An Arab country marked by war, large-scale destruction and perennial hunger, Yemen is once again in the spotlight following an attack on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by the Houthi group which led to a retaliatory attack on its bases in Yemen by the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia. The seven year old civil war in the country has turned into a proxy war between the Iranian backed Shia Houthi rebels who overthrew the Yemeni government and the Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi led government backed by an international alliance led by Sunni Saudi Arabia.The involvement of other combatants, including an al-Qaeda affiliate and the self-declared Islamic State, as well as the emergence of rival factions within groups, has complicated the picture in a strategically important country which sits on a strait linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden , through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass.
The conflict has killed some 233,000 people, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure and displaced more than one million people and given rise to cholera outbreaks, medicine shortages, and threats of famine. The United Nations calls the humanitarian crisis in Yemen “the worst in the world”.
How did the War started in Yemen
Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries in the world which has been torn apart by a bloody civil war since 2014. Yemen's war began in September 2014, when the Houthis seized Yemeni capital Sanaa and began a march south to try to seize the entire country. Beginning in March 2015, a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of economic isolation and air strikes against the Houthi insurgents, with U.S. logistical and intelligence support. They wanted to stop and defeat the Houthi insurgency which they accused of being supported by Iran.
Why is Yemen at war
Situated along the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen had been split in the Cold War between a Soviet backed Marxist People Democratic Republic of Yemen or South Yemen and North Yemen or Yemen Arab Republic backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The two nations became a unified Yemen in 1990 after the demise of the Soviet Union and Ali Abdullah Saleh, a military officer who had ruled North Yemen since 1978, assumed leadership of the new country. However the Southern Yemeni felt that they were not given an adequate share of power by the Saleh’s North Yemen elite. The attempt to secede from Yemen in 1994 was brutally crushed by the Saleh government. However after the overthrow of the Saleh government the southern movement has again been revived.
Power struggle in Yemen
Abdullah Saleh ran an autocratic and brutal regime in Yemen. The Saleh regime was caught in the popular Arab Spring protest which swept through Arab countries in early 2010. It started from Tunisia and overthrew Arab dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen .
Popular protests broke out against the Saleh regime in Yemen in 2011. Under domestic and international pressure Saleh resigned. Under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and United States saleh agreed to hand over power to his deputy, Vice -President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
However Saleh never gave up his ambition to be the ruler of Yemen again. The security forces of Yemen were divided and a section of the security forces were still loyal to Saleh and against the Hadi government.
Hadi's government struggled and Saleh, seeing a second chance to regain power, had his forces side with the same Houthis he had battled as president as they swept into the capital in 2014. Saleh ultimately switched sides again to back Hadi but his luck had run out — the Houthis killed him in 2017.
Immediate cause for crisis and weakening of the Hadi Government
Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries and it is facing an economic crisis. To tide over the economic crisis, the Hadi government approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan . The IMF put tough conditions for loans including raising fuel prices and cutting subsidies. The Hadi government cut fuel subsidies and increased the gas prices. This led to a widespread protest in the country. It weakened the Hadi government and provided an opportunity to the Houthis to expand their base outside their traditional areas of Saada Province. It led an organized mass protest against the fuel hike, demanding a roll back of price hike and change in the government. The Houthi captured the capital Saana in 2015 and Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia.
Who are the Houthis
The Houthis are a large clan originating from Yemen’s northwestern Saada province. They practice the Zaydi form of Shiism. Zaydis make up around 35 percent of Yemen’s population. A Zaydi imamate ruled Yemen for 1,000 years, before being overthrown in 1962. Since then, the Zaydis – stripped of their political power – have struggled to restore their authority and influence in Yemen. In the 1980s, the Houthi clan began a movement to revive Zaydi traditions.
The Houthis’ ideology is centered around the teachings of their founder, the late Husayn al-Houthi, who advocated the domination of the country by the sayyids. They constitute a minority group, whose core members claim to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (aka sayyids).
Their rise should be seen in light of the systematic social and religious discrimination of the sayyids (i.e., Muhammad’s descendants) since 1970 by the government in Sanaa as well as the appalling governance and corruption of the regime of the late dictator Ali Abdullah Salih, the country’s president from 1978 until 2011. On the one hand, the Houthis seek to make the sayyids the dominant political group and a member of their own family the supreme ruler, thus guaranteeing that they will never be marginalized and persecuted again.
Since 2011, the Houthi movement has expanded beyond its Zaydi roots and become a wider movement opposed to President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. The insurgents have also begun referring to themselves as Ansarullah, or “Party of God.”
Role of Iran and Saudi Arabia
Houthis are Shia muslims and Iranians considers themselves a natural leader of Shias in the world as it has the largest Shia muslim population in the world. Iranian officials have supported the Houthis’ cause “Iran supports the rightful struggles of Ansarullah in Yemen and considers this movement as part of the successful Islamic Awakening movements,” Ali Akbar Velyati, senior advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in October 2014.
Iran has been accused by the United States, Saudi Arabia of providing arms and ammunition to the Houthi rebels. Iran has denied this but there is considerable evidence that points to heavy Iranian involvement in the Yemen Conflict.
Saudi Arabia believes that Houthi’s are a proxy of Iran and they feared that through Houthis, Iran would come close to its southern border.
Saudi Arabia decided in March 2015 to enter the Yemeni civil war by leading a military coalition against the Houthis with the aim of reinstating the internationally recognized Yemeni government. Saudi troops have been deployed along the borders and in some Yemeni provinces but it has relied mostly on airstrikes against Houthi-held areas. Saudi Arabia has also provided a base in exile for Hadi and logistical support for the ground fighting in northern Yemen.
Despite overwhelming military superiority, the Saudis along with their Yemeni allies have been unable to defeat the Houthis, who now control much of north Yemen and rule over two thirds of the population.
Role of Other Powers
The United Arab Emirates deployed some ground troops and suffered casualties in the war before largely ending its military presence on the ground in 2019. It holds sway via tens of thousands of Yemenis, mostly from the southern provinces, that it armed and trained.
The United States, Britain, France and other Western countries actively backed the alliance with weapons, logistics and intelligence throughout the war until late 2020. U.S. President Joe Biden halted U.S. support to the war and made ending it a priority of his foreign policy amid an uproar over civilian casualties by the coalition's bombings.
Other countries in the coalition have been less closely involved, though Sudan has put some troops on the ground.
Houthis are not the only group which are active in Yemen. There are Southern sepratist movement supported by UAE, Al-AQaeda and its sympathizers who are trying to exploit the civil war in Yemen.
Seperatist in South Yemen
After gaining Independence from Britain in 1967, South Yemen became a communist country. It was reunified with North Yemen in 1990 after the collapse of the communist government in South Yemen.
However the Southern Yemeni felt that they were not given an adequate share of power by the Saleh’s North Yemen elite. The attempt to secede from Yemen in 1994 was brutally crushed by the Saleh government. However after the overthrow of the Saleh government the southern movement has again been revived.
The sepratist has set up a Southern Sepratist Council Led by Abu Dhabi-based general Aidaroos al-Zubaidi,The separatists captured the southern ports of Mukalla from al Qaeda and Aden from the Houthis in 2015. They have more than 50,000 fighters, armed and trained by the UAE. The sepratist are fighting against the Houthis and are allied with the Hadi government but it wants independence.
AL QAEDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA
Militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the local affiliate of the rival Islamic State group (IS) have also taken advantage of the instability, carrying out deadly attacks and occasionally seizing territory from the government in the south.
The Islamic State marked its 2015 entrance into Yemen with suicide attacks on two Zaydi mosques in Sanaa, which killed close to 140 worshippers. Though the group has claimed other high-profile attacks, including the assassination of Aden’s governor in late 2015, its following lags behind that of AQAP. The United Nations estimates that the Islamic State has hundreds of fighters in Yemen, while AQAP has around seven thousand.
Peace Efforts in Yemen
Effort has been made to find a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Yemen. The United Nations passed a resolution no 2216. UN Security Council Resolution 2216 officially recognizes Hadi as the country's president. It also calls for the Houthis to return Sanaa, which they captured in 2014, and demands the Houthis stop using Yemen as a base to attack neighboring countries.
The Houthis who have always been excluded from power in the Yemeni power structure have never accepted the UN demand. They believe that if they give up their military gains they will again be sidelined in Yemen. To increase their bargaining power, Houthis have stepped up their attack on the last government stronghold of the Marib in the north and the capital of the oil rich province. The Houthis' already control the capital Sana'a and the Northern part of the country. If Marib falls then they will also control the oil resources of Yemen.
The Hadi government is very weak and is not in a position to militarily defeat the Houthi without extensive support from Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is unfortunately caught in a regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They are supporting the factions in Yemen. Unless and until there is an understanding between the two countries a peace remains elusive to the country. The Joe Biden administration in the United States has indicated its willingness to bring peace in the region. The Biden adminstration has reversed the Trump administration decision to designate Houthi as a terrorist organisation. The US policy towards Iran and an understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran will hold key to the peace in Yemen.
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