Civil Service Essay –Understanding the Yemen Conflict
Yemen – caught in an interminable spiral of violence
In the last few weeks, the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah has become the arena of savage military operations by Saudi-led forces. The conflict has put the lives of nearly 2,50,000 people in grave danger. Another eight million Yemenis stare at starvation, impoverishment, and, worst of all, cholera resulting in scores of deaths.
With a population of about 29 million, Yemen, lying to the south west bottom of Saudi Arabia is the poorest cousin among its well-off Arab brothers. It went through long periods of colonization under the Ottoman and the British. Perpetual internal strife and the resulting instability have plagued this country. Two civil wars and division of the country to two parts –the North and the South – have not led to stability or peace. The current spate of violence has been waging since 1960.
The ongoing spate of ethnic violence erupted in January, 2014. Since then, a minority group named Houthis, who constituting about quarter of the population, have borne the brunt of the conflict, both as the attackers and the victims. The Houthis are a part of the Zaydi Shiite political movement. They were dominant in the political landscape of Yemen until the 1962 coup that overthrew the Yemeni ruler. The present government has vented its anger on the Houthis by isolating them economically and culturally. In the last one or two years, the government have accused them of being more loyal to Iran than to their own country. With Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia towering over it, Yemen can not countenance any Iran influence in its soil. Thus, the historic Shia-Sunni rivalry has proved to be Yemen’s bane.
In the aftermath of the tumultuous changes that removed a number of despots from Arab countries –an upheaval termed as ‘Arab Spring’—Yemen’s autocratic ruler President Ali Abdullah Saleh was removed from office under international pressure. Parleys were started among the political parties to pave the way for the country’s transition to democratic reforms, holding free and fair elections, and drafting the country’s first formal Constitution. In this process known as the ‘national Dialogue’, the Houthis participated, but soon became lukewarm in their support. The promised changes didn’t come about, and the government remained in a limbo, leading to widespread disenchantment and chaos. Yemen saw a very destabilizing power vacuum.
In 2014, Houthi rebels came marauding southwards from their base in Sa’dah in the north. By September the same year, they had taken the capital Sanaa. It was a full-blown war between the government and the Houthis. In the later years, till 2010, Yemen saw six bouts of internecine war between the rival groups. Towards the last stage, the Saudis felt inclined to intervene militarily.
To confront the government forces, the Houthis allied with the dethroned ruler, President Saleh. The alliance, though borne out of expediency, paid off. The Houthis consolidated their hold on the capital and, by the Spring of 2015, moved menacingly towards the southern port city of Aden. The beleaguered Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Manour Hadi found safe havens in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Yemen is engulfed in war as it draws foreign militaries to its soil…
Iran couldn’t but look the other way when it saw its Shia alleys, the Houthis, being attacked. Iran stepped up its assistance to the Houthis. In fact, Iran had been giving such covert and overt help to the Houthis since 2011. Iran’s involvement in the conflict infuriated its sworn rival, Saudi Arabia. The latter waded into the conflict with all its might. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) joined the anti-Houthi campaign in the side of the Saudis. The U.S. provided logistical support to this anti-Houthi coalition by providing intelligence inputs and mid-air refueling to Saudi bombers. A deadly military conflict ensued.
Yemen, going through such grueling periods of bloodshed and impoverishment, became a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. Al-Quaeda started its indoctrination camps, recruiting Jehadis for its operations abroad. Americans, were very worried. In fact, Yemeni Al-Qaeda ideologues and terrorists succeeded to some extent in entering the U.S. and harming it. Al-Quaeda based in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) became the American security establishment’s top concern. Therefore, countering Iranian influence in Yemen is secondary to America’s interests there. Ensuring a peaceful and stable Yemen became the policy objective of the U.S. A restive, strife-torn country invariably breeds radicalism.
The Saudi-backed military offensive evicted the Houthis from Aden in 2015, but then the battle turned to be a stalemate from then on. The former president Saleh unsuccessfully tried to switch his loyalty to the side of the Saudis, but the Houthis botched the plan by assassinating him. The enraged Saudis stepped up their aerial bombardment of Houthi positions. Indiscriminate targeting led to civilian loss of life and property of unacceptable levels. The Houthis were hit, but they continued to resist. It only led to more ferocious air strikes by the Saudis. The international community was appalled to see the barbaric air campaign that has shown no sign of being stopped or scaled down. Western critics have highlighted the fact that weapons, munitions and aircrafts of western origin have been used in these airstrikes. Sadly, the Americans and the British do not seem to be very concerned about the large scale civilian fatalities inflicted on the Houthis by their relentless bombardment. A bipartisan attempt in the American Senate to stop the Saudi air strikes ended fruitlessly.
Yemen has descended into total chaos. Unemployment, corruption, failure of civic services, shortage of drinking water, lawlessness have made the situation hellish. The population has been kept alive through substantial food aid coming from aid agencies. In the meanwhile, to force the Houthis to capitulate, the Saudis have blocked the routes through which international aid was coming in. Hunger and cholera epidemic now stalk the land. Already, the cholera toll has crossed 20000.
Some groups in south Yemen seeking independence for their region have added to the nightmare by aggressively pushing their agenda. The United Nations has made many attempts to disarm the Houthis, and restore a legitimate government in the country. Death figures continue to mount as the war-torn Yemen trudges on aimlessly.
To choke the last vital supply line to the rebel Houthis, theYemeni government forces, aided by Saudi and UAE militaries, have launched an assault on the Hodeidah port on the Red Sea. They intend to wrest the port’s control from the Houthis, and thus, force an end to the conflict. The fighting has, thus, escalated further endangering the lives of some 4,00, 000 residents of the port city. The blockade of the port would doom the Houthis’ chances of surviving the war.
The end game of the conflict is going to be very bloody, very nasty. Peace appears to be a distant dream. If ever it comes, Yemenis would find erasing the trail of death and devastation a really daunting task. Future historians would ponder if the war was really worth fighting for.