Over the past three years, the civil war in Yemen has expanded internationally. Most recently, the Houthis have increased missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, and though Saudi air defenses have neutralized these launches, they propagate further escalation of the conflict in Yemen.
Understanding the war
During the Arab Spring, a political transition was negotiated in Yemen which sought to maintain stability, transferring power away from president Ali Abdullah Saleh to his vice-president Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Due to this change in leadership, the forces of unrest that had been brewing under Saleh’s long reign could no longer be contained. High levels of food insecurity, unemployment, and corruption all challenged the government’s support, even as the the separatist Houthi movement fought a decade-old insurgency championing the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority.
Previously, this insurgency was largely confined to the northern province of Saadah, but in 2014 an alliance of Houthis and pro-Saleh forces seized the capital of Sanaa and pushed South towards the second largest city of Aden. This prompted Saudi Arabia to form a coalition with several countries in the region to intervene, with allies either sending troops or carrying out airstrikes in Yemen.
While the coalition repelled the Houthis from South Yemen, extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) capitalized on the fighting and launched deadly attacks in Aden. These terrorist factions have blurred the lines between the warring sides. The conflict is among religious and tribal groups, which are primarily backed by Iran or by Saudi Arabia and its allies. But as AQAP and IS try to take advantage of the power vacuum, the situation becomes more complicated – especially in light of Qatari allegations that Saudi Arabia and the UAE back these groups.
As international players have pushed for negotiations, tenuous peace talks have punctuated the war. Saleh made peace overtures to the Saudis last year, but he was killed as he tried to flee Sanaa on December 4 2017.
A deepening crisis
With regional stability at stake in Yemen, the conflict has escalated with no clear end in sight. The Houthis have attempted to retaliate through missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, which have in turn led to further attacks by the Saudis. The most notable of these was the November 2017 attack when a Houthi missile, which Saudi media reported was neutralized by its defense system, hit King Khalid International Airport near Riyadh.
The Saudis perceived this attack as being orchestrated by Iran and decided to bolster its offensive against the Houthis by initiating a blockade on all Yemeni land crossings, seaports, and airports. While entry points under the control of the Saudi-aligned Yemeni government were quickly reopened, all others were closed for weeks. The Panel of Experts on Yemen mandated by the UN Security Council warned that implementing such a tactic is to use ‘the threat of starvation as an instrument of war.” Notably, Yemen has been 80 to 90% reliant on imported food, medicine, and fuel and all of its ports are key in order to meet the population’s needs.
While the blockade eased up after a few weeks, the needs of the Yemeni population have remained unmet. With aid and port reconstruction mostly in the hands of Saudi and its allies, the ports receiving attention are the ones under their control while imports are being further limited in others.
The civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict as both sides have exacerbated one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world today. Most of the Yemeni population is concentrated in the rebel-controlled areas in North Yemen and is vulnerable to coalition airstrikes. Thus, 22.2 million out of a population of 27.5 million in Yemen need humanitarian assistance. Of these people, 8 million are on the brink of famine and an estimated 1 million are affected by an outbreak of cholera. While the coalition has taken control of key entry points and either blocked or diverted imports such as fuel, the Houthi-aligned forces have also blocked food and medical supplies and restricted aid workers and delivery.
Repercussions of the conflict
With the three-year mark on Saudi intervention in Yemen being punctuated by an increase in attempted Houthi attacks on Saudi cities, the likelihood of a quick end to the conflict is low. The Saudi coalition has only made modest gains of territory, and talks to end the fighting are not going well. The Houthis have shown that they still possess the ability to threaten Riyadh, although the Saudi Patriot missile defense system intercepts almost all of the Houthi rockets. Riyadh views these attacks as acts of war orchestrated by Iran, which further pushes the Saudis to retaliate. Their conditions for peace in Yemen are victory along with the complete disarmament of Houthi rebels, a condition that is unacceptable to the latter.
Given both sides’ refusal to alter their demands, it is unlikely that a compromise can be reached soon. This does not bode well for the humanitarian catastrophe, especially given the heavy toll Saudi tactics have on Yemeni civilians. Amnesty International has documented 3 dozen airstrikes which have led to the death of 513 civilians. This is in addition to the monopolization of crucial entry points by the Saudi-led coalition. The Saudi government has staked its credibility on prevailing in Yemen but its demands are not acceptable for Houthi rebels who have managed to maintain control over a large chunk of the territories they have acquired. More serious blows to Saudi and its citizens may only be a matter of time as tensions increase, peace talks fail, and crisis prevails.
Myriam Maalouf holds an MPhil in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge.