BY SHASHI MALLA
The complicated civil war in Yemen has now entered a decisive phase. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched an attack last week to oust Houthi rebels from Hodeidah (on the east coast), the gateway for most of Yemen’s aid and home to 600,000 people, raising fears of an exacerbated humanitarian crisis.
Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world/Middle East. It ranks 48th in land area and 50th in population among the countries of the world (in comparison Nepal is 92nd and 42nd respectively). It has been devastated by the civil war which has been fueled not only by internal dichotomies, but also by external actors and interests. It is strategically located opposite the Horn of Africa on the strait of Bab al-Mandap, a narrow waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden/Arabian Sea, through which much of the world’s shipments, including oil pass on to the Suez Canal, the vital linkage to the Mediterranean Sea. Yemen, at Asia’s south-westerly extremity, faces Eritrea, Djibouti (with US and Chinese military bases), Somaliland and Somalia on the African continent. It thus commands the passageway to the geo-strategic strait. The Bab al-Mandap is one bottleneck in the sea lanes connecting Asia to Europe, the other being the Straits of Malacca, itself the gateway to the Pacific. Thus Robert D. Kaplan writes of the region: “one densely packed axis of instability, where continents, historic road networks, and sea lanes converge.”[The Revenge of Geography, 2012]
The Arab Spring also had repercussions in Yemen. An uprising forced the long time authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in 2011. This transition did not result in the expected stability, but exacerbated the already existing problems in the country. These included attacks by al-Qaeda, a separatist movement in the south and the continuing loyalty of many military officers to former president Saleh. This fragile situation was compounded by the usual issues of any developing country – corruption, unemployment and food insecurity.
Yemen is predominantly an Arab Sunni majority country, but in the north the Zaidi Shia Muslim Houthi minority is predominant. In the previous decade, the Houthis had often rebelled against the authoritarian rule of President Saleh. Now they took advantage of the volatile situation and the weakness of the new president Mansour Hadi to rise up in arms and take control of their northern heartland of Saada province and surrounding areas. Many
Yeminis, including Sunnis, were disillusioned with the central government and started supporting the Houthis in late 2014 and early 2015. Deprived of support, the president retreated to the southern port city of Aden.
In a twist of fortune, former president Saleh attempted to regain power by backing his erstwhile antagonists. The Houthi militia and the security forces loyal to Saleh took over control of the capital San’a and then attempted to take over the entire country. Hadi was forced to take flight once more, this time to a foreign country in March 2015.
The perception had gained ground that the Houthi insurgents were being supported militarily by Iran, the rising regional Shia power. Led by Saudi Arabia, eight other Sunni majority Arab states launched an air campaign of attacks with a view to restoring Hadi’s government. This Arab coalition also received logistical and intelligence support from the United States, UK and France. A limited local conflict had thus been unnecessarily ‘internationalised’ with broad ramifications. The Saudis intervened in the war “with hopes of a quick victory over the Houthis . . . but they have instead been dragged into a quagmire” (New York Times).
Internally, pro-government forces comprising soldiers loyal to President Hadi and predominantly Sunni southern tribesmen and separatists were able to withstand the attack on Aden. Externally, coalition ground troops landed in Aden in August 2015 and were successful in ousting the Houthis and their allies from much of south Yemen. However, the Houthis continued to remain in the capital San’a and to maintain their siege of the southern city of Taiz. Above all, they were now able to fire mortars and missiles — probably obtained from Iran — across the common border with Saudi Arabia, very much to the chagrin of the latter.
Another political dimension has now entered the civil war. Jihadist militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and rival affiliates of the Islamic State group (IS) have entered the fray. Taking advantage of the pandemonium in the country, they have taken over areas in the south and undertaken deadly attacks, including in Aden. In a dare-devil manner, the Houthis managed to launch a ballistic missile toward the Saudi capital Riyadh in November 2017 — which was timely intercepted. This led to the Saudi-coalition to toughen up its blockade of Yemen, triggering according to the UN “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades”.
The coalition did lessen its restrictions on rebel-held ports after several weeks, but the extended shutdown had already resulted in price increases of basic commodities, precipitating food insecurity and the collapse of basic services, already in dire shape. The Yemen conflict is also characterized by shifting loyalties and alliances. One such was the tenuous connection between the Houthis and former president Saleh, which collapsed after the latter offered “to turn a new page” in return for the Saudi coalition stopping its attacks on Yemen and ending the blockade. This was considered treacherous by the Houthis, who then proceeded to attack Saleh’s convoy in Deceember 2017 and kill him as he attempted to escape the capital San’a.
Some weeks later, clashes among pro-government forces themselves started. The separatists seeking independence for south Yemen, which was a separate country (with the capital Aden) before unification with the north in 1990, had previously formed a tentative alliance with troops loyal to Hadi’s government in 2015 in order to stop the Houthis from the north from capturing Aden. The uneasy alliance came to a head in January 2018 when the separatist “Southern Transitional Council” (STC) accused the government of corruption and mismanagement and demanded the resignation of the prime minister.
Separatist units did attempt to forcefully seize government facilities and military bases in Aden, but were repulsed. This attempted coup “against legitimacy and the country’s unity” was duly condemned by the prime minister. The political equation in the country has become more complicated by acute contradictions within the Saudi coalition itself. Thus, Saudi Arabia supports Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh, whereas the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is tightly allied with the separatists.
In this situation of domestic and regional turmoil, the future of Yemen does look very grim indeed. According to the UN, more than 9,245 people have been killed and 52,800 injured since March 2015. And of those killed, at least 5,558 and 9,065 of those injured up to December 2017 were civilians. The Saudi coalition air strikes were the main cause of overall civilian casualties. And unfortunately, western countries, foremost the US, have been the main suppliers of lethal weapons. US supply planes have also aided in fueling Saudi planes mid-air.
According to the UN Human Rights Council, civilians have repeatedly been the victims of “unrelenting violations of international humanitarian law”. About 75 percent of the population of 22.2 million people is in need of humanitarian assistance, including 11.3 million in acute need who desperately require immediate assistance to survive. This is an increase of 1 million since June 2017.
Regarding basic food, some 17.8 million people do not know where their next meal will come from, and 8.4 million are considered at risk of starvation. Severe acute malnutrition is already threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children under the age of five.
At least 16.4 million people lack basic healthcare, since only half of the country’s health facilities are functioning. Medical personnel have had great difficulty in tackling the world’s largest cholera epidemic. Since April 2017, this has resulted in more than 1 million suspected cases and 2,248 associated deaths.
In the past three years more than 3 million people have been forced to escape from their homes, and 2 million remain internally displaced. [All statistics vide BBC]
The circumstances in Yemen can aggravate tensions in the whole of West Asia and North Africa. Above all the domestic conflict in Yemen is part of the regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. Gulf Arab states denounce Iran for backing the Houthis financially and militarily. European countries are anxious because of the threats of terrorist attacks originating here. They consider AQAP as the most perilous branch of al-Qaeda because of its technical expertise and global reach. The rise of IS affiliates in Yemen is also of major consternation. Yemen, in general, has not received serious consideration in spite of its geo-strategic location. It has, unfortunately, become an innocent victim of Saudi-Iranian ‘great power politics’ and sectarian divide, as well as international indifference (as with the Rohingyas in Myanmar, South Sudan, Venezuela and other crisis-hit areas).
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