The Yemen War: Origins, Actors and Humanitarian Consequences
A brief history of the ongoing war that has led to what the UN has dubbed the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
Yemen has been devastated by a complex war since 2015, although the conflict stems from much earlier events and tensions. The war is known as the “forgotten war” because it is rarely mediatized, but it remains one of the most important and consequence-heavy conflicts in the Middle East.Today, it is not only an internal civil war, but the theatre of an intricate proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East, to the detriment of the dozens of millions of Yemeni citizens in humanitarian need.
The USSR-backed People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) were officially unified on May 22, 1990, under the mandate of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, marking the end of the Cold War in the Middle East. Already, the shia muslim Houthi movement or Ansar Allah was slowly emerging amid a fragile democratic transition and economical situation. Under the leadership of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the originally tribal group became a major opposition to Saleh and his sunni government, charging him with financial corruption and criticizing him for strong ties to Saudi Arabia and the US at the expense of Yemeni people. In 2004, the Houthi leader was killed in Sa’dah by the Yemeni Army, sparking the Iran-backed Houthi Insurgency. The armed conflict opposing the Ansar Allah group and Saleh’s forces waned over time as multiple superficial peace treaties were signed.
In 2009, Saudi Arabia, backed up by the US, the UN and the arab coalition, led the Operation Scorched Earth as the conflict heated up once more. A ceasefire was signed, but tens of thousands of people were already displaced, and the conflict took an international dimension with this Saudi intervention, slowly morphing from a tribal and religious national conflict into the crisis we know today. At the same time, AQPA, or Al Qaeda In the Arabic Peninsula was also emerging in the country, further destabilizing the region.
In 2011, the Arab Spring took the Middle East and Arab World by storm. The Yemeni Revolution erupted in early 2011 as protesters demanded better economic and employment conditions, less corruption, and the resignation of President Saleh. As the revolution bogged down, former Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was elected in a single-candidate election as the new Yemeni President in february 2012, after Saleh was forced to transfer his powers after 33 years in power in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Many Houthis and protesters rejected this deal. As tensions remained, the Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa on the 21st september 2014, marking the official start of the civil war.
In 2015, the Houthis and former president Saleh forged a paradoxical alliance although they had fought for decades and forced President Hadi to flee abroad to Riyad as the Houthi forces now controlled the West of the country. On 25 March 2015, a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened at the request of President Hadi, with the aim of restoring the internationally recognized sunni government to power and neutralizing the Houthi rebellion. They led a series of air raids in various areas of Yemen against Houthi forces, that Iran condemned as “aggressive” and “dangerous”, further fueling the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The coalition also imposed a blockade, contributing to worsening the humanitarian situation. In parallel, ISIL had begun to build a following since 2014 and entered a competition with AQPA as it carried attacks across the country.
Over the five following years, the conflict continued to spread. The UAE and Saudi-led coalition continued air raids with intelligence and logistic aid from countries like France, the US or the UK, as Iran backed up the Houthis with armement, drawing Yemen even more into the broader Shia/Sunni and Iran/Saudi Arabia conflict. In december 2017, after Saleh broke his alliance with the Houthis and attempted to take arms against them, he was killed and his forces shortly defeated.
Separate from the war, the US also led a series of bombings and airstrike against the present AQAP and ISIL in the context of counterterrorism operations. The country conducted almost 200 strikes between 2016 and 2017.
In April 2018, the UN urged Saudi Arabia to put an end to the war, shedding light on the already atrocious consequences of three years of conflict: 10 000 deaths, 53 000 wounded, and 22,2 millions of inhabitants depending on humanitarian aid. The UN led talks in Sweden in late 2018 that resulted in fragile and uncertain ceasefires under the Stockholm Agreement. In July 2019, the UAE announced its decision to remove its troops from Yemen. In september 2019, the Houthi movement led missile attacks against Saudi Arabia’s vital oil infrastructure, persuading the country to truly consider a ceasefire while simultaneously feeding the existing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
However, the conflict is still far from coming to an end, and the Yemeni population and civilians have been the most impacted by what became a proxy war between Saudi. Today, Amnesty International estimates that more than 20,000 civilians have been killed and wounded since 2015, 16 million people suffer from hunger, 3.65 million people have been displaced, and 24.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. All sides have been accused of human rights abuse. The coalition has led indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks and air raids (about 90 unlawful airstrikes as reported by Human Rights Watch) which have hit homes, markets, mosques, schools or hospitals. Houthi forces have used banned weapons such as landmines which have affected countless civilians. Both sides are guilty of detention of hostages, torture and enforced disapearances. The UN reported nearly 1,000 cases of recruitment of children as young as 11, mainly in Houthi forces. Aid workers have reportedly been kidnapped or killed while conducting humanitarian operations in Yemen. An estimate 3 million women and girls were at risk of domestic and sexual violence in 2018 accoring to the UN. Women in Yemen face severe discrimination in law and practice.
The terrible humanitarian situation of the country puts it even more at risk regarding disease outbreaks. Yemen has also been hit by a cholera outbreak considered the worst in the world by the UN. On the 10th of April 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Hadramout, in Southern Yemen. This has raised international concerns as the pandemic could spread like wildfire in the already damaged country, and worsen the humanitarian crisis. A ceasefire has almost immediately been unilaterally declared by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. It is unsure how long the tensions will be kept under control until the next armed outbreak, and the novel coronavirus is likely to be another hit to the Yemeni population, bruised by six harsh years of conflict.