Syria, Yemen: Another Civil War
The Syrian Civil War is one of three full-blown civil wars – Iraq, Libya, and Yemen – currently raging in the Middle East and North Africa Region. Various forms of spillover from these civil wars threaten the stability of surrounding countries and have sucked Iran and the Gulf states into a vicious proxy war fought across all three battlefields. This piece is dedicated to the lesser known Yemen Civil War. Its origins, players, and consequences.
Unlike most of the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula that have substantial oil resources allowing the central government to provide generous welfare subsidies for their people to overcome any discontent, the Yemeni government does not such resources. It is “one of the driest, poorest and least developed countries in the world. An estimated 42 percent of the people are poor, and one Yemeni in five is malnourished.”
Until 1990, Yemen consisted of two formerly independent countries: the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). While now under the moniker The Republic of Yemen, both the north and south regions have their own movements of dissention.
Shi’a Muslims make up about 40 percent of Yemen’s population, but they are almost all concentrated in what used to be North Yemen. Based on Zaydi Shiism (a religion closer to Sunni Islam than Shia) a Houthi movement originated with revivalist political and insurgent purpose, which has been at war with the Yemeni government on-and-off since 2004. Whereas former South Yemen is overwhelmingly Sunni and home to several socialists who reject being linked to North Yemen’s religious past and feel under resourced created the Southern Secessionist movement.
By January 2011, this civil discontent, through the inspiration of similar demonstrations from Tunisia and Egypt, resulted in Yemen’s own Arab Uprising. And in April 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional intergovernmental body, was created to mediate the crisis in Yemen, electing a new president Abed Rabbo Mansour al Hadi.
Since the Uprising in Yemen, the Houthis began expanding their influence. By January 2015, the Houthis led a successful coup d’état, calling for the resignation of Hadi and his cabinet.
Hadi subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia, and while safely within Saudi territory, Hadi asked the GCC and Saudi to assist him in protecting the legitimate government from the Houthis.
In March, Saudi Arabia agreed and launched Operation Decisive Storm, a series of airstrikes against Houthi and Houthi-affiliated forces. It can be said that Saudi Arabia’s decision to intervene militarily in Yemen was based primarily on the Saudi perception of the Houthis as an Iranian proxy force. The Saudi-led coalition succeeded in forcing the Houthis and allied forces to vacate while failing to secure these areas. Due to the central government’s very limited presence and inability to provide the necessary services and protection to the impoverished areas, the terrorist organization known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) filled the vacuum.
As Yemen is the original home of the family of the late Osama bin Laden, it also has strong ties with terrorist activity. AQAP has its origins in a 2006 prison break of two dozen Al Qaeda and its affiliates from Saudi Arabia fleeing the Saudi government’s effective crackdown on the group. In 2009, under the leadership of Nasser Al-Wuhayshi, Sa’id Al-Shihiri and Mohammad Al-Awfil, the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches of Al-Qaeda united to form AQAP in the pursuit of shared political goals that included the overthrow of key regionally located governments, including that of Saudi Arabia.
As far as the US is concerned, the current approach is to back the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen in hopes of returning that government, or some iteration of it, to power to pick up where the partnership left off. The strategy that has emerged from this pattern is the combination of US direct-action operations, such as drone strikes, and a Yemeni ground effort to combat AQAP. However, this has proven problematic as the central government is too weak to do much of anything, and even if it was able, the various other movements within Yemen see the US as a foreign occupier and will consider to view the central government a puppet. Now, more than 6,800 people have been killed and 35,000 injured and leaving 80% of the population in need of aid.
The future of Yemen and the Middle East is very much TBD.