By Gabrielle Timm
Recently, the world’s attention on the Middle East has been focused on Syria due to its long running civil war and the resulting refugee crisis in Europe. Largely overlooked however, is the violent conflict that consumes the Middle East’s poorest country, Yemen. Already troubled, this current conflict is making living situations worse and displacing many people, some of whom have fled into Djibouti and Somalia. With the seemingly endless conflict and existing internal threats from Al Qaeda increasing, the war in Yemen has the potential to become just as devastating as the conflict in Syria, with profound negative implications for the international community.
Since September of 2014, the political situation in Yemen has been tumultuous. Houthis, a militant Shi’a group, has long been fighting against Yemen’s government and finally seized control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital that month. Following the takeover of the capital, the Yemeni government still retained nominal control over the country, though Houthis did exert great influence over it. This changed in January 2015, when Houthis forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, among others, to resign following disagreements over a proposed new constitution. Following these resignations, the Houthis placed Hadi under house arrest. Officials in Aden and other cities across southern Yemen stated they would refuse to accept orders from a new government in Sana’a, and there were rumors that they would seek an independent South. (Yemen had formerly been separated into a northern and southern country, until unification in 1990, with Aden being the capital of South Yemen, and Sana’a the capital of North Yemen.)
In February of 2015, Hadi escaped from house arrest, fleeing to Aden. With Houthi forces rapidly advancing in the South and surrounding Aden, Hadi fled the country in late March and called on foreign powers to intervene and restore its legitimate government. The Arab League agreed, initiating the start of the broader conflict that engulfs Yemen today. The Saudi-led coalition acted promptly, initiating airstrikes against the Houthi insurgency and instituting a naval blockade around all Yemeni ports. In April 2015, the United States announced it would be providing logistical and intelligence aid to the coalition. Other Western powers, notably Great Britain, have also supported the coalition.
The coalition has been making some progress against Houthi forces in the South, though Houthis still occupy Sana’a and heavily populated regions in northern and western Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the coalition continue to conduct airstrikes on northern territories, and now have a troop presence on the ground.
This war has dangerous implications for the entire region, as it has the potential to exacerbate regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has been accused of aiding Houthi forces, as both are Shi’a. While Iran has denied this, intelligence indicates that Iran has supported the group for years, and, more recently, the Arab coalition seized an Iranian fishing boat loaded with weapons meant for Houthi forces. Saudi Arabia has long viewed itself as a defender of Sunni Islam, in contrast to Iran’s defense of Shi’a Islam, which has made the two countries hostile on religious grounds. Moreover, Iran considers Saudi Arabia a wealthy, ambitious proxy of the United States, and Saudi Arabia views Iran as a major source of instability in the region. Thus, with Saudis backing Hadi, there is a very real danger of Yemen turning into a proxy war between the two regional giants.
Additionally, Yemen’s strategic location could have a negative impact on international trade, particularly on the oil industry. The Bab el-Mandeb, a narrow chokepoint with Eritrea and Djibouti on the west and Yemen on the east, connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is located on a vital sea-lane between Europe and Asia, and trade that goes through the Suez Canal must pass through this area. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that 3.8 million barrels of oil and refined petroleum products pass through the Bab el-Mandeb each day en route to European, Asian, and American markets. This makes it the world’s fourth busiest chokepoint, so even the thought of a potential shutdown could have huge consequences on the oil market. While Houthis did gain control of this area in March, it was recently recaptured with the help of the Saudi-led coalition.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also stands to benefit from the war. US intelligence considers AQAP to be one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups, and the most threatening branch of Al Qaeda. AQAP was already a very strong force in Yemen, particularly in the eastern province of Hadramawt (Osama bin Laden’s father’s homeland), and it currently controls some territory within Yemen. The group could exploit the current conflict to increase its power; this has precedent in Libya, where al Qaeda-affiliated extremists have made major advances following the overthrow of Gadhafi, as infighting plagues moderate forces. Success in weakening Houthi forces could strengthen AQAP, since Houthis have been an effective fighting force against AQAP. This is one reason why some in the US intelligence community are against the idea of the US helping the Saudi led coalition, in addition to their overriding belief that the coalition is doomed to failure.
AQAP currently operates (somewhat) as a Sunni ally of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, both fighting against the Shi’a Houthis. AQAP consists of about 5% Yemenis working with Saudi Arabia, with the rest split evenly between southern Yemen secessionists, former government troops loyal to Hadi and pro-Saudi and ultraconservative Salafi Islamists. However, AQAP also hates the al-Sauds, the royal family of Saudi Arabia, since they believe that many of their actions are un-Islamic. Given all the serpentine and sometimes conflicting interrelationships, it is more likely that AQAP and the Saudi-led coalition are cooperating with an informal and somewhat shaky nonaggression pact, which is unlikely to continue indefinitely. Strategically, Houthi forces and Iran are using this as propaganda, saying the Saudis are allied with AQAP; many Yemenis are against AQAP, and are already upset with Saudi Arabia and its allies due to the large civilian death toll caused by coalition airstrikes.
The United Nations estimates that 5,400 people have been killed since the major conflict started in March of this year, including over 2,300 civilians. The UN estimates that almost two-thirds of reported civilian deaths are caused by coalition airstrikes, though indiscriminate shelling by Houthi forces kills large numbers of civilians as well. Coalition airstrikes are also responsible for about two-thirds of collateral damage to civilian public buildings.
Recently, the Dutch spearheaded a UN proposal to send experts to Yemen to investigate the conduct of the war. The proposal called for warring sides to allow humanitarian access to deliver aid and for the commercial import of goods like fuel to keep hospitals running. While initially supportive, the proposal was blocked by Western governments, including the United States, and by strong, vocal Saudi opposition. Instead, a Saudi-led resolution was backed to support Yemen in setting up a national inquiry into human rights violations.
This conflict has understandably exacerbated previously existing problems in Yemen. Prior to the March conflict escalation, almost half the Yemeni population lived below the poverty line, with basic social services on the verge of collapse. Almost 16 million people (about 61% of the population) were in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. At the end of August, the BBC reported 4 out of 5 Yemenis in need of aid and 1.4 million displaced. 20.4 million people now lack access to safe drinking water, an increase of 52% since March. This worsening crisis is largely due to restrictions on fuel imports, needed to maintain the water supply, as well as war-related damage to pumps and sewage treatment centers.
Further, 12.9 million are considered food insecure, an increase of 20% in six months, according to the World Food Program (WFP). Yemen usually imports about 90% of its food, and naval embargos and fighting around ports have prevented many imports. Lack of fuel, damage to markets and roads and general insecurity have prevented the distribution of supplies. 15.2 million people also lack access to basic healthcare, which is a 40% increase since March.
Humanitarian aid organizations within the region are attempting to combat all of the issues that plague the general populace; however, they are struggling due to lack of funding and access constraints caused by the conflict and blockade. “The images I have from Sana’a and Aden remind me of what I have seen in Syria,” said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the most active humanitarian aid organizations in the country. “So, Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.” Maurer attributes this to entrenched poverty, months of intensified warfare, and limits on imports. The heavy firepower employed, in particular, is causing more suffering due to already weak and inadequate infrastructure.
The cost of the conflict in Yemen is incalculable on a national and an international scale. Without worldwide attention and political pressure, the long-term implications of this war could be devastating for international trade and security and shameful in terms of the scale of humanitarian disaster. Unfortunately, regardless of the speed of conflict resolution, the Yemeni populace will be recovering for a long time. While the instability and crisis in Syria and other longstanding issues in the Middle East continue to be important, the crisis in Yemen is of paramount importance and demands the world’s immediate attention.