The War in Yemen has been going on since 2014, and six years later, the conflict shows no sign of slowing down. Yemen is located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered to the north by Saudi Arabia and bordered to the east by Oman. The southern border of Yemen is the Gulf of Aden, with the Red Sea to the west. The United Nations reported in 2019 that Yemen has more people in need of humanitarian aid than any other country. The UN estimates that 24 million people out of a population of 28.5 million require aid.
Historical Background of Yemen
Centuries ago, Yemen was a thriving state under control by the Sabaeans. The Himyarite Kingdom controlled Yemen in 275 CE, and by the seventh century, Islam had spread throughout the area. Yemenite soldiers were vital in ancient Islamic conquests in the region. Many different dynasties ruled successfully until the 20th century when the British and Ottoman empires divided the country.
After World War I, North Yemen was established with the British retaining control of South Yemen until 1967. In 1990, the two states in the north and south came together to form the Republic of Yemen. At this point, President Ali Abdullah came into power and ruled for over three decades.
What Started the War in Yemen?
In 2012, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of power after 33 years of running the country. The popular uprising was motivated by a failing government rife with corruption. Saleh’s regime was known as a kleptocracy, which is when a corrupt government exploits its power by taking advantage of natural resources to add to their own wealth and continue to stay in power. Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi took his place, and in 2012, he was elected President for a two-year term, going unopposed.
From 2013 to 2014, diplomatic talks referred to as the National Dialogue Conference took place, brokered by the United Nations. While the discussions at the time avoided a civil war, they did not address issues from Hirak separatists or the coalition of Ansar Allah. Ansar Allah is also referred to as the Houthi movement, and this group of Shia rebels is known colloquially as Houthis. Houthi rebels have controlled Yemen since February 2015.
The conflict leading to the War in Yemen began with what is known as the Arab Spring. This period in the early 2010s was a series of uprisings, protests, and all-out armed rebellion throughout many different Arab states. The revolutions centered around anti-government sentiments, which were fueled by corruption and a poor standard of living throughout the region. In addition to Yemen, the leaders of Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Bahrain were all thrown out of power. Without these leaders in place, however, a power vacuum was created, which led to even more conflicts.
The aftermath of the Arab Spring has been referred to as the Arab Winter. Of the many countries affected by the uprisings, only Tunisia has successfully converted to a constitutional democratic government. New uprisings sprouted up in Algeria and Sudan, and in 2019, conflicts continued in Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon.
While the Yemeni government and opposition groups came to an agreement with the help of the UN in 2012, the new President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was mistrusted due to his involvement with the previous regime. In 2014, Houthi soldiers began an armed takeover of the government, starting with an attack on the capital city of Sana’a.
Battle of Sana’a
The fighting began on September 9, 2014, as pro-Houthi supporters marched in opposition to the government at the cabinet office. The protestors were fired upon, killing seven. Fighting escalated on September 18 when 40 people died as the Houthis attempted to takeover Yemen TV, the national station of Yemen. Another 60 people were killed on September 19 in a fight between the Houthis and state military and police. By September 21, the Houthis had taken over the government offices.
Houthis demanded that President Hadi negotiate an expanded government with other political factions in the area. Eventually, the Houthis attacked both Hadi’s presidential palace and his private home, which led to his resignation in January 2015. The Houthis declared control of the government and established a Revolutionary Committee, which was fronted by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, cousin of the Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.
Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, however, fled to the port city of Aden in September 2015 and declared it the new capital of the nation, naming himself the rightful President. The fighting continued as the UN attempts to broker peace stalled in the summer of 2016.
While the attempt at peace failed, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh attempted to form a political council with the Houthis to govern over the capital city of Sana’a and the rest of northern Yemen. However, in December 2017, Saleh changed course and directed his followers to attack the Houthis. This action led to Saleh’s death, and his supporters were defeated in just two days.
Saudi Coalition vs. Houthi Forces
In 2017, Hadi was forced to flee Aden as rebel forces arrived. His next destination was Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia and the location of the Saudi Defense Ministry. Subsequently, Saudi forces began airstrikes on Yemen. The involvement of outside Arab states threatened to turn the conflict into the decade’s long divide between Sunnis and Shias.
Iran has been supplying weapons to the Houthi rebels since 2015. Iran has also dispatched its naval convoy to the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others, have been aiding in the fight against the Houthi rebels since 2015. The Saudi Coalition is made up of nine countries in Western Asia and Africa, including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. The Saudi coalition blames Iran for continuing the war, but independent opinions state that Saudi entered the conflict before Iran was involved.
United States Involvement in Yemen
While this war has been ongoing, the United States has continued its counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. However, the United States has done nothing to help end the violence. Beginning in the Obama administration, U.S. aid included refueling Saudi and UAE (United Arab Emirates) jets in midair. In addition, the U.S. has offered intelligence assistance and has provided billions of dollars’ worth of bombs and missiles to the Saudi Arabia air force.
In September 2018, Congress began to apply pressure on the Trump administration to help lessen the violence rather than continue to fuel it. A provision in a defense spending bill at the time included language that the Trump administration must certify that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have taken “demonstrable actions” as far as avoiding harming civilians. The provision also included language that the administration must make a “good faith” effort to help end the war.
On September 12, 2018, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reassured Congress that the Saudi coalition was doing its best to minimize civilian casualties and provide desperately needed financial aid. His words were in stark contrast to the many independent assessments of the war. The United Nations stopped counting the civilian death count after it reached 10,000 in 2016. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project estimated that 50,000 people total, including fighters, had died from January 2016 to July 2018. By October 2019, that number had increased to 100,000.
Pompeo also revealed in a memo to Congress the real reason for the continued involvement of the United States: containing Iran. The U.S. considers the Houthis as a similar threat to other organizations backed by Iran, the most prominent being Hezbollah.
The United States is not alone in its support of the Saudi coalition. In addition to the U.S., the United Kingdom and France, among others, have been selling weapons to the Saudis. Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch, and other groups issued a statement in 2016 to end the sale of weapons due to unlawful airstrikes, which have disproportionately killed innocent citizens.
War crimes have been committed on both sides of the fighting, and neither party has shown a commitment to ending that type of violence. In one of the more horrific examples of innocent loss of life, the Saudi coalition bombed a bus of schoolkids in the city of Dahyan on August 9, 2018. The death count from the bombing totaled 54 people; 44 were children.
The Saudi collation defended the airstrike for weeks. It was only as the deadline for the Trump administration to certify that all efforts were being made by the Saudi coalition to avoid civilian deaths that the coalition claimed the bombing was a mistake and that those responsible would be punished. While the U.S. administration seized on the response as evidence that the Saudi coalition is willing to change, there has been no evidence of that happening.
In March 2017, Trump furthered his support of the coalition by reversing a decision from the Obama administration that suspended the sale of over $500 million worth of laser-guided bombs. Emboldened by support from the U.S., the Saudi coalition has continued its fight against Iran, seeking total victory over their rival.
Yemen War in 2020
As the coronavirus entered the country in 2020, a ceasefire was agreed upon to deal with the virus. However, fighting continued, as the Saudi coalition claimed that the truce had been violated 241 times in 48 hours. Before the ceasefire, it appeared that Saudi Arabia saw the coronavirus as a reason to begin to leave the region, as the fighting has resulted in nothing but loss of life with no end in sight. However, the Iran-backed Houthis have shown no sign of ending the fight. With Iran continuing to escalate the conflict, the Saudi coalition has responded with further violence. As the fighting continues, the coronavirus may adversely affect Yemen more than most other countries.