“Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.” Peter Maurer, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The daily life for the citizens of Yemen has been a non-stop struggle to survive since the establishment of the state. While most of the Arab regimes are subsidized from the natural oil that is embedded in their land, Yemen, on the other hand, hasn’t had the proper resources to withstand its initial rocky beginning. Sprinkle in an absence of democracy, stability and a lack of freedom and it quickly accelerated towards severe destitution. This has fast contributed to making it an attractive amusement park for various Arab monarchs that are determined to acquire and test out high tech arms and expand their fantasy kingdoms. Another aspect that enhances Yemen’s importance in the world is the strategic significance of the port city of Aden. The port is on the Gulf of Aden on the Suez Canal shipping route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Over 20,000 ships take this route annually.
Yemen, prior to the Arab Spring, remained unstable with different groups conveniently pitted against the other while the power of its leaders was kept intact. The correlation between these two aspects of the state was overlooked because of the long existing distrust ingrained in the community. As a result, the fact that those in power exploited this deep-rooted enmity has been perceived as the regular state of affairs. Being the poorest nation in the Middle East for many years, contributes to the dismissal of Yemen’s recent escalation into severe humanitarian crisis. The majority of the world has paid little attention to Yemen since the civil war broke out in full force in March 2015 between the al-Houthi’s said to be backed by Iran and the Saudi-led coalition of some Arab states backed by the U.S. and British. However, the Saudi military intervention in Yemen’s civil war has less to do with preventing more deaths and threats to surrounding borders and more to do with displaying regional influence through a preemptive attack disguised as a necessary action of self-defense.
The Arab Spring in Yemen successfully deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh from his dictatorship in 2011. However, what was supposed to be a time of celebration and a path towards a brighter future, quickly turned into the opening of a Pandora’s box of retribution and chaos that has mostly impacted the innocent civilians of Yemen.
The start of the conflict goes back a few years prior to the Arab Spring, but ultimately leads up to it. The main groups involved in the conflict are the Houthi’s of Yemen (a Zaidi Shia minority group from Northern Yemen) and the government of Yemen (majority two-thirds Sunni). The Houthi’s have been protesting what they believed was discrimination by the government since 2004 and have been demanding Saleh’s departure for a good portion of his time as president. The movement had initially started peacefully, but later became an uprising when the government enacted no real change. Despite the grievances this group had against the government, doing what dictators do best, Saleh continued to occupy the Presidency for over 33 years. After Saleh secured immunity and renounced his seat, he handed power over to his deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. During the 11-month revolution, the country further sank into poverty and the conflict reached new heights with various groups taking part. The ethnic and religious differences between the North and South, which engulfed Yemen for years, became even more pronounced during this time.
If it isn’t for his determination to maintain his presidency despite all odds, then it’s his ability to manipulate so effortlessly that has solidified President Saleh’s reputation as the Arab world’s Frank Underwood. After his initial demise, his scheming nature brought him back from the dead with an impressive number of loyal followers. He became a textbook example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” when he struck a deal with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), even though during his presidency his alliance with the U.S. focused on eradicating this terrorist organization. He had permitted his air bases to be used by the U.S. and also accepted money and arms for advancement from the U.S. Once he switched teams, his deal with AQAP revolved around giving them an entire southern province with the idea that their threat of existence makes his services essential.
Saleh’s next move was his alliance with the Houthi’s in the pursuit to remove his successor, President Hadi, who was negotiated into power by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) backed by the United States. Meanwhile, the Houthi’s were able to mobilize more supporters and continued protests that focused on corruption during the presidential transition. In the South of Yemen, AQAP took advantage of the power vacuum to expand their area of influence. And last but not least, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began their own attacks in the country, mainly targeting al-Houthi-affiliated sites and the AQAP. Saleh soon teamed up with the Houthi militias, which are suspected to be covertly sustained by Iran. He also still maintained the loyalty of some of the armed forces, which allied with the Houthis, and contributed to their battlefield success. The suspected clandestine support of Iran exacerbates the ever-present hostility between Shia-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia in the race to obtain influence in the rest of the Arab world. The issue was heightened when the Houthi’s seized control of Sana’a and demanded submission to their agenda. Hadi’s government resigned instead and went into exile to Saudi Arabia. By March, the Houthis were able to advance towards the Port city of Aden and seize control.
The accelerated demise of Yemen’s infrastructure and Yemeni lives can be traced to the advancement of the Houthi’s. The areas they expanded to were close to Saudi Arabia’s southern border, and this was perceived as a major threat. Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, by principal, cannot allow the suspected Iran-backed Shia majority group to succeed in taking control of a key power region. Saudi Arabia’s extreme sensitivity towards any threat or success of their long time nemesis Iran and the armed groups they support is reflected by the method that Saudi Arabia is willing to implement in order to reinstate President Hadi. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia states that its concerns mainly revolve around securing its borders. A Saudi-led coalition made up of Sunni-majority Arab states and backed by the West launched an air campaign as a response to the Houthis. Washington has even provided the coalition with logistical and intelligence support, as well as stationed warships in Gulf of Aden. US depicts its main reasons for involvement revolving around the need to preserve stability, making sure the port is accessible, securing the southern borders of Saudi Arabia, and to be able to continue counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. Thus, in March 2015 the on-going conflict, which has claimed and continues to claim the lives of many innocents, was initiated.
Attempting to stabilize Yemen quickly turned into Yemeni’s worst nightmare. Violations of international humanitarian laws and human rights abuses by the Western backed coalition have been common results of the air strikes. All armed groups in the conflict have been accused of violations. Theoretically, the weapons used are said to avoid as much collateral damage as possible. However, the endless indiscriminate air raids that the Saudi-backed coalition has instigated has thus far demolished critical infrastructure, which prevents Yemenis from having access to basic necessities. As a result, 4 in 5 Yemenis—approximately 2.3 million people—need some form of humanitarian assistance and more than 5,700 Yemenis have died, In addition, more than a million people have been internally displaced. Current data concludes that the number of those displaced have reached a tipping point for Yemen with no clear end in sight.
On July 1st 2015, Yemen was declared a Level 3 emergency, the UN’s classification for the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crisis. In addition, the Saudi-led coalition wants to restrict the abilities of the rebels’ arms supply. This has led them to establish a blockage of imports, which has taken an immense toll on the import-dependent country, contributing to the lack of basic goods for Yemenis. The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer declared that, “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.”
These statistics are just a surface level attempt to describe the devastation Yemenis are enduring. Yet, there is little U.S. news coverage of what is happening in Yemen even though the U.S. is very involved in providing support to the Saudi-led coalition. I had the chance to speak with Yemeni-American Wafa Yafai about the current situation in Yemen in order to capture a clearer picture on how the situation is taking a toll on Yemenis themselves. Although Wafa resides in Chicago, she still has family members that live in Yemen and her husband runs a business in Yemen, which is directly impacted by the war. Wafa shed some light on how the war has affected her and her family and Yemenis as a whole; here is what she had to say:
Since the bombing campaign, who do Yemenis blame for the destruction that is happening around them?
The Yemeni’s see weapons made by America as the cause of much of the destruction around them. These are weapons that were being supplied for the fight against Al-Qaeda. However, since the U.S. didn’t retrieve them back, many forces used them for their fight. The Houthi’s use the weapons and the Pro-Saleh troops also use them, which all further vilifies the U.S. The people don’t have real facts, all they have is what they see in front of them and how the different groups are showing and using this as propaganda to gain supporters. With the all the confusion, the Yemeni citizens don’t know who to blame for their anguish, so then they view it as a matter of “us against the world.” They don’t have a face to put to the enemy and people now wonder why they should even help each other out.
How do the people of Yemen protect themselves from the frequent air strikes?
A lot of people are being displaced daily and those displaced are migrating to rural areas where they find shelter. The people help each other out. They have set up tents and live in a communal manner in order to survive.
What do you make of the Saudi versus Iran focus on the issue?
This is my issue with KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), Iran, and all of the Middle Eastern countries. They are so now involved with the issue, where were they from the get-go? They knew the country was going downhill. Why didn’t they prevent it? If they are so worried about their borders, why didn’t they help this country to develop, kick out the president and actually make better schooling, better military, better policing, better governmental foundation that will actually develop into a great country? They just sat there and watched it go down hill, basically explode, and are now pointing fingers at everyone else except themselves. This issue did not happen overnight. Look at Syria; all these people are out of their country, all scattered everywhere. Their houses and homes are destroyed. What is going to happen to Yemen? They are only following their footsteps.
Why are Yemenis abroad not speaking up?
They are afraid that if they get involved they are going to be targeted. My husband, for example, has been threatened and warned not to enter the country and he runs a business there. Those who are guilty, run free. So they don’t know who to trust anymore either. It has boiled down to a situation of “every man for himself.”
Wafa is one of many Yemenis whose lives have been disrupted by this tragic war. Being able to send money to family members in Yemen has become incredibly difficult and distrust in the community runs deep. In addition, there are no outside forces to rely on to change the situation at hand because every player in the game is invested for their own gain. There was a ceasefire briefly instated recently for the sake of peace talks between the Houthi’s and the Saudi-led coalition. However, as of December 18th the ceasefire was suspended due to violations from both sides with a promise of extended peace talks at a later time.
The public has not paid attention since the beginning of this war and now even with the brief attempt at instigating peace talks, attention from the world is even more rare. This civil war has been swept under the rug effectively, and cries of sorrow go unheard daily. The fact stands that with the schisms inside of Yemen and the Arab world in general, Yemen’s civil war is one of the most complex conflicts of our time centered on a struggle for regional supremacy. However, that does not excuse or permit the mass murder of innocent children, women and men that has been occurring in Yemen since the start of the conflict. Yemen’s war, in the truest sense of the term, is a forgotten war, headed towards a path of nothing but more destruction and grief unless aggressive pursuit for a solution is sought by all parties involved, including the U.S., and the rest of the world starts paying attention.