In 2011, the Arab world became swept up in an unexpected and powerful series of popular, nonviolent protests that toppled dictators across the region. At the time, Yemen was ruled by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who – like many of his counterparts in the Middle East – had been long accused of corruption and oppressive governing tactics. So when thousands of peaceful protestors descended on Sanaa to demand his immediate resignation and the implementation of a modern civic state, many saw a great deal of promise for the future of Yemen. Unfortunately, what began as one of many hopeful stories of the Arab Spring has since morphed into an intractable conflict involving far more parties than it originally did.
The civil war in Yemen is a multifaceted one, concerning the Houthi religious group of northern Yemen, as well as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaeda, and the United States. It has become, in many ways, the site of a developing ‘Arab cold war,’ driven along sectarian Sunni-Shia lines led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively. Considering the growing role of the United States in Yemen, it is vital for Americans to understand the conflict in its entirety, nuanced as it may be, as well as the deep consequences it has created for innocent Yemenis.
In response to the demands of the protestors in 2011, President Saleh enacted a government transition plan which called for his resignation and replacement by then-Vice President Mansur Hadi. A weak transition characterized by continued corruption, poor growth, and rising oil prices led to continued disillusionment with President Hadi. Observing these developments closely were the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia Muslim minority-group which had been fighting sporadically with the Yemeni government since 2003. Seizing upon the popular unrest and rising instability, the Houthis moved on the capital city of Sanaa in 2014.
These advances effectively rendered the Hadi government as invalid by September, and Hadi submitted his resignation before fleeing to neighboring Saudi Arabia. Iranian backing for the Houthis has significantly alarmed neighboring Saudi Arabia, which feels threatened by what it sees as a rising Iranian influence across the Middle East. In response, Saudi Arabia has waged an intense, almost indiscriminate bombing campaign with support from Sunni Arab coalition partners like Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE. Due to this rising tension, the conflict has become one of several Saudi Arabian-Iranian proxy war sites in the Middle East.
Nearly two years since Saudi Arabia began bombing rebel positions, the conflict in Yemen appears to have no end in sight. Both sides of the conflict have, at best, tenuous control over their respective regions of the country; the territorial boundaries claimed by Yemen and Saudi Arabia have hardly changed over the past two years. The dramatic insurgency by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has further revealed the instability this stalemate has caused by exploiting the power vacuum created in Yemen. Today, Yemen is at risk of becoming a failed state. Despite the destruction this conflict has produced, Saudi Arabia has insisted on its scorched earth-approach in Yemen, while the Houthis have stubbornly refused to cede power.
External funding has played a key role in this violence. The United States and Britain have provided key logistical support for Saudi military operations, including opposition intelligence and mid-flight refueling services. Furthermore, requests from the Saudi Arabians for billions of dollars-worth of arms from the United States have been fulfilled with few questions asked, as American officials have been eager to ease tensions in the US-Saudi relationship. Similarly, the Houthis have been the beneficiaries of a steady arms flow from Iran. With both sides of the conflict firm in their determination to win control of Yemen – and powerful, practically unconditional supporters on either side – there is little incentive to end this senseless conflict.
Unfortunately, it is the innocent men, women, and children who have borne the brunt of this war. The numbers tell this tragic story most clearly: in January 2017, the UN reported that the death toll in Yemen passed 10,000 civilians, with 40,000 wounded. Those remaining in Yemen face a severe humanitarian crisis. According to a report released by Amnesty International, the conflict has displaced 2.4 million Yemenis from their homes, and 83 percent of Yemenis need some form of humanitarian aid. Due to the aerial bomb strikes carried out by Saudi Arabia and its allies, key transportation infrastructure throughout the country has been destroyed, significantly hampering the ability of humanitarian aid agencies to transfer crucial food, water, and medical supplies to Yemenis who need it. In addition, an actively enforced Saudi naval blockade at the main ports in Yemen has further aggravated the shortage of aid.
This active disregard for basic human rights throughout the conflict is itself a tragedy. GGS strongly believes that all parties in this conflict must respect international humanitarian law to limit any further harm to the innocent civilians across Yemen. Failure to do so, alongside an unfettered access to weapons on either side, will only serve to continue this war and the human suffering that comes with it. As a major actor in this conflict, US policymakers and the general public should look deeper into American involvement in this conflict, and reconsider the wisdom behind further enabling the devastation it has caused.