Yemen Crisis: From a military conflict to humanitarian disaster

by Vasiliki Kaidantzi, member of the Foreign Policy and International Relations Research Team

For over a decade the Republic of Yemen, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, has been torn apart by multiple armed and political conflicts facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, as described by the UN. Yemen conflict reflects the failure of the Yemeni government to address the common needs to its citizens, resolve the anger and the frustration arising from economic disenfranchisement, along with the uprising of politically marginalized Houthis and the corruption of the state, the division of the entire military section between Houthi-Saleh forces and the Government of Hadi, the religious divide between Sunnis and Shiites (Gopalakrishnan Manasi, 2016) and finally Saudi Arabia’s military intervention to restore Hadi’s jurisdiction in the area (Niaz Ahmed, 2019). Collectively, these conflicts have eroded central governance in Yemen fragmenting it into various local centers of power. The gradual dissolution of Yemen’s territorial integrity has alarmed the international community raising several geo-strategic concerns related to the empowerment of Yemen-based transnational terrorist groups due to state failure, and the influence by indirectly involved third countries, such as USA, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran, which have taken sides among the warring parties. As of December 2020, Yemen remains in a longstanding humanitarian crisis, with the death toll rising above 130.000. An endless conflict that has already crippled central governance, devastated national economy and exacerbated the collapse of Yemeni institutions (Sharp M. Jeremy, 2020). Along with Syria’s and Libya’s civil war, Yemen Crisis is equally considered as a proxy-war between two major rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with both backing two opposite sites in a foreign war.

The current analysis is highly essential as I will analyze Yemen’s Civil War, a conflict that has an international impact, because of its humanitarian crisis, the role of foreign powers and finally its geostrategic importance in Arabian Peninsula. Economically, Yemen is important for the global flow of oil. In the resource-rich Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is only a minor player in the global oil business. Nevertheless, a major escalation of its conflict would have severe repercussions across global oil markets for geo-strategic reasons, as it is located adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important energy choke-point, and to the Bab-el-Mandab Strait, which controls access to the Suez Canal. Any obstruction of these seaborne supply routes to Asia and Europe, to which there are only few alternatives, would result in increased volatility in the oil price (Moussalli Marc, 2015). As a result, both western powers as well as middle-east countries have interfered in Yemen’s war in order to establish their influence and control the area. 

YEMEN CRISIS – HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The modern Yemeni state was formed in 1990, when the US and Saudi Arabia backed Yemeni Arab Republic in the North and the soviet backed People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the South, were unified. General Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled North Yemen since 1978, assumed leadership of the new country. For the last 30 years, Saleh has confronted numerous challenges related to Yemen’s unity, as north and south had long been fractured by religious differences and Arabic dialects and experiences with colonialism. In 2007, southern separatists reappeared, as the Southern Movement, which always aimed for greater autonomy in Yemen, while Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), captured several territories in the south and in the east of the country, and finally the Houthi movement, whose base is among the Zaydi Shiites of northern Yemen, rose up against Saleh’s government six times between 2004 and 2010 (Laub Zachary and Robinson Kali, 2020).

THE HOUTHI MOVEMENT

Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), constitute a predominantly Zaydi Shia revivalist political and insurgent movement, officially formed in the northern Yemeni governorate of Sa’dah in 2004, under the leadership of members of the Houthi family, embracing anti-American and anti-Zionist beliefs. According to experts, the Houthis embody Iran’s intentions across the Arab world, thus cultivating the idea of being an armed non-Sunni, non-state actor who can pressure Iran’s adversaries both politically and militarily. During their 6-year rebellions against the central government until 2010, they boosted their reputation as opposition to the current governmental pοwer and quickly became widespread amidst an aggrieved population in a war-torn and neglected north (Sharp M. Jeremy, 2020).

YEMEN CRISIS: 2011 – 2020

The first spark of the conflict emerged during the Arab Spring of 2011. The war in Yemen was partly the result of the failure to deal with the grievances that fueled Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising, where citizens and marginalized groups protested against the power that was distributed through a web of tribal and regional patronage rather than following democratic formal institutions (Dingli Sophia, 2016). Thousands of civilians joined the opposition protests against long-time presidency, hereditary succession and poor economic conditions. In just a few months, the uprisings escalated in deadly protests and fears of a possible outbreak of a civil war started spreading across the state demanding the change of the corrupted and autocratic government that has been ruling the country for the past 30 years. Everyone hoped for a possible reconciliation and the formation of a united national government (International Crisis Group, 2020).

Under escalating domestic and international pressure, in 2012, Saleh stepped down and his vice president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi replaced him, in the auspices of GCC’s two-year transition plan. GCC is a regional intergovernmental political and economic union consisting of all Arab states of the Persian Gulf, except Iraq, and backed by the United States. After a failed attempt of UN’s sponsored National Dialogue Conference (NDC), in 2013, with the purpose of creating a new political order through the distribution of power, things escalated quickly and widened the political divisions, leading to a full-scale military conflict in 2014 (Laub Zachary and Robinson Kali, 2020).

President Hadi struggled to deal with a variety of problems, including jihadist attacks, the continuing loyalty of security personnel to former president Saleh, corruption, economic reforms, unemployment and food insecurity (BBC, 2020). After massive protests from the Houthi movement, the riot resulted in the capture of the capital Sanaa, in September 2014. A year later, the once former enemies, former president Saleh along with his allies that were still in the army and the Houthis, joined forces seizing control over most of Aden, causing president Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia (Sharp M. Jeremy, 2020). This form of alliance was a tactical one. Practically, Saleh’s loyalists opposed to Hadi’s UN-backed government and felt marginalized in the transition process, just like Houthis sought to regain a leading role in Yemen (Laub Zachary and Robinson Kali, 2020). With Hadi in exile, Saudi Arabia cobbled together a coalition of Arab states, launching military operations with airstrikes against Houthi-Saleh forces, in order to restore the Hadi administration in Sanaa (Laub Zachary and Robinson Kali, 2020).

Since 2015, multiple developments have occurred in Yemen’s numerous conflicts. For the last 6 years, Houthis has also been battling for power with the internationally recognized and Saudi coalition backed Republic of Yemen government (ROYG), led by Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In 2017, after a Houthi missile, with alleged Iranian origins landed in Saudi Arabia, the coalition implemented a full blockade of all Yemen’s ports including the main port of Hudaydah, the closure of Sanaa’s airport and finally air barrier thus exacerbating the country’s humanitarian crisis. Houthis reacted similarly by blocking, destroying or taking external aid (Sharp M. Jeremy, 2020).

At the same year, the alliance between Houthis and Saleh collapsed, after the latter one switched sides on TV, claiming that he wanted to talk to the Saudi coalition. Two days later Saleh was killed by a military operation in the capital, which was launched by Houthi fighters (BBC, 2020). In 2019, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), facing a perceived threat from Iran and international criticism of its conduct in Yemen, unilaterally withdrew most of its forces. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), a southern separatist force backed by the UAE since the spring of 2017, attempted to seize more power in Aden, from the Saudi backed ROYG, following UAE’s withdrawal. Violent confrontations took place between STC and ROYG forces, but after implementing the Riyadh Agreement, they agreed to power sharing parameters (Sharp M. Jeremy, 2020). At the same time, militants from AQAP and the local affiliate of the rival Islamic State group (IS) took advantage of the chaos, seizing territory in the south and carrying out deadly attacks (BBC,  2020).

SAUDI ARABIAN COALITION & USA VS IRAN

Saudi Arabia and the US have long been allies, although their different interests, in Yemen’s conflict situation. Nevertheless, the main problem of Saudi Arabia still remains the Iranian influence in the area. The leader of the Sunni Muslim faith, Saudi Arabia as wells as the leader of the Shia Muslim faith, Iran desire to spread their political influence in the region. Divided by different religions and interests, the former one has remained supportive to the Hadi government and hence conducted military operations against the Houthis, who are equally supported by Iranians (Niaz Ahmed, 2019).

From their side now, the US lent support to Saleh from the early 2000s, when counterterrorism cooperation became Washington’s overriding regional concern, giving Yemen a great amount of money in military and police aid, since AQAP became the US’s priority (Laub Zachary and Robinson Kali, 2020). Nevertheless, in 2011, the US government strongly supported the Gulf Cooperation Council’s diplomatic initiative in Yemen, and former US president, Barack Obama became an outspoken champion of the country’s political transition. US ambassador in Yemen, in 2015, reported that: the US had its own vital national interests at stake including continuation of counter-terrorism operations in Yemen, preventing Iran from gaining a foothold in the country, and preserving freedom of navigation through the Red Sea (Stephen W. Day, 2020). Although the US Congress has long been divided on the matter, the United States backed the Saudi coalition along with France, Germany and the UK. On the other hand, the Trump administration policy followed a clear path, as it was practically based upon Trump’s desire to confront Iran and expand his international business deals with Saudi Arabia. Eventually, both administrations approved the same amount of weapons to Saudi coalition and still remain Saudi Arabia’s largest arms supplier, even though it was accused of being accountable for thousands of civilian deaths, during the civil war (Sharp M. Jeremy, 2020)

Along with the USA, Saudi Arabia and UAEs’ intervention in Yemen’s civil war in 2015, was the principal reason for today’s humanitarian disaster. The Yemen Data Project has counted over 21,000 coalition air strikes since March 2015, resulting in over 18,500 civilian casualties (Sharp M. Jeremy, 2020). Saudi Arabia’s decision was rushed and poorly implemented. Public opinion quickly turned against the Saudis in the US and Europe, blaming them for the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. It concerned Iran more than Yemen itself, as their dispute followed decades of unpresented conflict, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Furthermore, their strategic interest in the eastern province Al-Mahra for building a pipeline to the coast of the Arabian sea across Yemeni territory with the Saudis keeping sovereignty over the pipeline, consisted of another important factor (Bruce Riedel, 2020).

Meanwhile, Iran has been accused of secretly sharing knowledge and military aid with Houthis, in violation of the targeted international arms embargo (United Nations, 2020), a strategy that has increased Houthis’ ability to threaten Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Nations. According to the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen, Houthis have received military support in the form of assault rifles and more sophisticated cruise missile systems, some of which appear similar to arms manufactured in Iran. However, the main purpose of Iran’s aid to the Houthis, is to project power in the region as part of Tehran’s broader national security strategy (Sharp M. Jeremy, 2020) with the former acting as independent political actors not beholden to Iran which exploited Yemen’s crisis as a relatively low-cost opportunity to confront Saudi-Arabia’s regional agenda (Alex Vatanka, 2020). 

THE ROLE OF THE UN

From the beginning of Yemen’s civil war, the United Nations along with their instruments have closely observed the escalation of this case taking several measures in order to gradually downsize the intense and severe condition of the state. By implementing the UNSC Resolution 2216 in 2015, they imposed sanctions on individuals undermining the stability of Yemen, and demanded that all parties in the embattled country, and particularly the Houthis, immediately end violence and refrain from any further actions that would threaten the political transition. The UNSC also demanded that the Houthis relinquish arms seized from military and security institutions and release all prisoners under house arrest. In order to further coerce Houthis to step down, it imposed sanctions, including a general assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo on the Houthi Leader and his allies (S/RES/2216 2015).

In 2018, after 10 days of UN-immediate talks, the two parties announced the Stockholm Agreement, under the auspices of Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who aimed to achieve a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures as well as the resumption of the political process. The Agreement included a 15.000 prisoner swap, mutual redeployment of forces from the port city of Hudaydah, the formation of a committee to discuss the contested city of Taiz and finally to supervise a Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) that would monitor the cease-fire and redeployment. Nearly two years later, the agreement remains unfulfilled and in fall 2020, Houthi and ROYG forces killed dozens of civilians in Hudaydah (Sharp M. Jeremy, 2020).

On January 16th 2019, the UNSC Resolution 2452 authorized the creation of the United Nations Mission that would support the Hudaydah Agreement, of which the RCC (Redeployment Coordination Committee) was a significant component. Until September 2020, UN mediators facilitated prisoner swap in an effort to implement part of the previous agreements, thus smoothing the current situation (S/RES/2452, 2019). As of December 2020, Special Envoy of the UN, Griffiths, continues his efforts to broker a nationwide cease-fire between the Houthis and the ROYG, that would ultimately lead to talks over a political settlement to Yemen’s multitude of regional and national conflicts. Practically, neither side has agreed to a cease-fire as talks have stalled over Houthi demands such as the reopening of Sanaa’s airport and the permission of imports into the Houthi-controlled ports (Security Council Report, 2020).

Except from UN’s efforts to broker cease-fire, they also assisted in delivering humanitarian and development assistance. Even though a number of violations and abuses of international law occurred in Yemen, the UNSC has not authorized a military intervention on the basis of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, neither for humanitarian purposes (Guidero Amanda and Hallward Carter Maia, 2019). As Yemen has become one of the poorest countries in the world, it is also facing an inconceivable humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its population seeking humanitarian aid and protection (United Nations Yemen). From 2015, UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF), along with 21 resident and UN agencies, funds and specialized programs work closely with the government at all levels in order to enhance coordination in the state (United Nations Foundation).

HUMANITARIAN IMPACT

14 years of instability and relentless conflict have devastated the lives of millions of people. In 2017, Yemen was declared as the world’s largest humanitarian disaster by the UN. The majority of the population requires some form of humanitarian or protection assistance, and 2/3 of all districts in the country are already pre-famine and face a convergence of multiple acute vulnerabilities (CDP, 2020). An estimated 4.3 million people have fled their homes since the start of the conflict, including 3.3 million people who remain displaced. Public infrastructures have been destroyed, only 50% of health services remain functional and medicine along with equipment are limited. Access to safe water has also become a major challenge and the lack of proper sanitation has increased the risk of communicable diseases. Countless human rights violations have occurred in favor of deliberate military tactics, thus weakening and impoverishing the country towards social, economic and institutional collapse (OCHA).

After signing the Stockholm Agreement in 2019, there were indications that current circumstances will improve. Unfortunately, it has been reported that the last year, there has been an escalation of conflict, and civilian casualties have reached the highest levels in 2020. The situation has further intensified due to COVID-19 pandemic, particularly through economic and humanitarian challenges. Yemen was hit hard, with an uncounted number of people infected due to the lack of preventive testing. The virus along with Yemen’s rainy season have left thousands of homeless people and brought the potential for cholera outbreaks (CDP, 2020).

Without urgent action, the situation is likely to deteriorate further in the upcoming months. It is absolutely essential that a full funding Humanitarian Response Plan should be carefully implemented along with the aid of international parties to end the war and to facilitate the resumption of commercial food and other imports as well as ensuring full access to all people in need. A number of human insecurities must be tackled, such as the malnutrition crisis, need for water, sanitation and hygiene, the functionality of health facilities, the ongoing displacement of civilians, as well as the countless number of children out of school and the devastating community sector (OCHA).

CONCLUSION

Concluding, we oversaw that numerous attempts have been made in order to restore the current circumstances, but unfortunately the majority of them have been ineffective. Divisions in Saudi coalition have dampened hopes for a broader resolution, and the continuous military attacks by Houthis, further increases the violence for territorial gains. A viable solution will require the appeasing of the three major factors, the Houthis, Hadi’s government and the STC, each of which own unique interests. The aspiration of a new functional government, could lead to a possible end of war, but it will need significant foreign assistance to fight terrorist groups, to rebuild the country’s devastated infrastructure, to restore the diplomatic relations between the parties and address the growing humanitarian needs as soon as possible.

REFERENCES

Books

Day, S. and Brehony, N. (2020). Global, Regional, and Local Dynamics in the Yemen Crisis, Chapters 4, 8 & 10, Palgrave Macmillan.

Guidero, A. and Hallward Carter, M. (2019). Global Responses to Conflict and Crisis in Syria and Yemen, Chapter 2, Palgrave Macmillan.

Academic Papers & Articles

International Crisis Group (last updated November 2020), Yemen. Accessed on December 16th 2020. Available here

Laub Zachary and Robinson Kali (last updated July 2020), Yemen in Crisis, Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed on December 16th 2020. Available here

Sharp M. Jeremy (last updated December 2020), Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention, Congressional Research Service. Accessed on December 16th 2020. Available here

Niaz Ahmed (2019), YEMENI CIVIL WAR: CAUSES, CONSEQUENCES AND PROSPECTS, Centre for West Asian Sxtudies, Jurnal Dinamika Pemerintahan Vol.2, No. 2. Accessed on January 2nd 2021. Available here

Articles

BBC (last updated June 2020), Yemen crisis: Why is there a war? Accessed on December 16th 2020. Available here

Center for Disaster Philanthropy – CDP (November 2020), Yemen Humanitarian Crisis? Accessed on December 19th 2020. Available here

Dingli Sophia (March 2016), Explained: how the Arab Spring led to an increasingly vicious civil war in Yemen, The Conversation. Accessed on January 2nd 2021. Available here

Gopalakrishnan Manasi (October 2016), Why is Saudi Arabia interested in Yemen?, DWW. Accessed on January 2nd 2021. Available here

Moussalli Marc (April 2015), Not just a proxy war: Yemen’s strategic importance, Global Risk Insights. Accessed on January 2nd 2021. Available here

International Acts

Security Council, The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2216, April 14th 2015, S/RES/2216. Available here

Security Council, The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2452, January 16th 2019, S/RES/2452. Available here

Security Council Report (September 2020), Yemen: Briefing and Consultations. Accessed on December 18th 2020. Available here

United Nations (April 14th 2015), Security Council Demands End to Yemen Violence, Adopting Resolution 2216 (2015), with Russian Federation Abstaining. Accessed on December 18th 2020. Available here

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – OCHA, Yemen – Crisis Overview. Accessed on December 18th 2020. Available here

United Nations Foundation, Humanitarian Response in Yemen. Accessed on December 18th 2020. Available here

United Nations Yemen, The United Nations in Yemen. Accessed on December 18th 2020. Available here


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