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The forgotten conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen
Yemen’s civil war has been raging since 2014 with the conflict largely being overshadowed by events in Syria and Iraq. The war however has sparked a disastrous humanitarian situation affecting over 80% of the population. The focus by Western and core regional states, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, on key security interests has produced a situation in which there is little diplomatic scope to restore help the Yemeni people.
The civil war in Yemen
The Republic of Yemen was formed in 1990 after decades of hostilities between North Yemen and South Yemen, yet discontent persisted as fighting in the north was led by Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), also known as the Houthi movement, in opposition to President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s authoritarian regime.
The 2011 Arab Spring movement in the MENA region, inspired Yemen’s population to protest against the high unemployment rates, dismal economic conditions and corruption prevalent under President Saleh. He was subsequently forced to resign and was replaced by his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
The political transition failed as fighting, corruption, unemployment, insecurity and the southern separatist movement intensified. The Houthi Shia Muslim rebels gained support from the people who were disillusioned with the transition and they began seizing areas in the northern Saada province, followed by the capital Sanaa by end of 2014.
Ansar Allah subsequently allied themselves with the deposed Saleh and his remaining security forces forcing President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. Having occupied Sanaa, Ansar Allah and President Saleh sought to obtain international recognition. The international community however, led the Gulf Arab states and supported by the US backed Hadi’s government.
The civil war in Yemen has thus devolved into a classic proxy war between regional powers. Saudi Arabia supports Hadi and in March 2015 a 10-nation coalition led by Riyadh launched an air campaign against the Houthi rebels and Saleh’s forces, with the intention of reinstating Hadi.
The Houthis meanwhile are believed to be backed economically and militarily by Iran, with missile attacks and raids along the Yemen-Saudi border indicating a deliberate campaign attack Saudi Arabia proper.
The US, the UK and France are also involved in the conflict as they have supported the Saudi-led air strikes by providing logistical and intelligence support. Saudi Arabia imports over £10.3 bn weapons and munitions from the UK and the US, which have been used by the coalition causing thousands of civilian fatalities as the continued supply of weapons is prolonging the conflict.
The consequences of the civil war
The conflict has now entered its fifth year and civilians have been subjected to attacks by both sides over the course of the fighting. For example, in November 2017, the Saudi coalition increased the blockade of Yemen to halt the smuggling of weapons by Iran. The port city of Hudaydah, a major economic hub which handles Yemen’s cargo imports fell under Houthi control in 2015 but in June 2018, pro-Hadi forces alongside the Saudi-led coalition, launched a major offensive against Hudaydah.
The offensive stopped the civilian population from accessing food, fuel, water and electricity networks but also prevented aid supplies from arriving and being distributed from Hudaydah’s port terminal to the rest of the country. During the fighting, Houthi forces similarly blocked and denied the populations access to medical resources and food.
The victims of the war in Yemen are overwhelmingly civilian, with conflict believed to be affecting 80% of the population. This amounts to nearly 24 million people, who need humanitarian assistance and protection. Yemen’s people are facing severe malnutrition and starvation is rising, the healthcare system is collapsing, medical facilities are not functioning, poor sanitation and the lack of clean water led to an outbreak of cholera in 2017.
The data available from international organizations paints a staggering picture. The UN estimates that 14 million people in Yemen are at risk from famine. Over 11,000 civilians have been injured by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. 3 million Yemenis have been forced to flee to Oman, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.
Yemen itself meanwhile hosts over 250,000 Somali refugees and asylum seekers, and the war in has caused nearly 5,000 Somali refugees to return home due to the severity of the situation.
The conflict has had a devastating impact on the lives of people and young children. A whole generation of children has been deprived of their childhood and has been forced to grow around war, or involved in the conflict as child soldiers. The war has influence as far away as the Sudan. The crisis in Yemen has seen the government in Khartoum encourage young, unemployed Sudanese to fight in Yemen, with Sudanese men joining the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese military to fight against the Houthis.
The evolution of the conflict
In August 2015, Mr. Hadi’s government established a government in Aden, as Sanaa became controlled by the Houthis. The separatist movement for South Yemen known as Southern Transitional Council (STC) formed an alliance with forces loyal to Mr. Hadi to prevent the fall of Aden. However, in January 2018, this alliance collapsed after accusations of corruption and mismanagement against the Hadi government, and clashes erupted between pro-government forces who face internal divisions within the coalition. This is because Saudi Arabia backs Mr. Hadi, whilst the UAE backs the separatists in Aden.
The Stockholm agreement signed on 13 December 2018 was aimed at ending the fight. The ceasefire proposal became effective on 18 December, but it was broken shortly after as the Houthis did not withdraw from the port of Hudaydah and the parties involved did not honour the agreements fully. In November 2019, the Riyadh Agreement was signed by Yemen’s recognized government and UAE supported separatist movement to stop the fight in the south of Yemen. The aim of the power sharing agreement is to create a new government and ministries with equal representation including the separatists, and the integration of STC militias with Mr. Hadi’s forces, to defy the enemy which are the Houthi forces in Sanaa.
The international community has been involved in resolving the conflict in Yemen, but the results have been scarce due to the complexities of the conflict. The national interests of the states involved and the economic benefits are prevailing over humanity, devastating the lives of many. The conflict is estimated to cost over £22 bn in humanitarian aid if the war continues through active military support and inadequate diplomatic cover, and it will take numerous years before Yemen can achieve stable economic, political and social pre-war levels, if the intervening powers continues to meddle in the conflict for their own interests.
Gida Malafronte is a graduate student of International Relations and Global Studies from Nottingham Trent University, UK. Her areas of interest include the Middle East and North Africa and security aspects. Image credit: CC by IRIN/Flickr.