The Civil War in Yemen Part One: Origins and Participants.


Generally this blog has focused on four distinct subjects: The Rohingya Crisis, the Ukraine conflict, the Syrian war, and ISIS. These are varied and important subjects. The plight of the Rohingya has been described as ethnic cleansing and forced migration, and is at the very least oppression and a gross violation of human rights. Ukraine’s descent into civil war was avoidable and its origins relate to domestic and international concerns over Ukraine’s place in Europe, stoked by Russian concerns over NATO and EU expansion. The Syrian war is a research interest of the author, and so features regularly, as the search for a resolution to the most complicated conflict of modern times continues. Research on the Syrian war naturally includes ISIS, whose establishment of a self-declared Caliphate across Syria and Iraq, and its impact on the Middle-East, makes it a subject of interest across the world.

These are all worthy interests, which actually deserve more attention. However, this comes at the expense of neglecting other armed conflicts also worthy of attention. The first stated aim of the CARIS website is the understanding and resolution of armed conflict and this is a general aim. With this in mind the focus of this blog will move to other conflict situations, moving from Syria, and across Africa, where international borders are also insubstantial in the face of armed conflicts that transcend them. The first step does not take us far, in fact only to the closest point of the Arabian Peninsula to Africa, where a war rages for the control of Yemen.

North and South Yemen unified as Yemen in 1990 but the political tensions led to the Northern and Southern armies, which had not integrated, engaging in a brief civil war in 1994 won by Northern forces. A low-level insurgency by Shia Houthi rebels against the Yemeni government began in 2004 and continued on up to the 2011 Yemeni revolution.  Part of the ‘Arab Spring’, the revolution was driven by discontent over unemployment, corruption and a proposed amendment to the constitution to allow succession by the President’s son. This led to President Saleh’s resignation in favour of his deputy, Vice-President Hadi, and the formation of a unity government. Since then the government has faced challenges from Houthis, southern separatists opposed to the Yemeni unification, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and latterly, ISIS. It can be seen that prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2015 the newly unified country had been subject to severe political differences, a Shia insurgency, and a revolution, leaving a weak central government. The Houthi’s, who form an important part of the current civil war, are Zaidi’s, a Shia sect, and called Ansar Allah, but are generally known as Shia ‘Houthis’. They are supporters of former President Saleh.

Further political disagreement led to a northern battle between Houthis and Sunni tribes becoming one between the Houthis and Southern allies against the incumbent government. The subsequent fighting was severe and resulted in two factions holding territory: The Houthi dominated Supreme Political Council allied to former President Saleh and the Hadi-led government and their allies. Substantial territory is also held by AQAP and there are pockets of ISIS territory. Saudi Arabia has led a coalition against Houthi forces since the 24th March 2016 in support of the Hadi-led government, including controversial airstrikes. The presence of AQAP and ISIL has meant that the United States has also deployed substantial resources in Yemen. The Houthis have limited support from Iran and Hezbollah. For a military history of the civil war the Wikipedia page is recommended (see below).

The conflict between the Houthis and the Government has been portrayed as a proxy war to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two most powerful states in the region, who are competing for dominance and are split along Sunni-Shia lines. This is misleading, as the Saudi-led intervention is a powerful coalition directly involved in combat operations, while Iranian support for the Houthis is minimal and they had no wish for the Houthis and their allies to launch the dramatic 2015 offensive. Anti-western rhetoric by the Houthis prior to the civil war and regular secretive flights to Sanaa from Iran has fuelled Saudi claims that Iran is a major supporter of the Houthis. In reality, the civil war began due to internal political discontent in Yemen that dates back decades and support from former President Saleh ensured that an already well armed insurgency had access to government weapons. The most significant intervention in the war is that by the Saudi-led coalition, which has expended billions of dollars helping President Hadi’s government to survive, compared to a much smaller sum invested by Iran, who has outsourced the Houthis to Hezbollah. While this may change in the future, Iran has to do little in order to keep Houthis being a thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side and they have more interest in a stable Yemen than one at war with itself.

The tragedy is in the consequences. With a reported 7,600 deaths and 42,000 injured, mostly since the coalition airstrikes began, over fifty percent of Yemen’s hospitals have been put out of action. The destruction of infrastructure and homes has led to severe malnutrition and a recent outbreak of cholera. While there have been longstanding problems in Yemen due to food shortages and scarcity of water, these have been severely exacerbated by a conflict that has displaced over 2.5 million people. As is the case with most civil wars, the impact on the ability of Yemen to function and provide for its people has been devastating. Next week we will look at attempts at conflict resolution and future prospects.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator


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