While the world’s eye is turned towards Syria and Iraq, the planet’s largest humanitarian crisis rages just to the south: the Yemeni Civil War. With the World Food Program reporting that two-thirds of Yemenis—almost 17 million people—are in a “crisis” or “emergency” food situation, the breadth and severity of the issue transcends the bloodshed on the battlefield.
Since the inception of the civil war in 2015, over 10,000 civilians have died, over 40,000 have been injured, and over 10 million are in need of “urgent assistance” according to the UN Humanitarian Aid Office. Nevertheless, while the Hadi regime maintains control of the Aden governance, the Houthi-Saleh forces—with the support of Iran—hold significant power in nine governances and are contesting power in six others. Moreover, terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and other localized powers have begun to exploit the chaos to fulfil their own objectives.
Despite the horrors of the current situation, there is still hope for change. An official in the State Department, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed the U.S. government’s optimism that “eventually, both sides will be forced to the negotiating table, and the United States will do anything [they] can to support the U.N. Special Envoy in this process.”
Overall, the violence and destruction in Yemen remains entangled in a larger battle of competing foreign interests. Namely, the Saudi-led coalition, supported by the United States and various members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, have been fighting to restore the legitimacy of the Hadi government, but questions remain as to their ulterior motives in this fight. In opposition, Iran has been aiding the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia political insurgency, in their fight for increased power and influence.
Thus, the grave humanitarian crisis in Yemen worsens as a byproduct of an international battle fought on Yemeni soil. Even though the situation on the ground reflects the deep-seated tensions between warring groups, the severity of the conflict is greatly augmented by foreign military support.
An Overview of the Conflict
Hadi, who became vice president of the conflict-ridden nation in 1994, rose to power directly following the deposition of late President Ali Abdullah Saleh during the Arab Spring. His single-candidate election in early 2012 was followed by a National Dialogue Conference to extend his power. This triggered intense resentment from Houthis, who allied themselves with ex-President Saleh. Ultimately, in September 2014, greatly dissatisfied with the results of an earlier peace accord, the Houthi-Saleh forces captured the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and began to advance towards other areas of the country.
With nowhere else to turn, President Hadi and his allies fled to Aden, a coastal city in southwest Yemen that borders the Indian Ocean. Houthi-Saleh forces, supported by Iran, pursued him and attempted to lay siege to Aden in March of 2015, but air strikes from the newly-created Saudi-led coalition were able to deter Houthi forces. According to Asher Orkaby, a PhD candidate in the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, “even as Mr. Hadi’s domestic support [dwindled], he [was] internationally recognized as Yemen’s legitimate leader.”
Following the fight for Aden, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2216, despite the abstention of Russia. This authorized an arms embargo and a series of sanctions against the Houthis, and it elevated demands for these forces to move out of captured areas. Nonetheless, the conflict persisted and intensified over the course of the next twelve months.
In April 2016, UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, sought to resolve the conflict again by sponsoring bilateral talks between the Hadi government and their opposition, but the ceasefire that resulted was violated by both sides.
The political and military conflicts of the civil war have resulted in a worsening humanitarian crisis. The 27.4 million people of Yemen have been plagued by shortages of food and water, a rare cholera outbreak, extremely limited access to health care, a residential crisis, and a collapse of the banking industry.
The Saudi-Led Coalition: Motives, Influences, and Failures
Despite major humanitarian concerns, both sides of the conflict continue to wage war. In January 2017, the Saudi-led, U.S.-supported Operation Golden Spear began to take back much of the Red Sea coastline while cutting off Iranian access points and Houthi supply lines in the area.
Despite success in regaining Mokha port and making advances towards Hodeida port and Taizz, this operation resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL as well as many civilian casualties. According to Zachary Lentsch, a Harvard PhD student in social anthropology studying Yemen, the situation in Hodeida is “absolutely atrocious” with local civilians struggling to gain access to essentials that they need to survive. Nevertheless, Saudi-led bombings of the port and local infrastructure persist.
According to the same U.S. State Department official, “the United States is urging both sides to provide unfettered humanitarian access, and the Houthis haven’t been very cooperative in this process either.” Moreover, the United States government continues to emphasize that the main objective of the Saudis in this pursuit is to protect their border and secure sharia in the governance of Yemen: “The United States supports the Saudis in this mission of protecting their border, and [they] will work with them to limit civilian casualties.”
However, as the civilian death count rises over 10,000, experts in foreign policy question the legitimacy of this mission and of U.S. support of the coalition. Namely, Lentsch claimed that “people see ulterior motives on part of the Saudis, the GCC, and the United States. Oil pipelines in Aden remain a largely untapped resource, and the Saudis—in many ways—are trying to make Yemen their political puppet once again.”
Thus, the questionable motives of the coalition have cast a shadow on the actions of the United States. President Trump’s recent $110 billion arms deal with King Salman of Saudi Arabia is seen as another strong sign of U.S. support. Noha Aboueldahab of the Brookings Institution claimed that this deal “is yet another example of the appalling lengths some will go in order to benefit from a lucrative war business without acknowledging the death and destruction that such deals cause.”
A U.S. State Department official called these arms deals “fairly routine,” and the U.S. believes it crucial for the Saudis to protect their border. However, according to CNN, Yemen has the second highest number of average firearms per 100 people; thus, the decision to provide more arms to the Saudis, many of which will end up in Yemen, has come under fire by international peace organizations and over 40 human rights groups.
Both sides of the conflict acknowledge that progress is hard to define, but, by almost any measure, it has been fairly limited. Lentsch labeled Operation Golden Spear and other coalition efforts as a “massive failure on the part of the Saudis.” He claimed that they’ve achieved “virtually nothing” and continue to be guided by influences outside of this narrative of legitimacy.
While the United States has expressed a bit more optimism about the coming of a political solution, there is still no clear end in sight: “No one wants to see this last forever, but it is unclear when it’ll end.”
Mission, Branding, and Foreign Influence
The main opposition to the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthi-Saleh forces, remain a prevailing force in this fight with backing from Iran. The United States sees this group as a “destabilizing force” but not a terrorist organization. However, according to Lentsch, the Houthis have actually “branded themselves as an anti-American, anti-imperialist, anti-modern movement.”
Moreover, Jeremy M. Sharp of the Congressional Research Service stated in an interview with the HPR that “in February 2017, Major General Qassem Soleimani of Iran reportedly pledged to increase Iran’s assistance to Houthi-Saleh forces.” Since then, an increase in weapons shipments to Yemen has been verified along with the escalation of military support on the Saudi-led side.
Despite powerful international opposition to their rebellion efforts, the Houthis continue to retain control throughout much of Yemen. Most recently, they have limited the extent of progress of Operation Golden Spear in the governance of Taizz and throughout much of the eastern front of the Saudi-led coalition.
Nevertheless, as Saleh begins to lose the support of many Houthis, the strength of this group’s ideological unity is in danger. According to Lentsch, there is “a unified opposition to the Saudis” among all of the Houthi-Saleh forces, but misgivings about Saleh’s leadership and the Zaydi Shia ideology have begun to fracture their strength.
On the Ground in Yemen
While the international perspective on this conflict remains crucial, the situation on the ground does not necessarily reflect the foreign conversation on this issue. Lentsch, who lived in Yemen as the conflict was erupting, stated that, “You don’t hear the narrative of legitimacy much in Yemen.” While the idea of Sharia establishment and border protection pervades the rhetoric of the U.S. and Saudi governments, many Yemenis do not share this explanation as the true motive for the war. They see Hadi as “a non-factor,” and they perceive ulterior motives in the foreign powers who have implicated themselves in this civil war.
Moreover, the domestic perception of both sides, according to Lentsch, is often not that simple: “Many see the rebels as crooks, criminals, and terrorists, but they might also see the Houthi ideology as pure lunacy.” While many families have been torn apart by the ideological and political tensions rooted in this war, many others have also felt caught in the middle of a worthless fight where they can find solace in neither side.
Correction: The quote from Noha Aboueldahab came from an article she wrote for the Brookings Institution, not from an interview with the HPR.
Image credit: Ibrahem Qasim/Wikimedia Commons