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
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