Yemen's forgotten war
The Saudi-led coalition has been waging an immensely expensive war for the last two yeas in the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. Yet the prospects for peace seem further away as ever. The Trump administration desperately needs to rethink America's Yemen policy.
Yemenis often have to walk several kilometres to reach water sources. Experts warn that Yemen could be the first modern country to run out of usable water. Photo: Almigdad Mojalli/VOA
On the brink of famine
Yemen has become one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world. The two year civil war, and the Saudi-led intervention, has left over 10,000 civilians dead, 40,000 wounded and 3.1 million internally displaced. More than 80% of the population rely on humanitarian aid. Over 50% are food insecure and nearly half a million children face severe malnutrition. The United Nations has recently warned that the country is on the brink of famine. Yet the conflict on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula remains largely unknown.
The country has been plagued by a long history of civil conflicts, armed insurgencies, foreign interventions and terrorist organisations. Similarly to other countries in the region, the 2011 Arab Spring brought about mass protests against widespread poverty, unemployment and corruption. President Saleh, who had ruled North Yemen and subsequently unified Yemen for 33 year, was forced to step down. As a sign of goodwill he appointed his Vice President Hadi as the new President, which was confirmed in a referendum-style election in 2012. Obviously there was no alternative on the ballot and Saleh had secured himself immunity from prosecution as part of the transition deal. Needless to say, this didn’t appease the protestors. One group in particular profited from this discontent: the Houthis, a coalition of Shia Zaydi tribes from northwestern Yemen who had staged an armed insurgency against the central government since 2004. They used the power vacuum to overrun the capital Sana’a in September 2014. Less than half a year later a military intervention was launched by a Saudi-led coalition of African and Middle Eastern countries, including military and intelligence support by the United States and Great Britain. In an ironic twist, the Houthis and former President Saleh, who still controls many former governmental forces, announced a formal alliance in 2016.
The coalition’s air strikes have not only targeted the country’s infrastructure but also thousands of schools, health facilities and agricultural fields. Because the main ports and airports have been destroyed and the coalition has imposed a naval blockade, most food imports now enter the country from Saudi Arabia. Food prices have increased dramatically since March 2015. The price of locally produced cereals has increased by 60% and those imported by 30% on average. Further, there have been numerous air strikes that have seemingly deliberately targeted places frequented almost exclusively by civilians, including MSF run hospitals, markets and funeral receptions. According to Amnesty International, coalition air strikes were responsible for over half of the civilian deaths.
This isn’t Syria
However, unlike the Syrian Civil War with Russia’s involvement, the West has been very quiet in criticising its most important Arab ally. Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, Saudi Arabia has become the largest arms importer in the world and the UK’s most important arms client. In 2015, the country increased its arms purchases by over 50% to US$ 9.3 billion. The British government has granted export licences for more than £3.3 billion of military arms and equipment to Saudi Arabia since the start of the intervention, making it the second largest supplier after the US. France, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, Canada and Germany follow them as the most important suppliers. Even though Germany, for example, has restricted itself to only supplying defensive arms goods, such as patrol boats and electrical fences for Saudi Arabia to secure its borders.
Western support has numerous reasons. One of them is to counter Saudi Arabia’s fear of a resurgent Iran due to the Nuclear Deal. The war in Yemen is often described as part of a larger struggle for regional dominance in the Middle East. Both Saudi Arabia and the United States claim that Iran is funding and controlling the Houthis in order to weaken Sunni states. The military intervention in Yemen is supposed to counter this alleged threat. While there is only little evidence that Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons, it is very unlikely that Tehran actually controls their actions. Zaydism, the predominant Shia sect in northwestern Yemen, has more in common with Yemeni Sunnis than Shia Islam practiced in Iran. Rather than labelling the conflict purely as a proxy war, the Houthis should be viewed as a movement seeking political and economic participation in Yemen. The transitional government had failed to implement credible reforms or increase living standards. In fact, unemployment has vastly increased since 2011 and, according to the Yemen Times, alone in the first two years since the revolution 57% of all businesses had to either close partially or completely.
Due to a combination of factors, other opposing parties were extremely weakened during the transitional period and failed to be taken seriously as a legitimate opposition to the government. Moreover, the Houthis profited immensely from the alliance with former President Saleh, which gave them further military and political support. Saleh, of course, is using the new found love to regain control over the country. The situation is further complicated by the Southern Movement, which demands independence for the oil-rich Sunni South, and the presence of al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS).
Religious devisions in Yemen (Map: ECFR)
The February 2017 front line (Map: ECFR)
Yet there is still no coherent Yemen policy
Donald Trump has made the fight against terrorism the top priority of his administration. Amongst many other statements, he has promised to “bomb the shit out of ‘em”. The first such attempt could be seen only 9 days after his inauguration when a special forces operation was carried out in Yemen against al-Qaeda. Even though the White House was eager to label it as a “successful operation by all standards”, one American 72 million dollar helicopter was destroyed, one Navy SEAL was killed, three were wounded and up to 25 civilians were killed, including 7 children. Even if the SEALS were able to obtain some useful information (despite many pundits claiming the opposite), the high civilian death toll is perfect propaganda for extremist groups and fits very well into their narrative of defending Muslims against the West. This could actually increase anti-U.S. sentiment and help al-Qaeda recruiting new fighters. Instead of assessing the risks and goals of the operation in a Situation Room, Trump approved the raid over a dinner conversation. He might have to rethink his “bomb the shit out of ‘em”, unless he is in fact interested in escalating the situation.
This highlights the immensely difficult situation that has resulted from the Saudi Arabian-led intervention. On the one hand, the US is supporting the coalition with intelligence, logistical support (such as refuelling coalition jets mid-air), weapons and assisting with the naval blockade. On the other hand, it is actively fighting against terrorist organisations in Yemen - with special forces on the ground and drone attacks. While this might not seem contradictory, it actually is very much so. The Sunni extremists, such as al-Qaeda or IS, are not Saudi Arabia’s top priority. According to SWP, a Berlin-based think tank, some local Hadi-aligned militias actually work together with al-Qaeda in southern Yemen. In May 2016, three Yemenis close to Hadi were put on a US terror list for their ties to the Sunni islamist group. Despite this, the Hadi government and the Houthis are the only credible enemies of terrorists in Yemen.
Ever since the civil war broke out in March 2015, terrorist organisations were able to thrive in Yemen. They profited hugely from the absence of state powers and the growing sectarian polarisation. Only an end to the civil war would enable an effective fight against the Islamist extremists. Yet the Trump administration seems reluctant to play any constructive role in resolving the conflict. The last two years have shown that the Saudi-led coalition has only contributed to the destabilisation of the region, which is obviously not in the interest of the West.
A resolution can only be found if all conflict parties are brought together, instead of only blaming the Houthis or viewing it as a proxy war. While the Iranian involvement might be relatively low at the moment, a further escalation of the civil war might only drive the Houthis further to Tehran and turn it into a real proxy war as well as deepening sectarian tensions. Furthermore, the humanitarian situation is also bound to further escalate, which will lead to an increase in Yemenis seeking refugee in Somalia and Djibouti and eventually also in the EU. Trump’s (and the entire West’s) priority should not be to “bomb the shit” out of terrorists but to resolve the conflict’s underlying causes. Berlin is currently hosting talks with the Yemeni conflict parties and the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismael Ould Sheikh Ahmed. Considering the failure of past peace efforts, it is not very likely that this meeting will lead to any substantial results. However, hoping for a diplomatic solution is definitely preferable to a policy of indirectly supporting Islamist extremists and further decreasing the chances of peace. Had Saudi Arabia only invested a fraction of its military spending on development, Yemen could have been a very different places. Or as @realdonaldtrump would say: “Tell Saudi Arabia and others that we want (demand!) free oil for the next ten years or we will not protect their private Boeing 747s.Pay up!”