The Coronavirus pandemic may be responsible for one good thing: it provided a reason, or perhaps an excuse, for Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman to pause his brutal and largely unsuccessful war in Yemen.
It was two weeks ago that U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that warfare anywhere was an unjustifiable distraction from the worldwide fight against the coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic and he pleaded for all combatants to declare a temporary cease-fire.
Then, a week or so later it was revealed that Saudi Arabia had been struck by the coronavirus, that, indeed, some 150 members of the Saudi royal family had tested positive for the virus.
By all reports from Riyadh, a light went on, and an issue was raised, what if the coronavirus invaded Yemen, whose healthcare system along with much of its population and society have been laid waste by five years of Saudi bombing?
The results, medical experts agreed, would be almost unimaginable in a country in which half the population depends on food aid to stave off starvation and which has already been weakened by successive epidemics of cholera and diphtheria. And these deadly consequences would be largely the responsibility of MbS and his Saudi military.
The humanitarian threat, the Saudis say, is too great, and so they say, there will be a two-week cease-fire which will include Saudi Arabia’s ground and air forces and those of its Arab allies – what is left of them – and the internationally recognized Yemeni government – what is left of it – after six years out of power.
The Saudis say the cease-fire is meant to jump-start negotiations for a more substantial peace, and – what do you know? – almost simultaneous with the Saudi cease-fire offer, a senior official of the rebels who control most of Yemen and booted the Saudis’ puppet regime out of office in 2014, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, posted a detailed, eight-page plan to end the war on his Twitter account.
Do both sides really want peace in Yemen and was concern about coronavirus the spur to action?
While you consider that question, give a thought to Syria where one of MbS’ former allies in Yemen reportedly tried to pay off President Bashar al-Assad to break a cease-fire with Turkey forced on him by his Russian mentors. In this case, a shaky cease-fire is barely holding, reportedly because Vladimir Putin out-muscled Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
To the east of the cease-fire zone in Northwest Syria, there is a population even more vulnerable to the coronavirus than the Yemenis. They are the 68,000 women and children kept at the al-Hawl prison camp for relatives of captured or killed ISIS fighters. And it is with this possible world champion for misery and vulnerability that I want to start my conversation with our guest today Roy Gutman, Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent, simply one of the best reporters it has been my pleasure to know and a longtime resident of the Middle East.
Roy Gutman has been a foreign affairs journalist in Washington and abroad for more than four decades. His reports for Newsday on “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, including the first documented accounts of Serb-run concentration camps, won the Pulitzer Prize, the George Polk Award for foreign reporting, the Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting and other honors. He also was part of the McClatchy team that won the George Polk award for foreign reporting in 2013. His books include Banana Diplomacy, A Witness to Genocide, and How We Missed the Story: Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan. Since McClatchy closed all their foreign bureaus in 2016, Roy has continued to report for The Nation, Foreign Policy, Mideast Forum, and The Daily Beast. He has most recently completed reporting a Frontline Documentary on Syria.