Yemen: Following in Syria’s Footsteps

An airstrike hits Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.
An airstrike hits Sanaa, Yemen. Photo from Wikipedia

In recent weeks, fighting in Yemen has intensified, highlighting the mass civilian casualties and catastrophic humanitarian crisis in this now 8-month-long civil war. At least 5,700 people have been killed as of late October, and over 1.5 million people have been displaced since the war began in March this year.

The Yemeni Civil War began early this year as a conflict between the Houthi rebels, and the supporters of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the unseated President of Yemen. However, due to an intensification of violence from an unprecedented rise in military action by the Saudi-led coalition, the war has become much more complicated. The involvement of the coalition has proven to be a large failure for various reasons and has forced Yemen into a humanitarian disaster with a lack of any stability in its economic, social, and political spheres. Additionally, the rise of internationally based terrorist organizations, such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, has become a major issue as they seized this opportunity to make territorial gains with growing support.

To begin, it is important to understand who is involved in this conflict. The main fight is between the forces loyal to the displaced President, Hadi, and the forces allied with the Zayda Shia rebels, called Houthis. With the support of loyalists to former Yemeni President, Saleh, the Houthis forced Hadi out of Yemen’s capital in February. As they closed in on Hadi in the seaport city of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia joined in to assist Hadi supporters. The coalition is composed of eight Arab states alongside the Saudi leadership. Both Hadi and the Houthis are opposed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and an ISIS-affiliated group, both of which have staged multiple attacks across Yemen. Furthermore, due to speculation that Iran has been backing the Shia Houthis, the conflict can be seen as a regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

What began initially as an air campaign, quickly became a conventional ground conflict with thousands of Saudi-led coalition troops on the ground. As of October, the coalition was rather successful in taking back Aden and some of Southern Yemen, though the war is far from over and the situation surrounding this “success” is not in the least bit positive. The coalition’s attempts at ending paramilitary operations in Yemen have come with a blind consideration of economic and humanitarian conditions, along with basic failure in the main objectives of the intervention.

Primarily, the intensifying military action of the coalition in the civil war has contributed to an economic crisis layered on top of an already weak economy. The situation would worsen catastrophically if the fighting causes the Straight of Bab-el-Mandeb to close.

Additionally, the coalition’s almost complete disregard for civilian casualties has contributed to a disastrous humanitarian crisis. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both accused the Saudi-led intervention of violating international humanitarian law. “The strikes killing civilians, in which there was no apparent military target, shows at least a cruel indifference,” says Belkis Wille from Human Rights Watch, referring to the airstrikes. As a result of these crimes (among other acts of violence), over two-thirds of the war’s casualties have been civilians. Unfortunately, with a lack of facilitated talks between warring factions, the situation will only worsen. This civilian disregard is exemplified in recent Saudi air strikes that destroyed a hospital in Northern Yemen. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has condemned the strike. “This attack is another illustration of a complete disregard for civilians in Yemen, where bombings have become a daily routine,” says Hassan Boucenine, MSF head of the mission in Yemen.

With regards to the extent to which Saudi Arabia is succeeding or failing in its mission, it is clear that the situation is the latter. The war has “inflamed” anti-Saudi sentiment and created complex political and military issues for the Saudi government. Attempts to scale back the intervention have been foiled by violent intensification. The key point is that Saudi Arabia has failed to accomplish its goals. They have failed to force a major retreat by Ansarulah (the largest Houthi militia), they are unable to fully restore power to Hadi, and they have plunged the region into a division of groups in an internal power struggle. On top of all this, AQAP and ISIS are growing in power every day while the rest of Yemen is distracted in conflict.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has expanded in attempts to fill the security vacuum created by the war. They do not face air strikes and are only nominally threatened by Houthis. This group is a large threat to the US, especially now while the US cannot rely on the help of Hadi to weaken them. Thus, AQAP is proving to be the real winner in this war while thriving on the chaos. Furthermore, ISIS has also benefited from the war as they continually conduct numerous attacks throughout Yemen mostly against Houthis. ISIS, like AQAP, seems to be exploiting security lapses to carry out its own attacks while the other forces are focused on fighting each other, and not ISIS or AQAP themselves.

If the Saudi-led intervention is proving to be ineffective, then there must be alternative methods to end the conflict. A better approach would focus on unifying Yemeni communities in peaceful negotiations that could have avoided war. Alternate solutions have been presented in both a diplomatic approach by Iranian and Turkish governments, and a planned initiative by Oman (the only bordering monarchy that did not join the coalition). Iranian President Hassan Rouhani emphasizes that “history has demonstrated that military intervention is not a proper response to these crises and will instead exacerbate the situation.” The states involved cannot pursue their own interests; they must attempt to restore stability in Yemen. Oman’s plan consists of a seven-point approach, including the withdrawal of Houthi forces and a restoration of Hadi’s government, followed by an election where leadership will be politically contested rather than through violence. Agreement to these terms seems unlikely at the moment.

As a result of Saudi Arabian failure in ending the conflict thus far, it is clear that the solution to the current Yemen Civil War cannot be violent in nature. Not only has it proven to be catastrophic to the state, it might also provoke reprisal attacks from the extremist groups which have benefited from the turmoil. The formation of an international committee and a strong mediating body could go a long way to solving the problem as opposed to the violent intervention of the Saudi-led coalition. Without these alternate non-violent measures, Yemen will follow a path very similar to Syria’s and tumble into own well.