Factions and outside groups struggle for control of country
Yemen is currently embroiled in a massive civil war that has proven to be one of the most violent and destructive of the current conflicts in the region. Saudi Arabian led airstrikes pound the country nearly every day, eviscerating factories, homes, businesses and public utilities.
Most of the populace is without food, water and other important services. While the country is being torn apart by outside forces, inside forces fight for control over the few resources and land that has not been blown to pieces by Saudi Arabian forces.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank devoted to international relations, most of the conflict began in the 1990s when North and South Yemen united behind the military dictator of the North, Abdullah Saleh. Before this, North Yemen was a nominal republic backed by Saudi Arabia and the U.S., while the South was a communist state backed by the Soviet Union. Once the U.S.S.R. imploded in 1990, North Yemen and South Yemen united.
However, in 1994, according to the CFR, the South rebelled against Saleh. Their revolution was squelched, and Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a former Southern Yemeni military commander who had been ousted in the mid-1980s by a civil war, was promoted to vice president.
The peace would not last: Enter the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia group based in Northern Yemen. Zaydi Islam is a branch of Shia Islam popular in Northern Yemen.
According to BBC News, Zaydi Shiites make up around a third of the population of Yemen. Originally started as a cultural revival group of the ancient Zaydi Islam in the 1980s, they slowly began to adopt more militant methods as Saleh’s oppression became unbearable and he removed their autonomy, enforcing his own Sunni beliefs on the group.
By 2004, BBC News wrote, the Houthis, named after their first military commander, Hussein Al-Houthi, rebelled against the central government in an attempt to protect their beliefs and customs and achieve greater autonomy, as well as fight against government oppression. The Houthis would continue to rebel another five times until 2010, when a ceasefire was signed, according to BBC News.
The current conflict began in January 2011. Shortly before, in late 2010, the first of the Arab Spring demonstrations shook the unpruned tree of repressive dictatorships in the Middle East. One by one, old American-backed leaders collapsed. Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Muammar Gaddafi — although definitely not an American ally — all fell to protests and mass uprisings.
Yemen was no different. Opposition parties, along with the Houthis, protested against Saleh’s corrupt dictatorship. According to the CFR, Saleh stepped down during 2011 amid international pressure and assurances against prosecution. The Gulf Cooperation Council, a collection of the numerous Arab Gulf states, created a timetable for transitionary measures and a National Dialogue Conference to discuss potential democratic changes in the Yemeni constitution.
However, Professor Stacey Philbrick Yadav, a Yemen expert at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, wrote in an email that Hadi, who took over for Saleh, did not handle this transition process well.
“He did a poor job implementing important aspects of the transitional framework that empowered him, and the number of crises in the country continued to escalate under his tenure,” she wrote.
The unrest against Hadi and the transitionary process reached its pinnacle in 2014 when the government cut fuel subsidies, extremely important in the incredibly poor Yemen, to satisfy International Monetary Fund demands. According to BBC News, due to wide scale price increases, resulting from the cutting of the subsidies, demonstrations erupted in Sana’a, the capitol. The United Nations tried to broker a peace deal between the various factions where a “transitional technocratic government” would take power, according to the CFR.
By January 2015, in response to continued clashes between the different factions of the government and the crises in creating a new constitution, the Houthis overtook the capital, dissolved the parliament and created a new government.
According to BBC News, after resigning in protest, Hadi and his allies fled to Saudi Arabia, which took up his cause and began large scale bombings of Yemen to unseat the Houthis with U.S. intelligence and weapons. Southern Sunni tribesmen have risen up in support of Hadi, according to BBC News while Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been using the vacuum of power to solidify their bases in the south.
Hadi will obviously be unable to return to power in Yemen peacefully. Yadav wrote “While the possibility of a Coalition military victory may exist, the Coalition’s approach to negotiations thus far suggest that it is not terribly interested in the kinds of political compromises that would enable President Hadi’s return to power.”
Hadi’s association with the deadly Saudi Arabian bombings have made him extremely unpopular, and will keep him from obtaining large-scale support back home. This sentiment is shared by Jason Freitag, a professor of Middle Eastern and Indian history at Ithaca College, who said he thinks Hadi will only come back to power with an enormous amount of force behind him.
The Houthis, on the other hand, have found themselves struggling to forge alliances nationally and internationally. The only ally the Houthis truly possess is Iran, and even that alliance is more a partnership of convenience than a true relationship, Freitag said.
This feeling is shared by Saudi documentarian Safa Al-Ahmad, who said in an interview with The Atlantic, “The Houthis are very much a local group that was born from local conflict inside Yemen … Predominantly the Houthis are very much a local group with local grievances.”
Considering Iran’s relative diplomatic isolation, especially in the Middle East, this marriage of convenience becomes even more difficult to utilize. Their unappealing nature to the international community can be seen in the Houthis’ motto: God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, God curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.
While this motto emerges more out of the anti-imperialistic nature that the Houthis proclaim as a key part of their theology –– Zaydi Shia Islam –– according to Al-Ahmed, it is still a deal breaker for Western support. The other major complication comes from the group’s coup against Hadi, who was seen as the legitimate leader by the international community.
Additionally, Hadi’s commitment to the American anti-terror program and Saudi Arabia’s strategic interests, similar to his predecessor has increased his usefulness to the coalition forces. Saleh still maintains loyal forces in the country despite his exile and expulsion, and those forces have allied with the Houthis against Hadi out of convenience.
As it remains now, Yemen is stuck between powerful factions that aren’t strong enough to regain control of the country. Saudi Arabia would never allow an Iranian ally to persist so close to its borders and sees the Houthis as terrorists, complicating any real peace talk the groups might have to end the conflict.
Hale Douthit is a sophomore Cinema and Photography major who won’t be visiting Yemen anytime soon. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.