As the conflict in the country intensifies, the U.N. special adviser on Yemen has quit, according to Al Jazeera. Veteran Moroccan diplomat Jamal Benomar announced his resignation on Facebook Wednesday, claiming “an interest in moving on to another assignment.” Benomar has served as the United Nations envoy to Yemen since 2012, and AFP reports that his step down comes after fading Gulf support for his peacekeeping efforts in the country. Yemen is currently in chaos, as Shia Houthi rebels expand their presence and a Saudi-led coalition bombards rebel-hold positions and major cities across the country.
The statement on Benomar's Facebook page, released Wednesday night, stipulated that a successor would be “named in due course.” It continued: “Until that time and beyond, the United Nations will continue to spare no efforts to re-launch the peace process in order to get the political transition back on track.” Reuters reports that Benomar brokered the 2011 transition strategy designed to mitigate the political conflict in Yemen, as the country erupted in protest. Since then, the situation has become ever more unstable.
A brief, tentative victory for partial democracy — with longstanding, autocratic ruler President Ali Abdullah Saleh ousted, making way for elections in 2012 (even if there was only one candidate) and the victory of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi — gave way to turmoil. The country became increasingly divided between Houthi-held areas in the north and Hadi-friendly sectors in the south. Houthi militia (adhering to the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam) swept south, capturing the Yemeni capital Sana last September, and forcing Hadi to flee to the coastal city in Aden. A recent offensive pushed Hadi out of Aden, and he has left the country for now.
In March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia began conducting airstrikes in Yemen, in the hopes of beating back the Shia rebels. The strikes have so far not succeeded in halting the Houthi advance. Instead they have prompted Yemenis to flee for their lives, as peace remains a distant prospect. The civilian death toll has continued to rise (currently estimated be around 700), and observers fear that Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, is becoming a proxy battleground for sectarian war between Saudi Arabia (a Sunni kingdom) and Shiite-majority Iran (believed to be backing the Houthis).
Meanwhile, both ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seem to be using the turmoil to amplify their presence in the country. On Tuesday, the UN Security Council voted to enforce an arms embargo against the Houthis, in an attempt to stem the violence. Their resolution also called for the Houthis to halt their advance and refrain from combat. On Wednesday, Iran pledged to do everything in its power to facilitate peace talks for the Yemeni factions. It remains to be seen whether these measures have any effect.
No wonder Benomar is interested in another assignment — the violence in Yemen currently seems intractable. The Guardian notes that Benomar’s approach had been criticized by regional powers, most notably Saudi Arabia, as his efforts to broker peace faltered. By last week, the Saudi ambassador to the UN had clearly implied that Benomar would not remain long in the post. “We continue to support the mission of the special adviser to the secretary general. … Whoever the secretary general designates as his special adviser, for the time being Jamal Benomar, yes,” Saudi ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, said at the time.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, is reportedly contemplating replacing Benomar with Mauritanian diplomat Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, according to an unnamed UN official interviewed by Reuters. Ould Cheikh Ahmed is currently head of the UN Ebola response mission and has worked previously as special envoy to Libya. He was the resident humanitarian and development coordinator in Syria from 2008 to 2012, and in Yemen from 2012 to 2014.
The UN has made clear their appreciation for Benomar’s work. A spokesperson’s statement (quoted by Al Jazeera) read:
Mr Benomar has spent the past four years working closely with the Yemenis to realise their legitimate aspirations for democratic change fulfilled. … The secretary-general greatly appreciates the tireless efforts Mr Benomar has made over the years to promote consensus and trust on a peaceful way forward in Yemen.
Let’s hope that, for the sake of Yemen — and the more than 121,000 people who have been displaced since the Saudi strikes began — Benomar’s replacement will meet with more concrete success in their attempts to broker peace.
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