Over 100.000 people killed since 2015
Over 2.2 million children malnourished
Over 19.000 airstrikes
In 1990, the Republic of Yemen was formed through the unification of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South) and the Yemen Arab Republic (North), under the joint governance of Ali Abdullah Saleh of North Yemen and Ali Salim al-Beidh of South Yemen. Since then, there has been persistent political and social unrest, predominantly in the northern provinces.
In 1993, al-Beidh left the new government claiming the latter marginalized and ignored the needs of the southern people, leading, in 1994, to the rise of a Civil War. He tried to cease the unification by reinstating the Democratic Republic of Yemen, an attempt that failed within less than two months and led to his expulsion from Yemen. After the Civil War, national unity was maintained under the presidency of Saleh, until a 2011 Arab Spring’s(1) popular revolution led to his resignation a year later, leaving power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the vice-president.
The 2015 ongoing Civil War
While peace was expected to be restored, President Hadi faced Al-Qaeda attacks, military loyalty to Saleh, corruption, food insecurity and the South separatist movements. After the 2014/15 coup d’état(2), Hadi became an ally of the separatist movement to fight the Houthis, a broad tribal alliance belonging to the Shia minority, which emerged in the 1980s and later developed into a militia. This militia firmly opposed former President Saleh’s rule up to his resignation in 2012, yet joined forces with him and his troops to depose President Hadi.
The Saudis, who supported the presidency of Hadi, found this transfer of power illegitimate and formed a coalition consisting of nine West Asian and African countries (3). The main objectives of this coalition were to restore the presidency of Hadi, preventing Yemen from fragmenting under factions, and controlling the growing influence of Iran in the region. The Saudi-led intervention consisted in bombing suspected rebel hideouts. The US and UK have assisted the Saudi led coalition via intelligence briefings, military supplies and some drone attacks. Western involvement has the goal of preventing terrorism. The “War on Terror” has been the US’s main diplomatic goal in the Middle East, with Josh Earnest, Obama’s White House Press Secretary, saying back in 2015:
UN reports have verified the death of at least 7500 civilians as of September 2019, most of them caused by coalition air strikes. Some estimates indicate a death toll of civilians of approximately 12,000, while 100,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the war. Houthi rebels have also been accused of using banned antipersonnel landmines, recruiting children, killing and wounding civilians by firing artillery indiscriminately at cities such as Taizz and Aden. These numbers, however, do not reflect people who have died as a result of starvation and illness brought on by the on-going humanitarian crisis.
The UN considers Yemen to be the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with 14 million people at risk of starvation, 2.2 million children being acutely malnourished, as well as 462,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF. There have been repeated outbreaks of deadly diseases such as cholera and all sides in this conflict have blocked and impeded access to humanitarian aid. The Saudi-led coalition has delayed and diverted fuel tankers, closed critical ports and stopped goods from entering Houthi-controlled areas. By doing this, fuel needed to power generators and pump water to homes has not reached its destination, worsening the already dire conditions within Yemen. Houthi forces have also been accused of confiscating food and medical supplies destined for the Yemeni population. Burdensome restrictions on aid workers have also interfered with the delivery of foreign aid.
There are also instances of aid workers being arbitrarily detained, kidnapped and killed while performing humanitarian operations throughout Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and Iran’s involvement
Western involvement is not of the same kind as previous military interventions in the Middle East. Therefore, the most important presence in the war comes from the two biggest middle-eastern powers: Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two countries have been bitter rivals since the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. Although they never entered into direct military confrontations, they engaged in various proxy wars.
What is happening in Yemen is similar to what happened in Iraq during the American invasion of 2003. With the power vacuum, the country became a stage for a proxy war between the two regional powers. Yemen is a neighbor and a former satellite of Saudi Arabia. Iran backed the Houthi coup d’état in 2014-2015 and their militias, whereas the Saudis helped the central government.
Saudi Arabia hopes to keep Iran out of the Arabian Peninsula and to stop the increasing influence Iran seems to be gaining all over the Middle East.
Consequences of a forgotten war
The chaos in Yemen has resulted in two migrant flows into neighboring countries, that has spilled violence and refugees into the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Refugee flows coming from Africa have reversed, which in turn has only fragilized even further these countries that are already extremely impoverished and dealing with their own internal political conflicts.
The possibility of a break-up of the country is very likely, as the Iranian backed separatists have managed to achieve a strong enough position to force the remaining powers to accept it.
The war has also increased the hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia, worsening the stability of the regions’ security, which was already extremely fragile.
For peace to be a realistic goal, there needs to be agreements among national and international players involved in the war. This political settlement, can only be created through extensive dialogue, not continued warfare. To resolve Yemen’s multi-sided civil war, players with polarizing and conflicting interest will have to compromise for the greater good of the Yemeni population, which does not seem very likely in a near future.
While no compromise is made, the ones who suffer are the civilians in Yemen, specially the children who have been witnessing the terrors of war their whole lives, plagued by famine, diseases, poverty and the constant fear of being hit by an air strike or artillery shell. These people have lived in a continuous state of warfare for the last 5 years, with no foreseeable end in sight, and must continue with their daily lives, hoping one day they can return to normality.
(1) The Arab Spring is the name given to a series of protests and revolts spreading through many North African and Middle Eastern countries, starting in 2011, with the goal of establishing democratic regimes. The revolts lead to several regime changes. However, the outcomes were more instability, war and the persistence of repression in the region.
(2) 2014/15 coup d’état: An alliance between the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Saleh took control of the Yemeni capital Sana’a and deposed the interim president Hadi, who was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia.
(3) This coalition, also called Arab coalition, includes forces from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia made their military bases, airspace and territorial waters available for the coalition, while the US and UK have provided intelligence and logistical support.
Sources: BBC, Yemen Data Project, Anadolu Agency, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Reuters, DW, United Nations, Al Jazeera, Human Rights Watch.