Yemen: The forgotten war

Yemen: The forgotten war

Despite being a catalyst for the growth of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as for a growing anti-western sentiment in the region, the Yemen conflict has lacked media coverage. At the heart of the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the conflict is now a year old and at its worst.

In 2014, the Shia Houthi, Iran-backed rebels from North Yemen, overthrew the newly elected President of Yemen Mr Hadi. A year ago, Saudi Arabia decided to use this conflict to weaken the influence of Iran in the region and launched its air strike campaign against the Houthis, through a Saudi-led and US-backed military coalition of Arab countries.

This started a conflict in which about 6,000 people were killed and 2.4million were displaced. Combat operations have left 80 percent of the country in a humanitarian crisis. The conflict is still ongoing.

No victory for either the Saudis or the Houthis

The official goal of the Saudi Arabia’s military intervention was to restore the overthrown President Hadi and to push the Houthi rebels out of the capital.

A year later, none of these goals have been achieved.

The rebels have been ousted from the south of Yemen but still remain well established in Sana’a, in the north. The exiled president’s brief return to Aden in September was more a symbolic short-lived victory for the Saudi coalition than a significant turn of events.

While a Saudi victory can’t be announced, the Houthis are not winning either. Much of their military gear has been destroyed by the Saudi coalition. The Iran-backed rebels are still fighting back the Saudi airstrikes, which have caused many deaths.

The real winner in the Yemen conflict is Al Qaeda

The real winner of the Yemen conflict is the AQAP, the Yemen branch of Al Qaeda.

The Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula group has taken advantage of Yemen’s chaotic conflict that has left the country in a state of lawlessness. The terrorist group thrives in the power vacuum that the conflict has created in Yemen. Atrocities committed by both sides have made it easy for AQAP to win other tribal leaders and religious organisations to its cause.

The Saudi air strikes have mostly impacted civilian targets. Over 1600 Yemeni civilians were killed by the Saudi bombings over the past year. The conflict has also created a substantial famine crisis. Schools, hospitals, electricity and water supplies have been destroyed. The conflict has caused an environment of massive poverty paired with a lack of a state.

This new environment is similar to the one Yemen experienced before the 1962 revolution, a time where it had radicals in control and high levels of extremism. Today, AQAP is taking advantage of this context, telling the people of Yemen that they are the only ones representing their local interests.

In this way, AQAP has managed to form alliances with religious institutions and local tribes to rule several cities in the south. Mukalla was the first city in Yemen to be taken over by Al Qaeda. Recently, the strategic city of Aden was overtaken by AQAP.

In the midst of the chaos of the multi-sided war, where many interests are competing against each other, no one is concerned in reacting to AQAP’s advances.

In this extremist groups-friendly context, ISIS has also managed to establish a foothold in the country.

A proxy war based on the regional power struggle

The conflict in Yemen is another proxy in the geopolitical rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi military intervention in the Yemen conflict was not inevitable self-defence forced by Houthi expansion inside Saudi Arabia, threatening the Saudi national security.

However, it served to display an aggressive Saudi regional foreign policy. Through its military intervention, Saudi Arabia is attempting to increase its influence in the region and impose itself as a regional leader.

The Saudis took action against the Iran backed Houthis because out of fear that Iran was gaining influence in the region. The fact that other regional leader and rival Iran is backing the Houthis underlines the power struggle between the two rivals of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is convinced that the Houthis are backwards Iranian puppets.

The conflict has exacerbated the tensions between the two regional powers. If the Yemen conflict has intensified the violence and tension between Sunni and Shia in the region, it needs to be pointed out that this conflict isn’t about religion. It’s about the Iran-Saudi cold war.

The Shia/Sunni division makes the conflict look like a religious one; however, it is an entirely political and geopolitical conflict. Saudi Arabia and Iran exploit the Shia/Sunni division in this conflict, like they do in Syria.

What does the new ceasefire mean?

The parties of the Yemen conflict have agreed to begin a cease-fire on April 10 and to start peace negotiations the week later. To show good faith, a prisoner exchange involving nine Saudis and 109 Yemenis was organised in March.

There are several reasons to be sceptical about the outcomes of this ceasefire.

In the past, ceasefires announced by the Saudi-led coalition have been short-lived and peace talks have resulted in failure.  Therefore if history repeats itself, this ceasefire does not mean an end to the conflict.

In addition, the timing of the announcement of this ceasefire leads to think it could be a humanitarian hull more than a sincere truce. Indeed, it came just after the severe condemnation of Saudi’s recent strike by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Saudi-led airstrikes have been labelled as war crimes.

The ceasefire seems a convenient way to appease the embarrassment of the bad press. Accusations of war crimes is very serious for a US, Britain, and France-backed coalition. A ceasefire was necessary to calm the critics, especially those pointing at the West.

If one can’t look at this ceasefire as a potential end to the conflict, one can say it is the start of a long road to recovery. What is certain is that no matter the outcome of this ceasefire, there is an undeniable amount of work that needs to be done to solve the conflict and repair harm made to Yemen.

The humanitarian crisis Yemen is experiencing can only be solved if the West decides to stop looking away. A more continuous and vigorous media coverage of the conflict could help foster peace and encourage ceasefires and human rights to be respected in Yemen.

About Author

Assia Sabi

Assia Sabi has previously worked in strategic foresight for several organisations related to the Middle Eastern economic and business environment, such as the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and MEC International Ltd. She holds a double degree with a BA in Politics and International Relations from University of Kent and Sciences Po Lille, a master degree from Sciences Po Lille and has just completed an Msc in International Management for the MENA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).