No end to war in Ye­men

At least 10,000 peo­ple have been killed in Ye­men’s 20-month-long civil war, a war in which Bri­tain is heav­ily im­pli­cated

The Week Middle East - - Front Page -

Has Ye­men ever en­joyed peace?

Pre­cious lit­tle. The poor­est, most heav­ily armed na­tion in the Arab world, it has en­dured a series of civil wars ever since a united Re­pub­lic of Ye­men was de­clared in 1990. Be­fore that there had been two sep­a­rate states – North Ye­men, which gained in­de­pen­dence from Ot­toman rule in 1918; and the south­ern part, for­merly the Bri­tish pro­tec­torate of Aden, which won in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1967. Even be­fore uni­fi­ca­tion, both states had en­dured sev­eral civil wars of their own.

How did the present war be­gin?

In Septem­ber 2014, the Houthis, fol­low­ers of a mil­i­tant re­vival­ist cleric, moved out of their strong­hold in Saada, in north­ern Ye­men, and took con­trol of the cap­i­tal, Sana’a, even­tu­ally forc­ing the res­ig­na­tion of pres­i­dent Abd Rab­buh Man­sour Hadi and re­plac­ing him with a Houthi rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mit­tee. Hadi es­caped house ar­rest and fled south to the city of Aden. The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil con­demned the coup; and in March 2015 a coali­tion led by Saudi Ara­bia be­gan air strikes against Houthi forces and their al­lies, who by that time con­trolled most of western Ye­men.

Who are the Houthis?

Of­fi­cially known as An­sar Al­lah (“sup­port­ers of Al­lah”), they are a fun­da­men­tal­ist mil­i­tant group that de­vel­oped among Ye­men’s Zaidis. The Zaidis are a branch of Shia Is­lam, whose imams ruled north­ern Ye­men for much of its his­tory, and who make up some 45% of the na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion, par­tic­u­larly among the rugged north­ern hill tribes. The last Zaidi imam was top­pled in 1962 by Arab na­tion­al­ist army of­fi­cers, and the Zaidi lead­ers re­treated to the moun­tains of Saada prov­ince. But in the 1990s, Hus­sein al-Houthi, a Zaidi politi­cian in­spired by the Ira­nian revo­lu­tion, formed a re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal move­ment to protest against Ye­men’s long-stand­ing ruler, pres­i­dent Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh. In 2004 Saleh or­dered the army into Saada, and in the course of the en­su­ing small war al-Houthi was shot dead by govern­ment forces.

What did al-Houthi aim to achieve through An­sar Al­lah?

The move­ment was formed to com­bat govern­ment cor­rup­tion – Saleh amassed a for­tune of at least $30bn – and to end dis­crim­i­na­tion against Zaidis. It has a strong, Ira­nian-style anti-Western mes­sage, too. Its slo­gan is “God is Great, Death to Amer­ica, Death to Is­rael, Curse on the Jews, Vic­tory to Is­lam”. Houthis also aim to fight the in­flu­ence of Salafism, the pu­ri­tan­i­cal branch of Sunni Is­lam that has spread into Ye­men and is now pop­u­lar among Ye­men’s 55% Sunni ma­jor­ity. Al-Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula (AQAP) con­trols parts of the south-east, while the Mus­lim Brother­hood’s lo­cal af­fil­i­ate, al-Is­lah, played a key role dur­ing the Arab Spring of 2011 in the protests that ousted Saleh. Hadi’s govern­ment (a coali­tion be­tween al-Is­lah and his own GPC party) wanted a fed­eral Ye­men that the Houthis feared would rob them of state funds and ac­cess to the sea.

So it’s Shia against Sunni?

Partly: the Houthis re­ceive weapons and train­ing from Shia Iran, while Saudi Ara­bia and its Sunni al­lies – prin­ci­pally the United Arab Emi­rates – back Hadi’s largely Sunni govern­ment. But it’s more com­pli­cated than that, be­cause ousted pres­i­dent Saleh, the Houthis’ old en­emy, sided with the Houthis against his for­mer deputy, Hadi – no doubt see­ing them as a way back to power. A large sec­tion of the se­cu­rity forces loyal to Saleh – like the Repub­li­can Guard, led by his son – are fight­ing with the Houthis. Mean­while, AQAP and its al­lies have at­tacked both the Houthis and govern­ment forces – and Daesh’s lo­cal chap­ter has sent sui­cide bombers to at­tack Zaidi mosques. The con­flict threat­ens to spread: the Houthis have fired mis­siles at tar­gets in Saudi Ara­bia, and at US de­stroy­ers in the Gulf of Aden.

Who is win­ning the war?

The Houthis and their al­lies had a series of early suc­cesses, tak­ing over Taiz, Ye­men’s third-largest city, in March 2015, and most of Aden by early April; Hadi was forced into ex­ile in Saudi Ara­bia. But in late March, the Saudi-led coali­tion – with US, Bri­tish and French sup­port (see box) – be­gan its air cam­paign and a block­ade of the Houthi-con­trolled ar­eas. It also sent in ground troops to fight along­side, and train, govern­ment forces – driv­ing the rebels out of Aden and re­vers­ing other gains in the south. Yet the Saudis seem to have un­der­es­ti­mated their en­e­mies: af­ter more than a year and a half of fight­ing, no side seems close to a de­ci­sive vic­tory.

How has the con­flict af­fected the coun­try?

“The hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Ye­men,” says UN re­lief co­or­di­na­tor Stephen O’Brien, “is one of the worst in the world.” In Au­gust, the UN es­ti­mated that at least 10,000 peo­ple had been killed, three mil­lion dis­placed and 200,000 driven abroad. More than 12 mil­lion Ye­me­nis, of a pop­u­la­tion of 26 mil­lion, are in dire need of food and clean water. Both sides stand ac­cused of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions – no­tably air strikes and shelling in pop­u­lated ar­eas. On 8 Oc­to­ber, a Saudi air strike hit a funeral in Sana’a, killing at least 140 mourn­ers and in­jur­ing 525 (Saudi of­fi­cials said they’d tar­geted it in er­ror owing to “bad in­for­ma­tion”).

How could the war be ended?

A 72-hour UN-backed cease­fire was called last week, but five pre­vi­ous truces didn’t take long to break down. The is­sue is power-shar­ing: the Houthis want a govern­ment that gives them a voice, and in­sist that a trusted “unity govern­ment” be put in place: that ef­fec­tively means re­mov­ing Pres­i­dent Hadi. The govern­ment side wants the Houthis to with­draw their mili­tias and hand over their heavy weapons be­fore a deal is fi­nalised. Saudi Ara­bia would also need to ap­prove any agree­ment. Ye­men’s civil war, says Mid­dle East­ern pol­icy ex­pert Sul­tan Barakat, “in­volves a volatile com­bi­na­tion of lo­cal, re­gional and in­ter­na­tional ac­tors, all armed and hav­ing ma­jor and com­pet­ing in­ter­ests in the coun­try’s fu­ture”.

The dots mark the old bor­der be­tween North and South

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