Security Brief

Coronavirus Pandemic Forces a Cease-Fire in Yemen

The war-wracked country turns from one humanitarian disaster to face another.

A fighter from the Security Belt Force, a separatist flag during clashes between southern separatists and Saudi-backed government forces at the Fayush-Alam crossroads near Aden in southern Yemen on Aug. 30, 2019.
A fighter from the Security Belt Force, a separatist flag during clashes between southern separatists and Saudi-backed government forces at the Fayush-Alam crossroads near Aden in southern Yemen on Aug. 30, 2019. NABIL HASAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Saudi Arabia announce a cease-fire in Yemen, the Pentagon reels from the impacts of the coronavirus, and the U.S. military asks for billions more to counter China in the Pacific.

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Saudi Arabia Calls Yemen Cease-Fire  

Saudi Arabia has announced a two-week cease-fire in Yemen, providing temporary reprieve for a country torn apart by war for over five years. Western senior diplomats hope that the cease-fire, which aims to allow the country to prepare for a potential coronavirus outbreak, could pave the way for longer-lasting peace.

Considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the conflict in Yemen has strained ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which is leading a costly military mission against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and has been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilians. U.S. military support for the Saudi coalition has led to heated political battles between Congress and the Trump administration in recent years.

Opportunity for peace? Experts say the pandemic could offer both the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government a new avenue for peace. “The threat of COVID-19 is great cover for a cease-fire as it ensures neither party looks like they are giving in to the other,” Elana DeLozier, an expert on Gulf issues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Foreign Policy. Whether the cease-fire can build momentum for lasting peace “will depend entirely on Houthi political will,” she said—something that is shaky as Houthi forces advance on Marib City, a government stronghold.

Bracing for the worst. Yemen is ill-prepared for a pandemic. Though the country has no reported cases of the virus, experts fear that might change or that it simply lacks the capacity to trace infections. The conflict in Yemen has killed an estimated 100,000 people. It has also left the public health system virtually destroyed. “The impact of the coronavirus on people already pushed to the brink would be devastating,” said Muhsin Siddiquey, the Yemen country director for Oxfam.

“Yemenis desperately need to be able to focus on the basics of keeping their families healthy—not dodging bombs and ground fighting.”

What We’re Watching

Pentagon switches up operations as pandemic spreads. The U.S. Department of Defense is adapting its operations amid the pandemic, two top defense officials said today, as the spread of coronavirus has taken some of the Pentagon’s military assets offline. Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that he expects the virus to potentially sideline other weapons systems, after the outbreak took an aircraft carrier in the Pacific out of action.

“It’s not a good idea to think that the [aircraft carrier] Teddy Roosevelt is a one-of-a-kind issue,” Hyten said at a Pentagon briefing on Thursday. The Pentagon is working to isolate service members for 14 days before they deploy, but it is still figuring out how to adjust protocols for combat. There are 416 positive cases onboard the Roosevelt, a significant portion of the U.S. military’s total cases. There is also a small number of cases on the USS Nimitz, the Washington Post reports.

By the numbers. The number of COVID-19 cases within the Department of Defense is rising. There have now been eight deaths within the Pentagon community. Here’s the latest data:

Military: 1,898 cases (+108)
Civilians: 448 cases (+26)
Dependents: 377 cases (+30)
Contractors: 196 cases (+12)

Eyeing the Pacific. Great power competition is back, and the U.S. military continues to shift its focus toward the Pacific. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Phil Davidson has submitted a request to Congress asking for $20 billion in funding, according to Defense News. The report details investment schemes for security cooperation, weapons stockpiles, and infrastructure development, and it could serve as the basis for a Pacific Deterrence Initiative to roll back Chinese influence in the region. This is part of a broader security shift by the Trump administration away from the Middle East and toward Russia and China.

Congressional oversight gets too socially distant. The legislative check on Trump’s foreign policy has taken a hit during the pandemic, FP’s Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch report. The usual levers of congressional oversight—including public hearings and classified briefings—aren’t possible in an era of social distancing, leaving lawmakers struggling for answers on the Afghan peace deal, Iran, and other top national security issues.

Neighbors deterring Russia. Estonia, Latvia, and Finland have signed a joint agreement for a new armored vehicle to boost their security capabilities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. All three countries share a border with Russia, and each has expressed some concern about Moscow’s aggression along their borders. The agreement is a sign that Russia’s neighbors are taking proactive steps to counter its influence in the region.

Movers and Shakers

A new acting SecNav, again. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned on Tuesday following a political firestorm after the sacking of an aircraft carrier captain who sounded alarm bells about coronavirus cases on his ship. Modly will be temporarily replaced by retired Adm. James MacPherson, who was confirmed as the Army’s number-two official just over two weeks ago.

USAID chief departs. This week, Trump’s top aid official, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Mark Green, will leave his job after two and a half years—a long-planned departure. He willll be replaced in an acting capacity by John Barsa, a Trump appointee who oversees USAID’s Latin America work.

New White House comms staff. U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that Kayleigh McEnany, his 2020 campaign spokesperson, will be joining the White House as its new press secretary. Alyssa Farah would join staff as the White House’s new director of strategic communications.

Foreign Policy Recommends 

NATO first. The possibility of national governments cutting defense spending to combat the coronavirus is real, but it would be a blow to NATO’s capabilities. In Defense News, security experts weigh in on what the United States and allies can do to maintain their military might amid the pandemic.

The Week Ahead

Members of the U.N. Security Council will meet on Monday to discuss the political and security situation in the Middle East and the situation in Syria in particular.

NATO defense ministers will conduct an extraordinary virtual meeting on Wednesday to discuss the alliance’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Odds and Ends

Space Force parody. Barely three months old, the U.S. military’s newest service branch is already getting its own TV show. Steve Carrell stars in a comedy coming to Netflix next month about the creation of the U.S. Space Force. As Washington Post reporter Alex Horton points out, the Netflix promotional photos show more fictional Space Force members (four) than there are real-life members (two).

Teleworking nightmares. As the business world flocks to Zoom by the millions while being forced to work from home, cybersecurity pros have tracked a massive influx in “Zoombombing” and other security vulnerabilities with the video meeting service.

That’s it for today.

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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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