Two weeks ago, the three biggest wars in the world were in Ukraine, Ethiopia and Yemen. Now truces have silenced the guns and the air strikes in two of the three. They are only temporary truces so far, but there is a reasonable chance that they could grow into something more permanent.
The Ethiopian government’s declaration of a ‘humanitarian truce’ on March 24 came as a surprise. Six months ago rebels advanced from their home province of Tigray more than halfway to the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seemed on the brink of defeat.
The Tigrayans made an alliance with another separatist movement, the Oromo Liberation Army, and were close to linking up with them physically. The survival of Africa’s second biggest country seemed to be hanging by a thread, and the border wars if it broke up into ethnically defined successor states could have lasted for decades.
But the Tigrayans outran their supplies, Abiy Ahmed took delivery of some Turkish-made drones, and by the end of the year the front line had moved all the way back north to Tigray’s border. There the Ethiopian army stopped, aware that taking the rebel province by force could involve huge casualties on both sides and had no guarantee of success.
Tigray is landlocked, so an Ethiopian blockade on all food supplies from outside was the obvious option. By last month at least two million of Tigray’s seven million people were suffering an extreme lack of food, and practically everybody was hungry all the time.
If Tigray was ever to be persuaded to stay in Ethiopia, however, the blockade had to end before huge numbers starved to death. Abiy Ahmed understood that, but it’s still unlikely that he would declare a truce without some assurance from the Tigrayan leaders that they would respect it, and that real negotiations would follow.
The Tigrayan war has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions, but there is now a real possibility that the 16-month-old conflict could end in a negotiated peace that keeps Tigray at least formally within the Ethiopian state. That matters, because a successful Tigrayan secession would probably have triggered a cascade of other breakaway movements.
The war in Yemen is much older (seven years now) and much bloodier (400,000 deaths and counting). It is usually portrayed by the international media as a war between the ‘legitimate’ Yemeni government and Houthi rebels, with a variety of Arab monarchies and dictatorships backing the government and Iran backing the rebels. None of that is true.
The Houthi are the militia of northern Yemeni tribes who rebelled when the Saudi-controlled regime tried to cut them out of their share of the country’s limited oil revenues. (The oil is all in the south.) Iran sympathises because the Houthi tribes, like Iran, are Shia Muslims, but Tehran does not and cannot support them militarily.
The ‘legitimate’ government is a former Yemeni field marshal and politician called Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi who was installed as interim president (without an election) for a two-year transitional period 11 years ago. He got the job by doing a deal with the Saudis, who always want an obedient placeman in power in the turbulent country to their south.
Hadi was merely seeking to secure his own position when he tried to deprive the Houthis of their share of oil revenues, because he is from the south himself. When they rebelled and took control of most of the country, he fled to Saudi Arabia, where he has spent the great majority of his time ever since.
The Saudis and their Gulf friends (with Western backing) have been bombing Yemen ever since, but their armies are mostly poorly motivated mercenaries so they don’t do well on the ground. The war has been a stalemate for years, and an almost complete blockade has brought most of the country close to famine. Most of those 400,000 deaths are from hunger.
So the two-month truce is a blessing, although so far it only allows fuel to come into the ports, not food. There is no principle at stake on either side, just squalid considerations of money and power, so in theory they should be able to make a lasting peace deal where everybody shares the (quite limited) wealth.
In practice, in Yemen, it’s never that simple, but Western backing for Saudi Arabia has dwindled since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went rogue (the Jamal Khashoggi murder, etc.) so everybody may now be ready to deal. Otherwise, why the truce?
If it works, there will still be a big and dangerous war in Ukraine, but two of the world’s three worst wars will be over. Compared to the long and bloody past, that’s not a bad record.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War