Making sense of the Yemen War

A Yemeni man gestures at the site of an air strike in the capital Sanaa, on November 5, 2017. Yemen's rebel-held capital was struck by overnight air raids that continued well into the next day, targeting the defence ministry and a popular public square, an official said. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images)
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In May 2012, I stood atop an ancient mudbrick skyscraper in Sana’a welcoming the cool breeze blowing through the suffocating black robes that veiled me head to toe. As I gazed down on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of a city and country rocked by revolution, I was struck by how the past was everywhere. It assailed every sense, from the panoramic sight of geometrically painted architecture; the persistent sound of wailing mosques and excited traders; the pervasive smell of perfumes, spices, animals and toil; through to the powerful sense of explosive politics. Three years later, bombs would rain down in a war destroying much of this historical heritage.

The past is essential for contextualizing the conflicts and power struggles that shape Yemen in the twenty-first century. Yemen has long been plagued by conflict, sometimes simmering, sometimes erupting into all-out war. Contemporary unrest, which spiralled into war in 2015, is neither a recent phenomenon nor can it be viewed as a single conflict. Rather it is the product of numerous local, regional and international agendas, many of which are rooted in Yemen’s history, both recent and further back.

The conflict has left 10 million Yemenis close to starvation, 24 million (80 per cent of the population) in need of humanitarian assistance, and spawned the greatest cholera epidemic in recent history. It has sucked in major regional and international players, most prominently Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but also western powers, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France, both as arms dealers and auxiliaries.

This essay begins with an overview of Yemen’s modern history as a tool for understanding the origins of today’s conflicts. It next looks at how Yemen’s ‘Arab Spring’ ended in disappointment, with the much-lauded UN-led National Dialogue essentially a failure. It then explains how an insurgency known as the Houthis in Yemen’s north – at once political, religious and tribal – was able to overrun much of the country and take over the reins of government in 2014, precipitating the current war. Finally, it examines to what extent the war can be considered sectarian or proxy. By way of conclusion, it looks ahead to future challenges and the prospects for peace.

The analysis presented is distilled from a decade of research, mainly working with primary Arabic sources, including official statements, private conversations, speeches, sermons and poems of militant groups and assorted tribes, as well as interaction with government bodies, and significant time spent on the ground in Yemen, both in the run up to and during the current war.

In the centuries preceding the creation of Yemen as a single unified country in 1990, it was a loose collection of territories comprising a mosaic of different sheikhdoms, emirates, sultanates and, in the northwest, an imamate that at times expanded into the south and east. Yemen was technically part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918, although Ottoman control over this mass of disparate rulers scattered across distant and difficult terrain was in practice weak.

In 1839, the British quickly seized and then developed the southern port of Aden, turning it into a trading colony. Particularly after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the British struck alliances with the various sultans, sheikhs, and emirs who controlled Aden’s tribal hinterlands and also extended British influence further east toward Oman. As a result, large areas of Yemen’s south and east became British protectorates. Meanwhile the northwest of the country continued to be ruled separately as an imamate, as it had been to a greater or lesser extent since the late ninth century. This north-south divide was always problematic and continues to be Yemen’s main conflict fault-line. The north never fully accepted the dividing line that the Ottomans and British drew in 1904.

In the 1960s, profound changes took place as nationalist sentiment, deep-seated grievances, and power struggles surfaced in both the north and the south. In the north, the Imamate was toppled in 1962 and the Yemen Arab Republic was proclaimed in its place. Regional powers became embroiled in the ensuing civil war, with thousands of Egyptian troops arriving in Yemen to shore up the new republic in line with the pan-Arab nationalism of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Saudi Arabia and Jordan – with covert help from the British – sought to reinstate the Imamate.

Civil war raged, and Egypt did not withdraw its troops from Yemen until 1967 under pressure from its defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War. By 1968, Saudi Arabia agreed to recognize the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and a governing council formed in Sana’a. Egypt’s intervention in Yemen had proven costly in both men and money. In fact, this memory may have contributed toward Egypt’s decision not to send troops to support the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in 2015.

Meanwhile in the south, Britain attempted to safeguard its interests in the face of growing turbulence by constituting the Federation of South Arabia in 1959. Yet nationalist sentiments, which the Egyptians had taken the opportunity to stir up in the south, evolved into a violent wave of independence movements that saw the British pull out of Yemen entirely in 1967. The National Liberation Front swept to power and formed the People’s Republic of South Yemen that same year.

In 1970, South Yemen became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and boasted the Arab world’s first and only Marxist regime. It is important to note that not all southern regions were willingly incorporated into this new state. With British protection no longer available, however, dissent was crushed. Many southerners fled to neighbouring Gulf countries. Hundreds of thousands more relocated to Yemen’s north in a move that would exacerbate north-south tensions in coming decades.

Years of political turbulence followed. Border clashes between north and south erupted several times in the 1970s, most seriously with a two-month war in 1979. The north succeeded in consolidating its power into a command council dominated by the army via a military coup in 1974. Following the assassination of two chairs of the council in quick succession, Ali Abdullah Saleh took over in 1978. He remained in power for more than three decades, relying heavily on nepotistic military appointments and tribal influence through broad patronage networks.

During the 1980s, Saleh further consolidated his power in the north, while the socialist south was riddled by political factionalism, erupting into armed conflict known as the South Yemen Civil War in 1986. With the south’s economy in ruins and Soviet support melting away as the Soviet Union disintegrated, the south finally united with the north in 1990. Saleh became president of the United Republic of Yemen. Significantly, however, the northern and southern militaries were never merged; within four years, in 1994, they were already at war as disputes over the allocation of power and resources boiled over.

The 1994 civil war between the pro-union northern armies and the socialist separatist south ended with a victor’s peace for the north. Although it lasted only two months, the fallout still resonates today. It was during the 1994 war that Saleh mobilized jihadis to help him fight the “infidel” socialists in the south. Osama bin Laden gave Yemeni members of al-Qa’ida leave to rush home to join the war and Yemen’s jihad problem has persisted ever since.

It was also out of the former southern military personnel, who were dismissed and denied their pensions after the 1994 civil war, that the southern secessionist movement emerged in 2007. The secessionists quickly attracted broad support among a population riddled with grievances that it blamed on the north, ranging from land grabs to theft of resources. These same grievances boiled up again in August 2019 as newly-recruited southern forces, funded and trained by the UAE, came to blows with Yemeni government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia. Thus this persistent historical fault-line is now pitting Saudi Arabia against UAE and distracting both from the war against the Iran-backed Houthis.

Yemen’s Arab Spring, which erupted in 2011, was not simply an opportunistic outpouring of discontent inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Instead, it was the culmination of serious tensions that had been simmering for years. Popular grievances included economic underdevelopment, corruption, nepotism, unequal patronage, political marginalisation, collaboration with the controversial US drone programme, and an unpopular succession plan by which Saleh would transfer power to his son, Ahmad.

When Yemeni security forces fired on protestors, killing dozens on 18 March 2011, Saleh’s regime broke into factions and the Yemeni army fractured. Powerful figures such as General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar deserted Saleh. Half a decade later, in 2016, al-Ahmar would become vice president and commander of the armed forces fighting against Saleh. Al-Ah-mar’s family ties to al-Qa’ida and good relations with the Islah Party (Yemen’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood) would also put the Saudi-backed Yemeni government on a collision course with its coalition ally, UAE. These differences would resurface in 2019 when UAE-backed southern separatists, supported by UAE air power, clashed with Saudi-backed government forces. They attempted to sell this unsanctioned use of force as ‘counter-terrorism’ owing to the government’s links with Islah.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Gulf Cooperation Council arranged for President Saleh to be replaced, and he reluctantly stepped down in 2012. Yet there were significant flaws in this transition plan. First, the new president was Saleh’s deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was the sole candidate permitted to stand in the February 2012 elections. Second, Saleh remained head of the ruling party and was granted immunity from prosecution, thus remaining free to pursue spoiler activities. Crucially, Saleh retained strong influence over the military since Hadi’s attempts at military reform were largely cosmetic. This was key in enabling the Houthis to sweep to power in 2014. As Yemen proceeded to unravel and the Houthis took over Sana’a and began to march south, Saudi Arabia intervened, leading an alliance of nine Sunni Arab states to restore Yemen’s flailing President Hadi in March 2015, contain the perceived influence of Iran and prevent Yemen from fragmenting.

The Houthis are a conglomeration of various political and tribal groupings from Yemen’s north named after their former leader Hussein al-Houthi. They are predominantly Zaydi, a branch of Shi’ite Islam but one that is markedly different from the ‘Twelver Shi’ism’ of Iran and closer in practice to Sunni Islam.

Zaydis comprise over one third of Yemen’s population of 28 million. Although the Houthis are primarily a political rather than religious grouping, religious conviction played an important role in the formation of Houthi identity politics. The Houthi political arm, for example, is known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God).

The Houthis’ mobilization began in the late 1980s as a revivalist campaign seeking to win cultural recognition for Zaydis and to end their economic and political marginalization, while pushing back against the influence activities of Saudi-backed Wahhabis and local Salafis. This quest led to six rounds of war between the Houthis and the Yemeni government from 2004–2010, in the last of which Saudi Arabia also intervened against the Houthis directly.

The initial Yemeni military response of mass arrests and collective punishment of the Zaydi population simply served to exacerbate the conflict. Previously neutral tribesmen joined the Houthi cause. There is some evidence that Saleh may have intentionally helped foment the Houthi insurgency and used the Republican Guard under his son Ahmad Ali Saleh to support them. This would have been designed to weaken and discredit General Ali Mushin al-Ahmar, who had been tasked with putting down the insurgency and who presented a possible future presidential rival to Saleh’s son.

The Houthis largely laid down their weapons to join the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and attend the subsequent National Dialogue Conference of 2013–14. The UN-sponsored Dialogue was designed to set the country on a new and peaceful democratic track. Its 565 delegates, however, had been picked hurriedly and were less representative in practice than in the theory laid out on the Dialogue’s website.

Even more crucially, the Dialogue neglected to tackle the most difficult and pressing issue of how the new Yemen would be shaped politically and geographically, with the implications this would have for access to power and resources. While Western governments lauded the Dialogue, the Houthis, already sceptical of the transition process led by the southern-born President Hadi, were forced to endure the extension of Hadi’s two-year term beyond 2014 to allow time to resolve core issues and produce a constitution.

Amassing in the capital in September 2014, the Houthis took over key buildings and instructed Hadi to appoint a cabinet. In January 2015, a federal plan was drawn up that left the Houthis without access to a seaport or oil. In response, the Houthis abducted Hadi’s chief of staff and placed Hadi under house arrest.

The trigger for the Houthi takeover was thus domestic, related to resources and power, rather than ideological or externally driven by Iran. At this point, with international embassies closing and the UN envoy powerless, the Houthis continued their march south to Aden. Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia in March 2015 and requested Saudi military intervention to restore his government.

In practical terms, the Houthis’ military alliance with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh bolstered their lightening advances. Saleh retained the loyalty of many of the better trained and equipped factions of the Yemeni military, including the Republican Guard. This gave the Houthis access to both military hardware and well trained personnel. Some weapons systems from the Saudi arsenal may also have fallen into Houthi hands, possibly via battlefield capture from supplies given by Saudi Arabia to the official Yemen military.

There is also some evidence to suggest that Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, provided military advisers to the Houthis, but this was probably not as significant as the various parties to the conflict claimed.

While there is clear evidence of Iran supplying limited amounts of mainly small weapons and advisors to the Houthis, tangible evidence for Iranian military assistance in the form of heavy weapons in the early stages of the war is scant. The alliance that the Houthis forged with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was far more pivotal to Houthi success than Iranian assistance. With or without Iran’s involvement, the underlying structure of the conflict and Houthi grievances would probably have been the same.

It is tempting to see Yemen as a battleground for both a sectarian and proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran. In 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of nine Sunni Arab states to defend the internationally recognized Yemeni government against the Houthi insurgents that had swept to power.

The Houthis can be considered part of a broad pro-Iran constellation in the Middle East, which also comprises Lebanese Hezbollah, significant elements of the Iraqi government, and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Yet a shared hatred of the United States and Israel, together with an admiration among some Houthis for Shi’ite leaders, does not translate into the Houthis simply being an Iranian proxy. During the six rounds of war that the Houthis fought with the Yemen government between 2004–10, there is little evidence to back up the latter’s claims that the Houthis were significantly assisted by Iran.

It is likely that the Houthis have a pragmatic attitude toward Iran, rather than an ideological alignment. They are willing to accept help as long as it suits them. This notion of Houthi pragmatism is also borne out by their improbable alliance in 2014 with Saleh, previously their arch-enemy who led six wars against them over the preceding decade. The Houthis then turned on him again, killing him in 2017 as he was about to defect.

From Iran’s standpoint, its own interests are served by playing up its role in Yemen for several reasons related to regional power politics, but it is critical to distinguish between Iran’s rhetoric and its actions. Iran did not need to supply much to the Houthis in the way of expensive weapons and advisors to achieve its goals. It simply needed to create the perception of this to worry international audiences, please domestic hardliners, increase Iran’s standing as a key regional stakeholder, and antagonise Saudi Arabia. Goading Saudi Arabia into an expensive, complex, unpopular, and potentially unwinnable war has brought several advantages for Iran. It has damaged Saudi Arabia financially and reputationally, and redirected Riyadh’s attention away from Syria where it opposes the Assad regime which Iran supports.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that Iran’s military reach in Yemen has increased as the war has dragged on. The UN panel of experts on Yemen concluded in January 2017 that it had ‘not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms from the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’. A year later, the UN panel concluded that there were strong indications that the Houthis had received sophisticated new weaponry originating in Iran. In other words, the Saudi goal of reducing Iranian influence has backfired.

Iran is not the only one to benefit from emphasising its role in Yemen. The Yemeni government has long attempted to cast the Houthis in the role of Iranian proxy, trained, armed and ideologically influenced by Iran. This has encouraged greater military support and funding from Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf allies.

It is important to note that the Houthi insurgency was neither the product of Islamic sectarianism nor a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is not a naturally sectarian country and the two main ‘sides’ in the war that erupted in 2015 do not divide neatly along sectarian lines. Not all Zaydis support the Houthis, and the Houthi forces also include Sunni fighters aligned with former President Saleh. The Houthis’ stated goal as they first swept south in 2014 was to stand against corrupt and ineffective government. In the face of massive hikes in the fuel price, power cuts and widespread government corruption, many Yemenis who were neither Houthi nor Zaydi supported the Houthis in this ambition.

Conversely, most of those fighting against the Houthis did not do so for sectarian religious reasons, with the obvious exception of militant jihad groups such al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State in Yemen. Nor were the Yemeni opponents of the Houthis — whether military, tribal or southern separatist — necessarily fighting out of loyalty to the internationally recognized government of President Hadi. Like the Houthis, their motivation was local and related to the control of power, territory, and resources, or, in some cases, simply a salary.

In conclusion, the Yemen war essentially grew out of domestic political, cultural and tribal disputes stretching back through history. The rise of the Houthis’ political arm, Ansar Allah, over the past decade and the growing regional influence of Iran have been concomitant rather than inextricably linked. The Houthi alliance with Iran sprang more from necessity than ideological alignment. However, the longer the war has dragged on, the more vulnerable the Houthis have become to Iranian influence. It may still turn into a long drawn out international sectarian conflict.

As is often the case in the Middle East, the war has neither followed logic nor delivered the short sharp shock that was originally envisaged to restore stability. Since launching its bombing campaign in 2015, Saudi Arabia has failed in all three war aims: to contain Iran, restore the Hadi government and prevent Yemen from fragmenting. Meanwhile, the Iranian government has positioned itself as a peace-seeking non-combatant, while framing Saudi Arabia as an aggressive war-monger responsible for a humanitarian disaster.

Sweden’s attempts to broker a peace deal have thus far yielded little beyond an imperfect ceasefire around the port city of Hudaydah involving only the main two warring groups (the Houthis and the Yemeni government). Even if this holds and is eventually rolled out to other front lines, translating it into peace on the ground will become increasingly difficult.

This is because Yemen looks to be in the process of fragmenting. The north-south divide remains as potent now as at any time in Yemen’s mod-ern history. In 2017, the UAE backed the formation of a political body known as the Southern Transition Council in Aden, the capital of the former South Yemen, with aspirations for the south to secede. The UAE also recruited and trained thousands of local forces across the south who are largely loyal to the secessionists. These ‘south’ and ‘north’ forces have clashed several times, most seriously in 2019, despite being nominally on the same side in the current war. Although the Riyadh Agreement of October 2019 aims to integrate these forces into the formal Yemeni military, which holds firm to the concept of a united Yemen, this is likely to remain a cosmetic fix. It will not change the deep-seated loyalties of southern forces. Further complicating factors are the presence of significant factions inside the south who support secession but reject the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, or who oppose the notion of secession altogether, as well as regional independence movements in the eastern governorates of Hadramawt and al-Mahra. There is therefore strong potential for new conflict fronts to open up or, put simply, for new wars to flare up within the current war.

Meanwhile, peace consultations lumber on with the half-hearted participation of the main actors. But whether or not a broad deal is struck, the future looks bleak and the chances of Yemen fragmenting are high. If a peace deal is reached, it will leave multiple fractures throughout society. Many of those trying to survive in economically wrecked communities, disillusioned, with their deep-seated grievances unaddressed, have both weapons and battlefield experience. Perversely therefore, it may be that the risks of conflict contagion, and with it a resurgence of militant jihad, actually increase after a peace deal is finally brokered. Both al-Qa’ida and Islamic State remain active in Yemen, despite having been severely degraded since 2017 by relentless drone strikes, special forces operations, and their own internecine fighting. Experience suggests that extremists will co-opt local anger and re-frame it within broader narratives of global jihad.

Worse still, if a peace deal is not reached, all the key ingredients are present for Yemen to become a failed state: the proliferation of armed militias attached to old north-south fault-lines, foreign proxies building resentment through human rights violations, growing sectarianism, the perilous exploitation of extremist groups by state actors to further (and provide cover for) their own political agendas, an entire generation of dispossessed youth that has known only war, a catastrophic cholera epidemic, over two million children out of school, a looming water crisis, millions displaced, and millions more starving. Yemen could be at risk of complete implosion.

Making sense of the Yemen War by Elisabeth Kendall was first published in Past and Present, 2020, Axess Publishing

Elisabeth Kendall

Elisabeth Kendall is Senior Research Fellow in Arabic at Pembroke College, Oxford. She is the co-author of Twenty-First Century Jihad: Law, Society and Military Action.

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