By Senior Campaign Agent Alasdair Fraser
While the West nervously watches Syria, concerned by Assad’s chemical attacks, Russo-American tension, and the ongoing war on so-called Islamic State (IS), they overlook an equally terrible conflict in another failed Arab state, Yemen.
The Republic of Yemen is not known for its stability. Formed in 1990 by a union between the Sana’a-based North and socialist South centred in the port of Aden, Yemen is one of the poorest nations on Earth. Spider-webbed with a complicated network of warring factions, the current conflict can be traced to the 2011 Yemeni revolution.
Observers describe Yemen as a kleptocracy, with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh amassing a vast wealth estimated to be worth $30 billion. In 2011, as the Arab Spring swept the Middle East, protests over his government’s corruption, the economy, and dynastic constitutional reform boiled over into a revolution, with police killing protesters in the country’s capital. The violence continued, with security forces and tribal groups clashing in Sana’a. Having lost international support, Saleh reluctantly agreed to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s demands for his removal, transferring power to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Hadi was elected to a two-year transitional term on an uncontested ticket with broad support. Using his bipartisan backing, he attempted to break a constitutional deadlock, pushing for a federal Yemen. This move was unpopular with Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), commonly known as the Houthis, who had transitioned into mainstream Yemeni politics, holding 35 seats in the National Dialogue Conference. The Zaidi-Shia minority group from the country’s north, stood to lose out from the decentralisation of public funding, owing to their region’s poverty, and rejected the reforms.
However, the story of Yemen’s recent past gets even more complicated. The Iran-backed Houthi insurgents, who had previously fought against Saleh’s government between 2004 and 2010, took Sana’a in 2014, with the support of the former president. Hadi, forced into a humiliating resignation by the General People’s Congress, retreated to his native Aden in the country’s south, where he gave a speech and resumed his premiership. All around and in between, various Islamist and terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and IS attack both sides in parallel insurgencies. Today, Houthi forces, supported by Shi’ite Iran fight the Yemeni military, and a Saudi (Sunni) led coalition, in what some have called a proxy war between the two oil-producing Islamic states.
Additionally, of note, is the involvement of the US and UK, both of which provide the Gulf state with its weapons, and in the case of the former, intelligence and logistical support. However, in addition to refuelling Saudi bombers and selling them billions of dollars of advanced weaponry, the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operate covert surveillance and targeted killing missions using unmanned aircraft flown from secret drone bases in the Gulf and Horn of Africa. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks US drones strikes in the country since 2002, these attacks have only furthered the suffering of Yemen’s civilian population. Of 249 minimum confirmed strikes, they have on record, between 872 and 1,203 people were killed, 16-200 of which are thought to be civilians. Furthermore, experts caution the US against further material assistance for their allies in Riyadh, lest they violate the law of armed conflict (LOAC), becoming complicit in war crimes.
No end in sight
Besieged since 2015, the Houthis face a brutal campaign of bombings and air strikes led by Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the growing presence of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda present challenges, especially considering the explosion of recruitment based on anti-American propaganda.
However, the war in Yemen struggles to grab as many headlines as the bloodbaths in Syria and Iraq. Consequently, the United Nations is trying to highlight the plight of ordinary Yemenis stuck in the vortex of bloodshed. UN figures suggest at least 10,000 people have died since the war began, although officials note this is a low estimate. Additionally, the war has displaced over three million Yemenis, with 19 million or 80% of the population requiring immediate humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, politicians in both the US Congress and UK Commons have called on their leaders to cease the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. The calls came as a survey by the Yemen Data Project showed one-in-three Saudi-led air raids hit civilians.
Despite the efforts of UN mediators, the conflict drags on, with no one faction capable of a decisive military victory. Hadi, now in Riyadh, has demanded that the Houthi insurgents disarm and give up Sana’a, while the rebel group want to see a national unity government established, with them included.
Image rights: Ibrahem Qasim @flickr