Two weeks ago, the three biggest wars in the world were in Ukraine, Ethiopia and Yemen. Now truces have halted two of the three, and there’s a good chance that they could grow into something more permanent.
The Ethiopian government’s declaration of a ‘humanitarian truce’ on 24 March was 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.
But the Tigrayans outran their supplies, Abiy Ahmed took delivery of some Turkish-made drones, and by last November the front line had moved all the way back north to Tigray’s border. There the Ethiopian army stopped advancing, and set up a blockade on all food supplies from outside Tigray.
By last month at least two million of Tigray’s seven million people were starting to starve, and practically everybody else 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, and hence the unilateral truce.
The Tigrayan war has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions, but there is now a real possibility that the sixteen-month-old war could end in a negotiated peace that keeps Tigray at least formally within the Ethiopian state. That matters, because a successful Tigrayan secession could 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 called Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi who was installed as interim president (without an election) for a two-year transitional period eleven 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 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 subsequently spent almost all of his time.
The Saudis and their Gulf friends have been bombing Yemen ever since, but their armies (mostly mercenaries) don’t do well on the ground. However, 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. 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.
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.