory firm Deloitte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed disappointment, not just at the results but also at the low participation – only 17 percent of those polled responded. He said it showed how far the UN has to go before it can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment and counter ongoing “mistrust, perceptions of inaction, and lack of accountability”. Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reportedly ordered an internal investigation after a string of anonymous emails containing allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption were sent to top managers at the UN health agency last year. Both reports follow hot on the heels of the announcement last month that the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, will step down six months early, in June, after a panel found that he tolerated “a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.” A preliminary report this week into the Oxfam scandal, which precipitated the #AidToo movement, called for a stronger system of safeguarding, for empowering and creating the space for staff to challenge negative power dynamics, and for investing in ways to more generally improve the culture of such organisations.

    In case you missed it:

    Democratic Republic of Congo: While global attention has been focused on Congo's disputed elections and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern regions, almost 900 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in western Mai-Ndombe province last month, the UN said. The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities took place in Yumbi, one of the towns excluded from the 30 December polls due to insecurity.

     

    The Hague: The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, calling the case against him "exceptionally weak". Gbagbo spent more than seven years in custody, and was tried for allegations including involvement in election-related violence in 2010 and 2011, during which thousands of people were killed. Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict and, initially at least, he remained behind bars.

     

    Syria: UNICEF reports that eight children, most under four months, have died in the past month at the makeshift camp on the Jordan-Syria border where some 40,000 Syrians have taken shelter. People at the camp, Rukban, are exposed to harsh winter conditions and are short on medical supplies and care; the last humanitarian convoy was in November.

     

    United States: Four humanitarian volunteers went on trial this week in Tucson, Arizona, facing misdemeanour charges for leaving water and other supplies in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since 2017, at least 43 sets of human remains have reportedly been found in the wildlife refuge where the volunteers had left the provisions.

     

    Yemen: Days after the UN Security Council voted to send 75 observers to monitor a faltering ceasefire in Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah, bullets hit an armoured car carrying the mission’s head, retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. No one was injured, and the warring sides blamed each other for the incident.

     

    Zimbabwe: The UN has condemned Zimbabwe's “excessive use of force” in cracking down on protests, which were sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike last weekend. Five people have been killed, hundreds detained, and the government has imposed a total internet shutdown. There is concern that a prolonged crisis could lead to mass displacement and create a new humanitarian challenge for neighbouring countries.

    Weekend read

     

    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

    Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure at home and abroad as his disputed second term in office begins. Opposition politician Juan Guaidó is challenging Maduro’s rule, while some foreign governments, including the United States, are calling the Maduro regime “illegitimate”. Venezuela is mired in economic freefall and its citizens face severe food and healthcare shortages. The crisis has pushed some three million to flee the country, spilling the humanitarian emergency across the region. For our weekend read, journalist Susan Schulman has the latest from our reporting on local aid in crises. The story profiles Venezuela’s local NGOs, which have been forced to make drastic changes to respond to a humanitarian crisis the government denies. Local organisations that once focused on rights or development find themselves thrust into unfamiliar new roles: an education NGO that abandoned its training programmes because teachers were too busy queuing for food; a rights group that diverted its resources to feed hungry children. “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” says one local activist. “We didn’t know until now.”

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

    Look out for IRIN’s participation at next week’s annual World Economic Forum gathering of top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Join us on Tuesday 22 January at 7:30am local time (0630 GMT), for a live stream of “Meet the New Humanitarians”, our headline event aimed at showcasing emerging actors in the humanitarian landscape, not to mention our new name and brand (In case you missed our big announcement).

     

    And if you don’t mind a quick 10-second sign-in form (or are already signed on), check out the Humanitarian Action entry on Transformation Maps, the WEF’s new attempt to harness technology and collaboration to tackle complex global issues and better inform decision-makers. IRIN’s Ben Parker was the key contributor.

     

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    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • Greek roads prove deadly for migrants on busy land route to Europe

    Near the Evros River border between Turkey and Greece, which became a popular migration crossing point in 2018, officials have recorded a sharp increase in migrant and asylum seeker deaths from traffic accidents. And more than a quarter of all migrant deaths in mainland Europe in 2018 were due to road accidents in Greece, according to UN figures.

     

    Pavlos Pavlidis, a forensic scientist based in Alexandroupoli, Greece, whose sole responsibility is identifying dead migrants and asylum seekers, told IRIN that by mid-December he had already seen dead bodies from nine traffic accidents in 2018, up from two car crashes in 2017.

     

    Read more → Greece’s man in the migrant morgue

     

    It’s not entirely clear what’s behind the growing trend, but both reckless practices by human smugglers and attempts to avoid arrest and return to Turkey are possible causes.

     

    Greece itself has the highest rate of road fatalities in the European Union, at 69 deaths for every one million inhabitants in 2017.

     

    But for migrants, the roads are even more dangerous. According to statistics from the UN’s International Organization for Migration, 30 migrants died and 82 were injured in road accidents in Greece last year, out of the nearly 48,000 migrants who arrived in the country, 15,814 via Evros. The IOM recorded 109 migrant deaths in all of Europe in 2018.

    Most of the crashes take place on Greece’s Egnatia Odos highway, a €5.93 billion project that stretches from the Ionian Sea to the Turkish frontier, and was designed to be faster and safer than the roads it replaced when it was finalised in 2009.

     

    Dimitris Koros, a lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees, told IRIN that attempts to avoid capture may encourage dangerous practices: “As [migrants] know that the more deep in the mainland they enter, the less possible it is for them to be pushed back, it makes their driving that much more reckless,” he said. IOM reports that nearly every accident occurs after a high-speed car chase with a police vehicle.

     

    Human smuggling is a business where corners are regularly cut, and Greece is no exception. In Evros, migrants are loaded into cars or vans beyond capacity. IOM reports that smugglers usually arrange for unaccompanied foreign minors already living in Greece to drive – the idea being that underage drivers won’t get jail time. Other times, migrants are forced to drive themselves. In either case, drivers are likely overwhelmed, unfamiliar with the terrain, and afraid of the authorities.

     

    Popular land route to Europe

     

    As IRIN has reported, in April 2018 the Evros River (known as the Meriç in Turkey) saw a resurgence in migrants and asylum seekers crossing into Europe, leaving first responders, police, and aid workers both unprepared and overwhelmed.

     

    That month, 3,600 people crossed at Evros, surpassing sea arrivals to Greece for the first time since 2014. Numbers have since dropped – the Hellenic Police report 1,848 people crossing in October and 1,025 in November – but they are still significantly up on 2017.

     

    A string of high-profile accidents began shortly after the uptick in arrivals last year. On 8 June, a van carrying 17 Iranian migrants flew over the Egnatia Odos’ protective barrier, leaving six dead, among them three children. Later that month, on 27 June, a sedan packed with 10 Syrians and Iraqis (including two children) lost control on the highway, killing three people and injuring the rest. The mother of the children died at the Alexandroupoli hospital later that day.

     

    The pressure on those arriving is intense. Both Human Rights Watch and the Greek Council of Refugees have found a clear pattern of police (or groups wearing paramilitary clothing) speaking in Greek and other foreign languages forcibly returning migrants across the Evros border to Turkey.

     

    Migrants and smugglers – usually hoping to reach Thessaloniki or Athens before moving elsewhere in Europe – know that the chance of reaching their final destination increases the further they go into the Greek mainland. “I used to breathe a sigh of relief when I saw signs for Kavala [a city some 200 kilometres southwest of Evros],” a former migrant smuggler who requested anonymity told IRIN in June.

     

    Whatever the causes of the individual crashes, deaths are stacking up.

     

    On 13 October, police chased a van full of migrants near Kavala, leading the van to crash head on with a truck. All 11 migrants stuffed inside were burned alive, charred beyond recognition. One month later, a migrant van again collided with a truck, injuring 27 people and killing a four-year old Iraqi boy.

     

    Most recently, on 13 December, a driver ignored warning signs to slow down due to an overturned lorry; he lost control of the vehicle and three migrants died. Another three survived with injuries.

    (TOP PHOTO: A group of Syrians who have just crossed the Evros River from Turkey to Greece. CREDIT: Socrates Baltagiannis/UNHCR)

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    Greek roads prove deadly for migrants on busy land route to Europe
  • Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scrambling

    As the United States and Turkey trade barbs over the US withdrawal from Syria, humanitarians operating in the country’s northeast say the diplomatic chaos has thrown open a Pandora’s Box of unpredictable security risks that threaten their ability to deliver aid to civilians.

     

    Since 2015, US troops have lent military, financial, and political support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia fighting the so-called Islamic State. The SDF has hostile relations with Turkey, a NATO member and US ally, and the prospect of major Turkey-SDF conflict is now at the heart of discussions over how and when any US withdrawal should proceed.

     

    Some two million civilians are thought to live in areas under SDF control, where relief operations provide support to the shattered city of Raqqa, aid to people fleeing conflict, and ongoing assistance to economically devastated resident communities.

     

    Northeastern Syria has a large Kurdish community, which has largely avoided conflict with Damascus, even as the SDF has carved out territory fighting off IS with international help from the air.

     

    A week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he might send troops into Syria “at any moment”, US President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday that he was beginning to move his own military out, and threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if the country attacked Kurds in the region. An Erdogan-Trump phone call on Tuesday sought to reduce tensions and find common ground as the US continued to prepare its withdrawal.

     

    It has been nearly a month since Trump first announced he would remove his troops from Syria, but it’s unclear how the pullout will work. And with both Turkey and Syrian government authorities apparently counting the days until the Americans leave – leaving the SDF unprotected – working in the area has become a particularly risky prospect for an aid operation involving around 25 international NGOs, the UN, more than 150 local NGOs, and donors.

     

    Despite being an agriculturally productive region, conflict, displacement, economic collapse and poor harvests have left a significant part of the population in need of humanitarian help.

     

    “The last thing that northeast Syria needs is precipitate and unplanned moves,” David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who now heads the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement shortly after Trump’s initial December announcement. “Relative stability could be replaced by chaos,” he warned.

     

    High humanitarian stakes

     

    The United States and its coalition allies have used airstrikes to target IS, but only maintain a limited ground force and civilian contractors in the northeast.

     

    Despite this small footprint, their presence has allowed at least some stability in the region, and by some measures the situation in northeast Syria has been improving over the past year. Displaced people are beginning to return home, particularly to Raqqa, despite the lack of infrastructure and services there.

     

    But many people still need help. Data compiled by the NGO Mercy Corps and made available to IRIN indicates that some 2.1 million Syrians live under SDF rule, including half a million who have already fled their homes at least once.

     

    That displacement continues even now, said Adnan Hezam, a Damascus-based spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He told IRIN that local sources recently counted 3,400 fresh arrivals from the Hajin area in eastern Deir Ezzor province, where the SDF is still fighting IS holdouts. Many had walked for days to reach camps where aid groups operate.

     

    “There is rain and cold temperatures, they have no water, they’re scared of the shelling, some have lost family members on the way to the camp,” Hezam said. “There is also a risk of explosives and landmines contaminating the area.”

     

    Winter storms and heavy rainfall recently flooded some camps, adding to the crisis.

     

    And now the area is heading into an unknown future.

     

    Who will fill the void?

     

    “US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible,” Refugees International Vice President Hardin Lang, who visited SDF-held areas in 2018, told IRIN. “But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”

     

    But even with the withdrawal set to begin, mixed messages continue to come out of Washington.

    “US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible. But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”

    Earlier in January, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States may keep a separate base at al-Tanf in southern Syria, and would not exit the northeast until IS has been fully defeated and Syrian Kurds were safe from persecution.

     

    This triggered a sharp response from Erdogan. “Elements of the US administration are saying different things,” he said, refusing to meet with Bolton when he visited Turkey last week hoping to negotiate a deal that would secure the safety of Kurdish fighters.

     

    US officials seem ready to hand SDF territory to Erdogan and his Syrian rebel allies, despite the extreme hostility between Turkey and the SDF’s Kurdish core group. That group is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government.

     

    “The presence of a [PKK-friendly] area next to our border is not good for the future of Turkey,” a Turkish official told IRIN in a December interview. “We will keep fighting against this idea.”

     

    Although Erdogan has told Trump he will intervene with the purpose of finally defeating IS in the region, Turkey views the US withdrawal primarily as a chance to demolish SDF-backed authorities that were previously shielded by the American presence.

     

    In his tweet, Trump spoke about a 20-mile “security zone” along Turkey’s border, but offered no detail. Erdogan has long said he will establish a Turkish-controlled security zone in Syria, and when he responded on Tuesday, he portrayed Trump’s comments as a green light to drive the SDF away from Turkey’s borders.

     

    “They are terrorists,” the Turkish president said. “Can we leave this area to the terrorists?”

     

    A 20-mile Turkish “security zone” would cover most of northeastern Syria’s Kurdish-populated areas, including the cities of Qamishli, Amoude, and Kobane. Mercy Corps population data indicates that, depending on its exact borders, the area sought by Erdogan could include almost half the population in SDF-held areas.

     

    However, military, humanitarian, and regional analysts tell IRIN the primary target of a Turkish intervention would likely be the Arab-majority region around Tel Abyad, north of Raqqa. Turkish forces could then head south to bisect SDF territories and take Ain Issa, a strategically located Arab town that functions as a local administrative centre, including for humanitarian affairs.

     

    Kurdish officials in northeastern Syria say a Turkish incursion would bring chaos. “Attacks on the area would bring destruction and displace hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,” warned Hediye Yusuf, a senior official in the SDF-backed local authorities.

     

    Desperate to avoid Turkish attack, Kurdish leaders are turning to Damascus and Moscow.

     

    Kurdish leaders have said they want Russia to broker a return of SDF-ruled areas to central government control, while ensuring some form of local autonomy and a “fair distribution” of resources. They say SDF fighters should be integrated into al-Assad’s armed forces, and Russian and Syrian army troops should guard the border against Turkish incursions

     

    Soon after Trump’s announcement, SDF leaders invited a symbolic Syrian army contingent to the outskirts of the flashpoint city of Manbij, on the far western end of the Kurdish-controlled region.

     

    On 8 January, Russian military police also turned up in the area, apparently drawing a line in the sand to prevent Turkish intervention. In theory, Russian backing could allow President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to step in to fill the role the United States has up until now played as a bulwark against Turkey.

    Even as all involved seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.

    “If the regime comes to an agreement with the Kurdish and Arab forces in the region, it would prevent the land from being divided and occupied by Turkey,” Yusuf, the Kurdish official, told IRIN.

     

    However, Russia is also in talks with Turkey, which distrusts al-Assad and fears that Kurdish groups could use an agreement with Damascus to ensconce themselves behind Russian and Syrian government lines.

     

    Even as all involved, including Turkey, seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.

     

    “I think northeastern Syria will be resolved transitionally and piece by piece,” said Sinan Hatahet, a senior fellow with the Istanbul-based Syrian think tank Omran Studies.

     

    Complicating an already fragmented response

     

    Sources linked to northeastern Syrian aid operations, who requested anonymity, have told IRIN that the see-sawing US policy is making it hard to plan ahead and ensure the protection of staff and local civilians.

     

    Beyond the risk of violence and displacement, changes in territorial control will likely disrupt northeastern Syria’s complicated humanitarian architecture.

     

    Some 200 non-Syrian aid workers currently live in SDF-held Syria, working with around 25 international NGOs that deliver food, healthcare, water, and education to local communities.

     

    Most of these organisations are not registered with the Syrian government, which often refuses to let NGOs work both inside and outside its control – they have to choose.

     

    That means these organisations cannot officially partner with the UN, which is represented in the northeast by an office in the border town of Qamishli that reports back to the UN’s Syria headquarters in Damascus. Syrian government officials have a presence in Qamishli, though most of the city is under SDF control.

     

    Even as it bans aid from its territories to Turkish-held regions of Syria, al-Assad’s government has allowed UN convoys from Damascus and Aleppo to reach the SDF-held northeast.

    But government forces routinely remove medical equipment from UN convoys.

     

    To compensate, the UN brings in medical supplies through the SDF-held Yaaroubiyeh border crossing between Syria and Iraq, using a permission granted by the recently renewed UN Security Council Resolution 2165 to deliver cross-border aid without government pre-approval.

     

    Meanwhile, most NGOs bring supplies in through the Fish Khabour crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also used by US troops.

    Stabilisation aid

     

    In addition to UN and NGO relief, SDF areas are also bolstered by civilian contractors working on behalf of the US-led anti-IS coalition, with funding from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Denmark, and other US allies.

     

    Unlike humanitarian NGOs, which strive to maintain neutrality, the stabilisation contractors are explicitly tasked with reinforcing SDF governance against IS and al-Assad’s influence.

     

    In practice, however, much of their work takes the form of road repairs and the restoration of electricity, water, and sanitation – basic tasks that blend into the humanitarian effort and can often be a precondition for effective UN and NGO assistance.

     

    US officials have also supported the humanitarian community more directly by offering medical airlifts and pushing SDF officials to provide information and access for aid groups.

     

    Aid NGOs, which were mostly unwilling to speak on record, say their own work would suffer if the coalition stopped providing these basic services. They still take care not to be confused with coalition-funded contractors, in order to preserve neutrality, but for Damascus and Ankara the distinction is academic. Both governments regard NGOs that have chosen to work in SDF areas with suspicion, raising fears that local employees could be persecuted if the SDF loses control of the area.

     

    Planning for an uncertain future

     

    Even a non-violent shift in territorial control could hobble humanitarian operations in northeastern Syria. Although US authorities have stopped funding the stabilisation effort, an SDF official said the American presence remains the “nerve centre” of broader coalition efforts.

     

    If contractors working on water, electricity, and other basic services were to be withdrawn without a smooth handover to other capable actors, the humanitarian situation could deteriorate rapidly – especially if paired with violent conflict, new waves of displacement, border closures, and fragmenting local governance.

     

    Erdogan recently suggested Turkey could handle stabilisation and reconstruction efforts in the “security zone” through its urban development agency, TOKİ, but also hinted that it would require continued financial support from the anti-IS coalition. However, it seems unlikely that the coalition’s top stabilisation donors – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – would be willing to fund a Turkish presence in the area, given their frosty relationship with Erdogan’s government.

    There appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.

    It is also unlikely that the Syrian government, which appears to have a very limited economic and institutional capacity in eastern Syria, could immediately take over stabilisation operations in SDF areas that fall under its own control.

     

    As it stands, there appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.

     

    Aid actors themselves say they are busy with contingency planning, but sources informed about the planning told IRIN it’s a struggle given the lack of clarity about the future.

     

    Aid groups are simply faced with too many possible scenarios, sprouting from a host of unresolved questions, including the speed and scope of US withdrawal, the potential for Turkish-American, Turkish-Russian, or Damascus-SDF agreements, and the risk of an IS resurgence, to mention just a few.

     

    On a normal day, aid groups would be begging for funding and resources. But in Syria, they are now desperately demanding something else: information, coordination, and time to adapt.

    (TOP PHOTO: Some 10,000 internally displaced people currently live in northeast Syria's al-Areesha camp, which has been hit by heavy rains and flooding. CREDIT: Hisham Arafat/UNHCR)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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    As Turkey threatens an offensive, thousands of civilians face disrupted assistance and new displacement
    Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scrambling
  • Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians

    2018 was a disastrous year for civilians caught in conflict.

     

    In most conflict zones around the world, the majority of those killed were civilians. Those who survived suffered myriad physical, emotional, and economic hardships.

     

    In the Middle East, three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the body charged with maintaining global peace and security – conducted or supported military campaigns that massacred civilians.

     

    In Syria, Russia participated in the offensive on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which killed more than 1,000 civilians, some through the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.

     

    In Yemen, the US and the UK continued to support the Saudi-led coalition, despite mounting evidence that airstrikes there have hit hospitals, markets, and school buses, and that the on-off blockade it imposed has worsened an already catastrophic humanitarian crisis in which nearly 16 million Yemenis – more than half of the population – are on the brink of starvation.

    We have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.

    In Afghanistan, insurgent groups increasingly targeted civilians, and the number of civilian deaths and injuries climbed steadily over 2018, reaching at least 8,050 by the end of September, according to the latest UN figures.

     

    In Africa, UN peacekeeping missions continued to fall short of their mandates to protect civilians. In the Central African Republic, for example, at least 70 civilians were killed in an attack on a displaced persons’ camp metres away from a UN base. In South Sudan, reports emerged of at least 125 women being raped as they made the multi-day journey to a food distribution site. In the Beni area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN has failed to contain the killings of civilians, which some estimates put at 1,000 since 2014.

     

    Despite these discouraging examples, we at CIVIC have hope for 2019. Why? Because we have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.

     

    In Yemen, the October murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi spurred a renewed push to end external actors’ involvement in the war – one factor in December talks that declared a desperately needed (if not yet implemented) ceasefire for the port of Hodeidah. In Syria, it appears that a political deal has prevented – at least for the time being – a military assault on the province of Idlib, which would undoubtedly have catastrophic consequences for civilians.

     

    The three-day Eid holiday ceasefire in Afghanistan last June offered a glimpse of what peace could look like, as Taliban fighters, Afghan military, and civilians mingled without fighting, despite two bombings in Nangarhar province, one claimed by the so-called Islamic State.

     

    At the international level, last May the UN General Assembly dedicated an entire week to discussing tangible ways to further the protection of civilians, and Secretary-General António Guterres called for all UN member states to adopt national policy frameworks on the issue.

     

    Just as we supported the Afghan government in its groundbreaking 2017 adoption of a civilian protection policy, we at CIVIC will continue to help governments around the world – from Iraq to Nigeria to Ukraine – looking to do the same: identifying potential improvements to their policies and laws; providing workshops to equip military and security forces to see their mission with a protection mindset; helping them to understand their obligations under international humanitarian law, and to account for civilian lives in their day-to-day operations.

     

    In South Sudan last January, UNMISS opened a base in Yei – an area devastated by violence in 2017 – to enable the UN mission to better protect civilians in the region. UNMISS is committed to using inter-communal dialogues across the country to prevent deadly conflicts between semi-nomadic cattle farmers and agricultural groups.

     

    In Congo’s Ituri province, the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO responded to escalating violence against civilians in the first half of the year by rapidly launching mobile troop deployments to high-threat areas and initiating peace dialogues between communities. This move was possible thanks to collaboration between officials, community leaders, and UN mission leadership – and most actors in the region agree that the peacekeepers’ quick action halted ongoing violence and likely prevented an escalation in fighting.

     

    These two peacekeeping wins are particularly encouraging as we approach the 20th anniversary of the first specifically mandated UN mission to protect civilians: the formation of UNAMSIL in 1999 was in part a response to global outrage following the massacre of civilians in Sierra Leone.

     

    We’re also hopeful for 2019 because even when political will wavers, the will of civilians themselves does not. We’ve seen repeatedly how meaningfully engaging communities about their own protection yields tangible advances. In Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, for example, community elders in two districts convinced the Taliban, at least temporarily, to remove and stop planting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

     

    In northeastern Nigeria, when community protection committees in Bama notified the military that local militia were sexually exploiting women near an informal displaced persons’ camp, the military banned all militia members who did not have family members at the site from entering. These same committees also obtained regular military escorts for civilians leaving the site, allowing 3,500 people to farm and collect firewood without fear of being attacked.

     

    This sort of determination is encouraging, but it cannot stand alone. Ensuring the protection of civilians in conflict requires consistent, committed, and courageous support from leaders at all levels.

     

    With strong leadership at the international level, true commitment and political will by key states involved in conflicts, and meaningful engagement of affected communities, protection is possible.

     

    We call on leaders to muster the political will to make the possible a reality in 2019.

     

    Civilians trapped in conflict zones don’t have another year to spare.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: A displaced South Sudanese woman in a Protection of Civilians site adjacent to the UNMISS base in Wau, South Sudan. CREDIT: Phil Hatcher-Moore/UNICEF)

    Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians
  • Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Militant attacks spike in Nigeria

    More than 30,000 people have fled fighting in northeastern Nigeria's Borno State, most from Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, as attacks by Boko Haram and its Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) offshoot increased in recent weeks. The UN has expressed concern about the flood of newly displaced people into the state capital, Maiduguri. The impact of the fighting has been "devastating and has created a humanitarian tragedy,” said Edward Kallon, head of UN operations in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the Nigerian army said it had cleared jihadists from several towns, including Baga. The government has previously made claims that Boko Haram was "technically defeated". In reality, the insurgency, which began in 2009, has fragmented but continues – with an uptick in violence in some areas and jihadists targeting other countries in the region. Read more of IRIN's in-depth coverage on countering militancy in the Sahel.

    Winter has come

    Snow and flooding may affect 70,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon this week, according to the UN refugee agency. Storm Norma, bringing rain, high wind, and snow at higher altitudes, will have already passed through Lebanon by Sunday but rain is forecast for next week, adding to flood risks. So far 361 refugee sites have been affected, and one eight-year-old girl died in floodwaters. Flimsy plastic and tarpaulin structures are no match for the heaviest snowfall – one informal settlement near Arsal is said to have been “buried”. Affected refugees have had to find alternatives and aid groups are working to provide shelter, clothing, and heating. The storm follows flooding of displacement camps within Syria: more than 20,000 people in 108 camps were affected in northwestern Idlib by early January, according to Save the Children.

    Congo election result challenged

    After 18 years of Joseph Kabila’s rule, this week saw Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared the provisional victor of long-delayed presidential elections. But another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, called the result an "electoral coup" and said he would file a court challenge against it this weekend. Since independence in 1960 from Belgium, Congo has never seen a peaceful transfer of political power. It is struggling to move on from decades of conflict and political unrest and still faces a host of humanitarian challenges, including its largest ever Ebola outbreak. There are fears these new tensions may lead to a fresh eruption of political violence across the country. Initial unrest has already included one demonstration by Fayulu’s supporters that reportedly left five civilians dead and 17 police officers injured in the southwestern city of Kikwit. Fayulu believes he won 61 percent of the vote, citing election observers from the Catholic Church, which also cast doubt on the result. Fayulu claims Tshisekedi only won because he made a backdoor power-sharing deal with Kabila's chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

    Deal or no deal? Yemen ceasefire falling apart

    The shaky ceasefire deal in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah racked up another obstacle on Thursday when a Houthi drone attacked a military parade at a base that belongs to the Yemeni army and its allies in the Saudi-led coalition. Six soldiers were reportedly killed, and the government of internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi said the attack shows the rebels are “not ready for peace”. Efforts to implement the Hodeidah agreement – reached at talks last month in Stockholm – have been hampered by differing interpretations of the text, which Oxfam this week called too vague, not to mention what a UN spokesperson described as a “lack of trust between the parties”. Watch this space for more on the ongoing diplomatic efforts not just to sort out Hodeidah – a key entry point for aid and commercial goods – but to finally end Yemen’s war.

    Exploring peace amid fresh violence in Thailand’s deep south

    The long-running Malay Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand’s troubled south is back in the spotlight early in the new year. January has seen renewed attempts at peace talks – as well as fresh bouts of violence. Thai peace negotiators and Malaysian intermediaries want leaders of the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional to join peace talks, though it’s unclear if insurgents affiliated with the group are prepared to do so. These peace overtures come amid continuing violence in the south, including a school car bomb (blamed on the BRN), which injured a 12-year-old student, and the killing of four defence volunteers at a school. Rights groups say such attacks on civilian targets are war crimes, but they also accuse Thai security forces of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. More than 6,000 people have been killed in violence in Thailand’s southern provinces since 2004, including more than 200 people last year, according to monitoring group Deep South Watch.

    One to listen to

    Keeping local staff safe

    Local staff continue to bear the brunt of violence targeting humanitarian groups. A guard working for an NGO in the Central African Republic was killed on 5 January, while a Syrian staff member of an international NGO was abducted and killed in Idlib. The most recent episode of the Humanitarian Incidents podcast tackles the issue of safety for local staff (including humanitarians working for subcontracted local partners). Nour Qoussaibany, security lead for the International Rescue Committee in Lebanon, speaks about local perceptions that international NGOs pay more attention to the safety of international staff, and explores what can be done to prioritise security for local aid workers. Hint to donors: boosting funding to build local security capacity would be a good start. Listen to the interview here.

    In case you missed it:

    BURUNDI: Disability NGO Handicap International (aka Humanity and Inclusion) is leaving Burundi, citing regulatory demands. In a re-registration process, the government now requires NGOs to apply a quota for the ethnicity of their Burundian staff, a measure the NGO called discriminatory and unconstitutional. [Your tips and views are welcome.]

    NEW VIRUS: A fruit bat has been found to host a previously unknown filovirus (the family that includes Ebola). In the laboratory, it can infect human cells, but the risk of transmission is unknown. According to Nature, researchers have called it Měnglà, after the area where the bat was captured in China.

    THE PHILIPPINES: At least 140 people have been killed in the Philippines since late December, when heavy rains from Tropical Depression Usman unleashed landslides and flooding in parts of southern Luzon and eastern Visayas. Philippine authorities say more than 56,000 people sought refuge in evacuation centres.

    SUDAN: Violence against protesters and medics must end, Human Rights Watch said, after a “particularly bloody” Wednesday in the Sudanese city of Omdurman. At least three people died after government forces opened fire and used tear gas against demonstrators demanding the downfall of President Omar al-Bashir. Officials say 22 people have died since protests started last month; HRW put the toll at around 40.

    WORLD BANK: World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is quitting for a role in private investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners. All previous Bank presidents have also been US citizens. As well as speculating on the backstory, observers are asking if the tradition of Washingon D.C. handpicking the candidate should continue.

    Weekend read

    Women, girls, and gender preparedness in aid

    It’s no secret that understanding how crises affect women and girls differently from men and boys is one of the keys to an effective humanitarian response. But Suzy Madigan, senior advisor for gender and protection for CARE International, says: “The talk is there, but to really put talk into action there needs to be concrete actions put behind it.” Get up to speed on gender issues in aid this weekend, not just with Madigan’s Q&A, which calls for more local women to be included in emergency response, but also with two stories from the ground that show why extra care and planning is needed. Discover how girls forced into conflict in South Sudan are finding it particularly tough to reintegrate into their communities in peacetime, and how the healthcare gap for returnees to Syria’s Raqqa affects vulnerable women.

    And finally...

    Brexit and the US shutdown

    It’s reaching crunch time for two massive news stories with humanitarian ramifications: Brexit, and the US government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s Mexico border wall. On the former, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to see her “only deal on the table” with the EU defeated in a vote on Tuesday. What’s next is anyone’s guess: she could resign, there could be a new general election, possibly another referendum, perhaps all of the above. As a rush of migrant vessels has made it across the Channel from France in recent weeks, we’ll be exploring whether the British government, in its response, has tried to manufacture a migration “crisis” to harden attitudes on immigration at this crucial juncture. On the latter, we’ve already reported on the real humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border, but look out for more on the possible impacts of a prolonged shutdown on humanitarian programmes.

    (TOP PHOTO: People carry the body of one of the attack victims during their burial ceremony at the Sajeri village on the outskirts of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, on 8 January 2019. CREDIT: Audu Marte/AFP)

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    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen

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