The Civil War in Yemen: Deadlocked


Civil strife and armed conflict in Yemen, along with humanitarian crises, is not new and has been ongoing in one form or another since 1960. While it is tempting to view the origins of the current civil war through the prism of the ill-fated ‘Arab Spring’ or it’s perpetuation as part of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran these are only factors within a larger picture.

The area now known as Yemen is the result of unification between North and South Yemen in 1990, both formerly ruled by Great Britain. Civil wars took place in both countries, and, after unification, a brief civil war in 1994 after the south attempted to secede. In the 2000’s a Houthi insurgency began and Al-Qaeda established a foothold in the east of the country. A revolution in 2011, backed by the Houthi leadership, was followed by a period of minor clashes between Houthi and Sunni tribes. The current civil war began in 2015 after Houthi forces took the capital city of Sana’a, dissolved the parliament and forced the President to flee. Since 2011 the government has faced challenges from Shia Houthi’s, southern separatists opposed to the Yemeni unification, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and latterly, ISIS. All the conflicts in post-colonial Yemen have been subject to foreign interference and intervention, with the latest being that by the Saudi-led coalition in 2015. The presence of the jihadist groups has meant that the United States has also deployed substantial resources in Yemen.

The current conflict, which is now entering its fourth year, has pitted the Saudi-led coalition in support of the government of President Hadi against the Iranian-backed Houthi’s and despite blockade and aerial bombardment by the coalition, has failed to defeat the Houthi insurgents. The Hadi government is all but nominal, depending on Sunni tribes for support and military action, while the Houthi’s have a significant military capability due to their capture of military hardware, including missiles that it fires at Saudi Arabia, and support from Iran. The Saudi-led intervention is controversial as its naval blockade and airstrikes have contributed to a worsening humanitarian crisis and the devastation of infrastructure and civilian lives, bringing criticism of the coalition and the western suppliers of its military hardware.

The prospects for conflict resolution appear to remain low. The former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had thrown in his lot with the Houthi’s, was assassinated shortly after he split from the Houthi’s and proposed dialogue with the coalition. Far from being cowed by the coalition assault, the Houthi’s have also increased their missile strikes against Saudi Arabia, targeting Riyadh. While this may be an attempt to force the Saudi’s to the negotiating table, it also provides the Saudi’s with a pretext to escalate their airstrikes and justify their continuing air assault. Balanced against this is the potential for political pressure on the governments of the United Kingdom, United States and France over the supply of arms to Saudi Arabia and other coalition countries which may result in pressure on Saudi Arabia to reign in its war. There are also rumours of secret talks in neutral Oman, which both sides have denied. These may be linked to a boost in diplomatic activity following the appointment of a new UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who faces an uphill task and is an advocate of bringing both civilians and the military to the negotiating table. It is not implausible that the two sides will. The Houthi’s, who stand out as the most unified of actors within Yemen, have said that they will enter into peace talks if the Saudi-led aerial assault ends. For their part, the Saudi’s do not want to see the war prolonged and are facing international opprobrium because of their involvement in it. Negotiating a peace treaty is, of course, another matter, with obstacles such as a highly developed war economy and the long term political strife to be overcome, and still leaving the jihadist presence to be resolved.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

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