Earlier this week, as reported by several news outlets, three Houthi “suicide boats” approached a Saudi frigate, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen’s Houthi rebels, west of Hudaya, Yemen. According to a statement by Saudi officials, one of the boats rammed the rear of the frigate and exploded, causing a fire, albeit later extinguished, as a result of the blast two crew members were killed and three others were injured.
The attack puts the spotlight on an often overlooked conflict in the region. With all eyes fixated on the campaign against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq where Iraqi forces with the help of a broader coalition have just liberated the eastern portion of Mosul, the conflict in Yemen is often overshadowed. So what is even going on in Yemen? Who is fighting who and why?
YEMEN A FAILED STATE
Yemen, located at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman, is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East and is what is commonly referred to as a failed state. The country has been in a bloody civil war since March of 2015 and according to the United Nations between the start of the conflict and the end of 2016, close to 7,500 people have been killed, more than 40,000 injured and as many as 3.1 million displaced. On top of that, the conflict has triggered a humanitarian disaster in the country leaving 80% of the population in need of aid, with 14 million people suffering from food insecurity and approximately 370,000 children under the age of five suffering the risk of starving to death.
Yemen is strategically important because it sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass.
THE WAR IN YEMEN – BACKGROUND AND INTERNAL PLAYERS
In late 2011, an uprising forced the country’s longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdulla Saleh, to hand over power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, his deputy. Hadi took over the government, however he was facing some major problems, including attacks by al-Qaeda, military distrust, continued loyalty of many officers to Saleh, corruption, unemployment and food insecurity. In a nutshell Hadi’s government was weak and a weak government mixed with a poor, unemployed and starving population as history has shown is a prime mixture for civil war.
In 2013, Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference came together to write a new constitution and to create a federal political system, however the Houthis, a Shia Muslim minority that had already fought a series of rebellions against the previous president Saleh, withdrew from the process because the conference intended to keep Hadi’s transitional government in place and to make matters worse, two Houthi representatives to the conference were assassinated.
Fast forward to 2014, the Houthis seized the opportunity of the transitional government’s weakness, rose up and took control of the northern heartland of Saada province and some of the neighboring areas. The Houthis advanced further and by September 2014 took control of the capital, Sanaa. By January 2015, the Houthis grip of Sanaa was solidified and they surrounded the presidential palace and other key points effectively placing Hadi and his government under house arrest. Shortly after Hadi escaped to the southern port city of Aden. The Houthis and security forces loyal to Saleh then attempted to take control of the entire country, forcing Hadi to flee the country in March 2015. Although, Hadi and his government have since returned to Aden from where they are organizing their fight against the Houthis.
Al-Qaeda, the Sunni Islamist group the West knows all too well, had a presence in Yemen since before the start of the conflict in 2015, commonly known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However since the conflicted erupted, al-Qaeda has used the power vacuum to advance its interests and launched several attacks on the Shia Houthi rebels, which al-Qaeda regards as infidels.
ISIL also has a presence in the country and in December of 2014 announced the formation of a state, in Yemen. In March 2015, it claimed its first attacks in the country, which were suicide bombings in mosques used by Zaydi Shia Muslims. Reportedly the attacks killed more than 140 people.
So in a nutshell one the one side we have forces loyal to the government of Hadi, which consist of soldiers loyal to Hadi and predominantly Sunni southern tribesmen and on the other side we have the predominantly Shia Houthi rebels supported by separatists and Saleh and his supporters. To make things more complicated as outline above jihadist militants from AQAP and ISIL have meanwhile taken advantage of the chaos by seizing territory of their own. While this covers all the internal players, with AQAP and ISIL arguably being somewhat external players, the list of external players even further complicating the situation in Yemen.
THE WAR IN YEMEN – EXTERNAL PLAYERS
Following the territorial gain of the Shia Houthis, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni countries (the Coalition) launched an air campaign aimed at restoring Hadi’s government. The Coalition consists of Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal. By now several of these countries have sent troops to fight on the ground in Yemen, while others have only carried out air strikes. The Coalition has received logistical and intelligence support from the United States (U.S.), United Kingdom and France.
The conflict between the Houthis and the elected government is seen as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.
So while Saudia Arabia and its Coalition support Hadi, it is believed that the Houthis on the other hand are backed militarily by Iran. Iran has denied arming the Houthis, but according to the U.S. military it intercepted arms shipments from Iran to Yemen. Iranian officials have also suggested they may send military advisers to support the Houthis.
As part of the borader U.S. campaigns against terrorists, the U.S. regularly launches air strikes on AQAP and ISIL targets in Yemen and has Special Forces on the ground fighting both groups.
Despite the Coalitions air campaign and naval blockade, pro-government forces have been unable to push the Houthis from their northern strongholds, including Sanaa. The Houthis have since mounted attacks inside neighboring Saudia Arabia to retaliate against the Coalitions military intervention.
To this day no side appears close to a decisive military victory and the conflict is likely to carry on for years to come giving organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL the perfect breeding ground as we have seen in Iraq and Syria.
– Stages of War