Yemen: A Civil War Forgotten

By Ruaraidh Maciver
Editor-in-Chief, History Student 

Throughout the last two years, the majority of journalistic pieces emerging from the Middle East have been primarily addressing the continuing conflict in Syria. The seemingly endless and desperate situation facing the country becoming ever more complicated as the world watches on without answer. You could be forgiven then, for not knowing that there has been, throughout this period, another major civil war being fought in the Middle East.

Yemen had been facing guerrilla warfare against Houthi forces since the early 2000’s. They are Zaydis, a branch of Shia Islam found almost solely in Yemen, who wish to stop the growth of the already dominant Sunni belief in the country. The organisation is named after their founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who was killed fighting the Yemeni army in 2004. Since then, the group has been led by Hussein’s younger brother, Abdul-Malik, who has been the one ultimately responsible for the recent success of Houthi forces. In the light of the Arab Springs, the Houthi’s seized the opportunity to expand their influence from the rural North Western Saada province, and swept into the heartland of Yemen. The rebel forces captured the capital of Sana’a in a matter of days in September of 2014, and faced little opposition from military forces. This internal instability from the Yemeni army was largely the result of a series of resignations from high ranking officers in the aftermath of the Arab Springs. Given that the first rallying cry for the Houthi’s, and now their adopted flag and slogan, reads ‘God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam’ there has been some understandable concern raised at their newly found position of power. The internationally recognised government, led by President Hadi, fled to Aden seeking safety, but even here came under siege.

School children in Sadah in the conflict Saada Providence return to a partially destroyed school in March, 2016.

What is most remarkable however, is how little attention this has received in media outlets. This is the equivalent of ISIS seizing Damascus or Baghdad, yet astonishingly little coverage was generated, and even less in way of effective political response. This widespread instability has allowed other terrorist organisations, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to expand. AQAP were earlier last year branded as ‘a bigger threat’ than ISIS by a former CIA director, and seized the towns of Al Mukalla, Zinjibar and Jaar, and had begun to establish a small, stable, area of control. Recent military involvement by coalition forces has started to reverse this expansion, however this is far from complete. Despite this, what remains the most pressing issue for the Yemeni civilian population, is not one of physical violence, but instead something more insidious nature.

Prior to the civil war, the prospect of the Yemeni people facing a water shortage was well known. The rapidly expanding population was straining the already short water supplies of this impoverished country. In 2010, it was estimated that Yemen’s water table was falling at over 6 feet per year, with government funded water wells struggling to keep up with the rapid decline. The destructive nature of this conflict has exacerbated the problems of the nation’s infrastructure immeasurably. At the beginning of this year, it was estimated that over 14 million Yemenis were incapable of meeting their basic food needs, with over half of this number having a severe food shortage. A further 19.4 million lacked clean water or sanitation, with over 9 million of these people losing this access due to the civil war. Despite the herculean efforts of humanitarian organisations to assist in this crisis, the funding required simply is not being provided. These problems exploded into world media earlier this summer, yet have once again faded into the memories of politician and journalist alike.

These problems exploded into world media earlier this summer, yet have once again faded into the memories of politician and journalist alike.

For the past year, a Saudi-led coalition has sought to bring an end to the conflict, by offering increased military support to the Yemeni government against Houthi forces. In the aftermath of several disturbing incidents, the effectiveness and legality of these acts have been widely questioned. The UN has issued several statements calling for investigative measures to be taken into these actions. Some, such as Professor Gabor Rona of Columbia University, have gone further, claiming that the acts of Saudi Arabia are tantamount to war crimes. This would implicate the United States and the United Kingdom, both of whom have been selling millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia. The Sunni state has a natural interest in ensuring that the Shia Houthi’s do not advance further. Iran has been strengthened already in the Middle East with their alliance to Iraq, and the Saudis desperately want to avoid the potential of a further alliance being established in the Arabian Peninsula. Already claims of direct Iranian support have been suggested by Saudi officials.

Fortunately, there is the potential for peace. On November 17th, a tentative ceasefire has been agreed upon by Houthi forces and the Saudi led coalition. Pioneered by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, the agreement remains fragile, and not wholly agreed upon. While the Yemeni government has refused the agreement, it seems likely that with time, and coercion from the Saudi government, they may accept. However, as the Obama administration comes to the end of its final term, the ultimate success of the agreement, and the possibility of a long lasting peace, depends upon President-Elect Trump. Early indications would seem to suggest that a Trump administration would not support further military intervention from Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Regardless of if this is followed through by the President-Elect, we cannot allow our attention to drift from the true severity of this conflict, and the very real implications peace will have for millions of Yemenis.

Featured image by Hugh Macleod / IRIN
Secondary image by Julien Harneis

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