Civil War in Yemen: A Primer


By 2011, many felt Saleh’s long-running rule was only serving his interests – and demanded change (AP)

In March of 2018, the war in Yemen entered its fourth year of conflict with no clear end in sight.

Despite the war resulting in arguably the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis in the world, Western media coverage has been largely non-existent. Lost in the international headlines amidst conflicting media narratives on Syria’s civil war, reporters have left many Americans entirely unaware of the conflict in Yemen and its major potential geopolitical ramifications.

As one of the poorest countries in the Arab world and home to over 27 million people, Yemen has been totally devastated by the disastrous effects of a complex civil war that has claimed the lives of over 10,000 civilians and displaced three million more. Much like the ongoing civil conflict in Syria, the Yemeni Civil War has its roots in the political instability that arose in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring.

Yemen, historically divided between the largely Shiite northeast, and the majority Sunni population the southeast, is a major regional keystone with crucial political implications for territorial powers. Similar to the Syrian conflict, the war in Yemen can be described as belonging to a much larger proxy conflict existing between competing regional powers in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The majority of fighting in the Yemen conflict has seen Houthi rebel forces, based in the capital of Sana’a, clashing with forces loyal to the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi,  in the port city of Aden. Hadi assumed the presidency in the aftermath of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation in 2012.  

Backed by Iran, the Houthis are a Shiite sect with origins in the Saada Province in northern Yemen who originated as a cultural movement intended to counter Wahhabist and Salafist influence in the Arabian peninsula. The Houthi movement, which champions Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, initially sided with security forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This cooperation comes in spite of the forces’ remaining loyalty to Saleh, and the two frequent clashes in the decades preceding the civil war. While Houthi forces initially supported the resignation of Saleh during Yemen’s 2011-2012 political crisis, the Shia group quickly found themselves discontent with his internationally recognized successor, Hadi. Consequently, Houthi rebels soon allied themselves alongside forces loyal to the ousted Saleh. This unstable relationship however was predictably short lived, with Saleh ending his relationship with Houthi forces in favor of President Hadi’s Saudi-backed government. Houthi rebels soon responded by assassinating Saleh as he fled the capital city of Sana’a in December of 2017, declaring the ousted leader a traitor.

Another key component of the conflict in Yemen has been the role of Saudi Arabia and other gulf Arab states in supporting the incumbent presidential administration. In 2014 Hadi, whose administration represents the internationally recognized government of Yemen, was overthrown by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Hadi initially retreated to the southern port city of Aden before eventually fleeing to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, just as Saudi forces began a bombing campaign on the Yemeni countryside. Fearing a potential loss of a key Arab state to regional rival Iran, Saudi Arabia, backed by a coalition of eight other mostly Sunni Arab countries, began an extensive military campaign that aims to restore full power to the Hadi regime. The coalition has also received logistical support from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France: a complex relationship that has drawn the ire of many critics, who view these western powers as being complicit in war crimes. To further complicate things, extremist groups such al-Qaeda and ISIS, have also found room for growth in the ensuing power vacuum created by the warring coalitions.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to provide additional military and political support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels. In contrast to the well documented impact of Saudi military assistance to Hadi loyalists, the extent of Iran’s support of the Houthi rebels remains relatively unclear. While Iran has been documented as providing Houthi rebels with small arms (in 2016 the U.S. Navy intercepted an Iranian shipment transporting thousands of light weapons towards Yemen), the extent of their influence seems to be remarkably smaller than that of other proxies, such as Hezbollah. In fact in 2015, the United Nations Security Council went so far as to state that Iran did not control or exert political power over the Houthi movement in Yemen.

Ultimately, the conflict in Yemen may be best understood as another installment of the greater cold war conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The support of warring factions in Yemen by both powers has demonstrated the desire of these countries to establish regional hegemonic power in the greater Middle East. The Saudi led military intervention, which has seen the widespread bombing of civilian areas, has led to sharp condemnation by the international community. Iran’s support of the Houthi rebels likewise has also drawn strict criticism from many world powers, with many accusing the country of illegally arming and supporting terrorist groups.

As a military campaign with such far reaching political ramifications, each day of further armed conflict diminishes the chances that the crisis in Yemen will be resolved diplomatically. Furthermore, the complicity of Western powers in bombings that have displaced millions, and their failure to issue meaningful condemnations, has only increased the likelihood that this disastrous political struggle will only see further bloodshed.

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