We love to talk about Syria, Iraq & Libya – but what’s happening in Yemen?

There is plenty of rhetoric surrounding Syria, Iraq and Libya – especially since the refugee crisis. Even before the mass migration to Europe was referred to as a crisis though, a majority of the coverage in the Middle East was focused on these particular countries. However, these weren’t the only countries involved in the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutionary protest movement of 2011. One of the other countries involved, of which I believe we’re severely under-informed, is Yemen. As such, I thought I’d a write a brief and possibly simplistic explanation (it gets complicated) of the violence we have seen erupt in 2015.

In order to understand the competing sections today, it’s necessary to start in 1990 – the year that the Soviet Union disbanded. This had far reaching consequences across the globe for anyone associated with the communist bloc, including Yemen. At the time the country was split into North Yemen and South Yemen. North Yemen was a republic, and had its allies in Western Europe and the USA. South Yemen was part of the Communist bloc allied with the USSR. As a result, when the USSR fell, South Yemen was effectively consumed by North Yemen, and the two amalgamated to become the country as it is today. South Yemen suddenly found itself under the control the Sunni General People’s Congress (GPC) of the North, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Of course, there was great resentment from the Southern Yemenis towards the political settlement, and an uprising from the South was swiftly quelled by Saleh’s Government in 1994.

Fast forward 17 years and Saleh is still in power, and there are still many Yemenis unhappy with this. The Muslim Brotherhood of Yemen (al-Islah) had long been campaigning against the corruption of Saleh’s Government. To add to this, a Northern group called the Houthis, who belong to a sect of Shia Islam, had long standing issues with the Sunni Government that failed to heed their concerns or represent them effectively. Add into the mix the long-suffering southerners and it becomes the perfect recipe for political upheaval. And that’s exactly what happened. Saleh was eventually removed from office in 2012, but only after he was granted immunity from prosecution and his deputy, Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was promised to succeed him in a single-candidate, unchallenged election. Both Saudi Arabia and the Americans supported this democratic farce.

Of course, the Houthis boycotted the transfer of power to Hadi – he would not listen to them any more than Saleh did. Furthermore, Hadi is a southerner. As such, he looked to the South for support of his presidency. This obviously worried the Northern orientated GPC, who saw this as a threat to their deeply engrained sense of superiority and privilege over the South. Consequentially, the GPC disowned Hadi and officially withdrew their support. Nevertheless, Hadi persisted with the Presidency and created his own party, The President’s List. He continued with his only support coming from Saudi Arabia, the USA, and those Southerners who believed he might actually address their grievances.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi

By this time, the Houthis ‘anti-Hadi’ movement had gained a lot of support. Forces still loyal to Saleh began defecting from the Yemeni military to join the Houthis in order to keep Hadi out of power. To add to this, the GPC (also now anti-Hadi) was worried about losing their 35 year monopoly of power. Consequently, the two movements reached across the religious sectarian divide and found common ground in their Northern origins to form a lethal and dominant alliance.

The al-Hirak al-Janoubi (Southern Movement) is made up of those in the South who still support Hadi. They cling to some hope that he is the only man who might address their grievances; certainly Saleh never did. So, we can now see how the battle lines are drawn. The Northern ‘rebels’ want to impose regime change and oust President Hadi. In an ideal world, they would re-establish Saleh as President, or his son who he had been grooming to succeed him for many years. The Houthis believe that if Saleh were to be re-instated as President, then he would be obligated to reward them for their support. Opposing them is the Southern ‘loyalist’ Movement, who defend President Hadi, not so much because they rate him, but rather because they fear the Northern alliance claiming power.

The Houthis now control most of the more densely populated North

The Houthis now control most of the more densely populated North. Credit: France24.com

The Southern Movement fear the alliance of Northerners with good reason. The alliance became a formidable force and swept through Yemen to the point where it took control of the capital, Sanaa. As a result, in Febuary/March this year Hadi fled the Southern city of Aden to the capital of Saudi Arabia, Ridyha.

Why does Saudi Arabia still support Hadi? If they wanted to continue their significant influence over Yemen, then surely the sensible thing to do would be to throw their lot in with the winning team? Well it’s not that simple, it never is. The Shia Houthis are supposedly being bankrolled by Shia majority Iran. It’s likely that Iran is using the Houthis to increase their influence in the region. Indeed, American Secretary of State John Kerry claimed in an interview with PBS Newshour that the Iranians had supported the Houthis for years and rather ominously suggested that the US would “not stand by while the region is de-stabilized”. Iranian Shia allies already hold Baghdad, Beirut, and are supporting Assad in Syria. It would be inconceivable to the Saudis to see Iranian influence expand to another city, particularly one so close to home. Therefore, when Iranian-backed Houthis/GPC began to dominate the Civil War, the Saudi’s were compelled to intervene in order to prevent Iranian influence extending any further in the Arab world.

The airstrikes were conducted between March and April and were largely focused around the Houthis occupied Sadaa. This inevitably caused death, destruction, and chaos. Not to mention American drone strikes on terrorists using the instability as a breeding ground. The problem with the airstrikes is that they often hit more than just their targets. As Bob Burrows, Professor Emeritus with a speciality in Yemen studies at the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies says, “These air strikes, yeah, they might be getting some of those who the Saudis see as bad guys, but they’re also hitting a lot of civilians . . . That’s just causing the anti-Saudi sentiment, and by extension the anti-U.S. sentiment, to grow.” So, while these airstrikes may have wiped out some of the Houthis, they are simultaneously driving more people towards the Houthis; or alternatively, towards al-Quaeda of the Arab Peninsula who not only seized on the instability to grab control of large parts of Yemen but who can also now use the airstrikes as a recruitment campaign.

Houthis search the rubble of Sanaa for fallen comrades. Credit: The Independent

Houthis search the rubble of Sanaa for fallen comrades. Credit: The Independent

According to the World Health Organization, as of 27 September, the violence in Yemen has seen 5,306 people killed and 26,294 people injured, with hundreds of thousands (figures vary) displaced.

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