Unravelling Yemen’s Civil War: An Under-reported Conflict

Report: Written by Jake Blampied.

As the mainstream media continue to exclusively focus on the Syrian civil war, a silenced Yemen experiences a brutal conflict resulting in a humanitarian crisis of an estimated 10,000 fatalities.

Materialising in March 2015, the war began when Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sana’a and exiled the incumbent President Hadi. Now in its second year, millions are living with the risk of famine or in need of urgent medical care.

Up until 1962, Imams from the Zaidi (Houthi) Shia sect had ruled Yemen for 1000 years. After the Yemeni war of 1962, however, Houthi heartlands in the north became increasingly economically starved and consequently significantly underdeveloped.

In 2004, a Houthi insurgency began in the North. The Houthis claimed to be safeguarding their community from discrimination perpetrated by the unpopular government in the South, while the Government accused the Houthis of wanting to usurp their control.

The insurgency fluctuated for seven years until popular protests in 2011 – seen as a part of the Arab Spring – called for the then President Saleh to resign. In 2012, the Houthis boycotted an election which had a singular candidate, resulting in President Hadi taking office unopposed.

Hadi was largely regarded as a Saudi puppet and continued to exclude the Houthis from the vast majority of economic benefits which led to renewed protests in 2014 and eventually clashes with the government security forces. At the beginning of 2015, the Houthis seized Sana’a and formed the revolutionary committee with the purpose of governing the country.

War between factions loyal to Hadi (Sunni tribes in the south and some sections of Yemen’s security forces) and the Houthi rebels (Houthi fighters in the North, the Republican Guards and members of the Ahrar al-Najran movement in South Western Saudi Arabia) is ongoing. To make matters more complicated, five months after the Houthis began their rebellion against Hadi, ex-President Saleh declared his support for the Houthis, adding security forces, who were still loyal to him, to their numbers.

 Sectarian Implications 

As with many conflicts in the Middle East, it is easy to portray the violence as a Sunni vs Shia proxy war. While there are indications that the conflict could be tarred with the same brush, the initial sparks are not so much sectarian as they are exclusivist.

Both the Houthi insurgency, which began in 2004, and the more recent civil war are to do with economic disparity and a disdain for the established elite. It is also important to keep in mind that the Houthi rebellion flared up significantly during the Arab Spring and has been seen as a vanguard for change within Yemen. The Arab Spring was an opportunity to invent a new, more progressive Yemen. The activists and intellectuals of the predominantly Sunni city of Aden were out on the streets at the same time as the Shia Houthis demanding change in 2011.

On the 15th October 2015, a huge demonstration in Aden called for the South to succeed as it had done after British rule, becoming an independent democratic state from 1970-1990.

The war has now entered a new phase with Houthi/Saleh forces in the North, assorted militias in the South, Government loyalists and coalition fighters bombing, and both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State trying to expand their influence throughout the country.

Western Involvement 

Western involvement in Yemen is well documented. Arms flow freely from the US and UK to the Saudi coalition and their allies. Despite atrocities being documented on both sides, nothing has been done to stop the indiscriminate bombing of schoolsmosques and hospitals by coalition forces. With a purported group of military specialists advising the Saudi Coalition in Riyadh, you could expect to see both an increased level of accuracy in the Saudi bombing campaign, and a greater adherence to the Geneva convention. However, regular use of cluster bombs by the coalition has been reported by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. Though technically not an illegal weapon, US condemnation of President Assad’s use of barrel bombs is extensive so the existence of them in Yemen is somewhat disturbing and bordering on hypocritical.

As with most Western involvement in foreign wars, money talks. Daniel Kawczynski MP’s interview on Newsnight last year showed the lengths to with which Western politicians will go to defend the Saudi regime. This most likely has something to do with the fact that UK weapon sales to Saudi Arabia totalled £5.6bn under David Cameron (but that’s pure speculation.) Nevertheless, Kawczynski’s interview is something to behold.

The US’ decision to protect Saleh during the Yemeni Arab Spring – a remarkably peaceful protest considering the context – pulled them into a war which is now seen as one concerned with crushing a democratic uprising. US trained Yemeni Special Ops initially intended to combat the growing influence of AQAP are now in the uncomfortable situation of squashing Houthi and Southern Movement rebellions, both of which are seeking more democratic and fair governance. When pressed for an answer as to why the US is staunch in its defence of the Saleh, and now Hadi led Government, the Secretary of State Robert Gates admitted that the US ‘had not planned’ for a Yemeni Government without Saleh or a Washington approved candidate in charge.

No End in Sight 

As the war in Yemen stretches on, any sign of an end to hostilities is well hidden. The Saudi led coalition is reluctant to give in to the rebel forces as this would challenge their position within the region. As the major Sunni power in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is anxious not to appear weak. The country is also paranoid. They see a Shia led Government in Iraq, a Government propped up by Shia forces in Syria, and, whether wrongly or rightly, a Shia insurgency in Yemen.

On the other side, the Houthis believe they are in the driving seat of the conflict. Having taken Sana’a, Aden, Taizz and other cities in both the north and south, they see no reason to give up control. Though the Houthis have since been pushed out of the South, they hold vast swathes of territory in the North and West. Ex-President Saleh’s support for them, however fickle and power-driven it might be, significantly swelled their numbers to the tune of 100,000.

The war in Yemen is at a stalemate. The Saudi coalition is ensuring the Houthis aren’t able to gain complete control, and in some places the Hadi loyalist forces are pushing back. In the South, calls for succession are common, though the eclectic mix of militias and allegiances make that a feat which will be difficult to achieve. All the while AQAP and IS are strengthening their positions and inflicting casualties on both sides.

The Western media continues to somewhat ignore the war. Reporting it would seem more of an inconvenience given its multifaceted intricacies and controversies. For Yemenis, the war is all too real. The peaceful protests of the Arab Spring, which brought hopes for democracy, prosperity and progression, now seem a world away. As the war approaches its third year, is it not time that we in the West begin to ask ourselves: is this the war the world forgot?

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