Yemen’s Complex Civil War

July 4, 2018

The ongoing war in Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, which has displaced millions of people, is far more complex than a Sunni-Shia conflict.


For three years, Yemen has been wracked by a bloody war between the Houthi rebels and supporters of Yemen's internationally recognized government.


More than 10,000 people have died in the war in Yemen, which has entered its fourth year, and about 80 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian aid.


A boy reacts as medics attend to him after he was injured by crossfire during clashes between pro-government fighters and Houthi fighters in the southwestern city of Taiz on June 2, 2017.

Image source: The Atlantic


What caused the war?


The fighting can be traced back to the handover of power from long-time autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy and current president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in November 2011.


The handover was forced in a bid to return stability to the country following the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings against long-time rulers across the Middle East.


Hadi has struggled to deal with various problems afflicting the nation including al-Qaeda attacks, a separatist rising in the south, divided loyalties in the military, corruption, lack of food and unemployment.


Who is fighting who?


Hadi's struggles prompted the rising of the Houthi movement, championing Yemen's minority Shia community.


In September 2014, the Houthis took control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and proceeded to push southwards towards the country's second-biggest city, Aden. In response to the Houthis' advances, a coalition of Arab states launched a military campaign in 2015 to defeat the Houthis and restore Yemen's government.


On December 20th 2017, the fighting exceeded the 1,000 day mark.


A picture taken on December 5, 2017, shows the damage after a reported airstrike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in Yemen's Houthi rebel-held capital, Sanaa. Saudi-led warplanes pounded the rebel-held capital before dawn after the rebels killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh as he fled the city following the collapse of their uneasy alliance, residents said. 

Image Source: The Atlantic


Coalitions Forces


Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states namely Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal began an air campaign aimed at restoring Mr Hadi's government. 


Coalition ground troops landed in Aden in August 2015 and helped drive the Houthis and their allies out of much of the south over the next few months. 


The Houthis meanwhile have not been dislodged from Sanaa, and have been able to maintain a siege of the southern city of Taiz, allowing them to fire mortars and missiles across the border with Saudi Arabia.


Militant Groups 


Jihadist militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and rival affiliates of the Islamic State group (IS) have taken advantage of the chaos by seizing territory in the south and carrying out deadly attacks, notably in Aden.


Since the start of the war, al-Qaeda has launched several attacks on Houthi rebels, whom it views as infidels. In 2015, al-Qaeda took over Mukalla, a provincial capital and the fifth-largest city in Yemen. However, in April 2016, 2,000 Yemeni and Emirati troops launched a ground raid on Mukalla and drove al-Qaeda from the city.


ISIL announced the formation of a wilaya, or state, in Yemen in December 2014. In March 2015, it claimed its first attack in Yemen: suicide bombings in two Sanaa mosques used by Zaydi Shia Muslims, which killed more than 140 people. 


Yemeni tribesmen from the Popular Resistance Committees, supporting forces loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed president, hold a position during clashes with Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies in Beihan, Shabwa province, on December 15, 2017.

Image Source: The Atlantic


US and other Western Countries


The US government regularly launches air attacks on al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) targets in Yemen, and recently admitted to having deployed a small number of troops on the ground. 


The US, along with other western powers such as the UK and France, has also supplied the Saudi-led coalition with weapons and intelligence.


Killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh 


At the end of November 2017, a dispute over control of Sanaa's biggest mosque triggered armed clashes that left dozens of people dead. 


Mr Saleh subsequently offered to "turn a new page" with the Saudi-led coalition if it stopped attacking Yemen and ended its blockade. The Houthis responded by accusing him of a "coup" against "an alliance he never believed in".


Houthi fighters launched an operation to take full control of the capital and on 4 December 2017, announced that Mr Saleh had been killed in an attack on his convoy as he attempted to flee the capital.


A Houthi militant reacts as he sits on a tank after the death of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on December 4, 2017. Saleh had recently broken with the Houthis publicly and expressed an openness to speaking with Saudi Arabia, when Houthi militants reportedly attacked his car at a checkpoint days later, killing the former president.

Image Source: The Atlantic


Cold War


This conflict is described as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia - the leading powers of the two differing interpretations of Islam.


Saudi Arabia shares a long, porous border with Yemen, and it fears what it sees as Iranian expansionism through its support for Shia armed groups. Commentators in the Arab Gulf States often claim that Iran now controls four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa.


In Syria, Saudi-backed rebels are fighting against Bashar al-Assad's government, which is supported by Iran. Lebanon is another arena of conflict: Iran sponsors Hezbollah, the Shia militia and political movement, while Saudi Arabia supports the predominantly Sunni Future Movement.


The Cost of War


At least 10,000 Yemenis have been killed by the fighting,over 5,000 of them have been civilians.


Getting accurate information on the death toll is difficult, In fact, statistics often come from those health centres that count their dead, but there are many other hospitals and facilities that don't. 


Save The Children estimated at least 50,000 children died in 2017, an average of 130 every day. Many have perished due to starvation, or a lack of access to healthcare and medical aid.


Two-month-old Nadia Ahmad Sabri, who suffers from severe malnutrition, lies in bed at a malnutrition treatment center in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, Yemen, on December 20, 2017.

Image Source: The Atlantic


The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has estimated that Saudi-led coalition air attacks caused almost two-thirds of reported civilian deaths, while the Houthis have been accused of causing mass civilian casualties due to their siege of Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city.


With only half of the country's 3,500 health facilities fully functioning, at least 16.4 million people are lacking basic healthcare.


Millions of Displacements


The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), estimates that more than 3 million Yemenis have fled their homes to elsewhere in the country, and 280,000 have sought asylum in other countries, including Djibouti and Somalia.


Many Yemenis who have not fled are also suffering, especially those in need of healthcare. 

Medics have struggled to cope with the world's largest cholera outbreak, which has resulted in more than 1 million suspected cases and 2,248 associated deaths since April 2017.


Members of a family displaced by war in the northwestern areas of Yemen sit in their makeshift hut on a street in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, Yemen, on December 24, 2017.

Image Source: The Atlantic


No Clear Ending


The Yemeni Civil War entered its third year this past March and it does not appear to winding down anytime soon.


June is considered as one of the bloodiest months of the year, as the Gulf-backed forces launched a massive offensive along the western coast of Yemen to seize the strategic port-city of Hodeidah, which is currently under the control of the Houthis.


With the Hodeidah offensive heating up, the fighting in the other parts of Yemen are likely to decrease in July, as both the Houthi forces and the Gulf-backed troops mobilize their reinforcements for another major showdown.

Disclaimer: The appearance of US Department of Defense (DoD) visual information on this website does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. 

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