By Harron Young
Civil war, hundreds of airstrikes a day, multiple players, and religious divide, yes this is Syria, but it is also Yemen, a country where the outcomes are just as devastating. With much of the world’s attention on Syria and Iraq, the lack of media attention to one of the most unfortunate civil wars, or more so proxy war, has failed to bring the news of Yemen to our TV screens and newspapers.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 80% of the population requires some form of humanitarian protection or assistance, 48% of the humanitarian response is unmet, and 95% of the civilians, noncombatants, were killed from explosive weapons. Looking at the most basic issue in Yemen, we have a civil war with the North controlled by the Shi’a Houthi rebels, versus the Sunni majority in the South aligned with the internationally recognized government. Characterizing this as simply a Shi’a versus Sunni issue, or North versus South, barely scratches the surface in Yemen; within those sects of Islam, there is a deeper conflict including the Zaydis, a school of thought within Shi’a Islam, and Islah Islam, an opposition party that falls within Sunni Islam, this along with southern separatists, other militants, and religious extremist all involved in this conflict.
Backing these divided religious groups are Middle Eastern powerhouses such as Iran supporting the Houthis in the North, and a Saudi led coalition of Gulf Cooperation Council States (excluding Oman), further backed by the United States, in the South. As the Houthi rebel group represents a strong population of Shi’as in the North, they support the idea of a two-region state where they would dominate the North, and by January 2015, the Houthis demanded 50% of key ministerial position in the Yemeni government.
Further conflict ensued when Saudi Arabia saw these demands, and Yemeni President Hadi forced from his palace in Sana’a by Houthi rebels, as Iranian interference in the region. In March of 2015, Saudi Foreign Minister declared that Saudi Arabia would protect the region from aggression, with the only solution being reinstating the internationally recognized government, and eliminating all Houthi rebels from any government institution they occupy. Almost ten months later, and Yemen has turned into a miserable war zone in which the death toll, amount of displaced people, and those facing food and water insecurity has escalated at a much faster rate than the chaos witnessed in Syria.
Although the Houthis have loosely been supported by Iran, they are not operating under its control and have been an independent political group before the outbreak of this civil war. Iran’s intervention in Yemen has only been an attempt to seize more influence in the region. Since Yemen is close to impenetrable, it is difficult to quantify what role Iran is playing in Yemen, with its only support being a supply of weapons to the Houthis; this comes as no surprise as Iran has a history of helping Shi’a minorities in the region.
The GCC countries, specifically Saudi Arabia, have stated their reasoning for intervening in Yemen while also carrying out a hidden agenda. This coalition claims their actions are answering the official request of the legitimate government of Yemen, protecting the Yemeni people, and fighting al-Qaeda and Daesh in the region. The events of the past ten months disprove these claims; so far, the Saudi led coalition has done nothing to stop al-Qaeda in Yemen. The coalition has only hurt the civilian population in both the North and South from multiple airstrikes a day, and by establishing a blockade on the major ports in Yemen; this blockade has stopped the flow of food and resources in and out of the country. Although this blockade was done to protect the legitimate government from outside militias, this military tactic only cut off the civilian population from the rest of the world and vital resources needed for survival. Such ports are necessary as this country depends on imports for 70% of its fuel, 90% of its food, and 100% of its medicine, all now extremely limited in Yemen.
The number of casualties and injuries caused by explosive weapons in Yemen is the world’s highest, in which the all parties involved in this civil war are responsible for the unprecedented count of civilian suffering. In a September report done by the United Nations OCHA, when explosives are used, 86% of people killed are civilians and this number goes up to 95% in highly populated areas. Airstrikes were the single biggest danger to civilians in Yemen in the first seven months of 2015. Explosive weapons in Yemen have killed or injured more civilians this year than any other country in the world, including Syria. This is a blatant violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) by all parties involved in the conflict; through the principles of proportionality, distinction, and precaution, all parties to the conflict are obligated to limit the loss of civilian life.
With the lack of coverage on Yemen, first hand depiction of this state is provided by aid organizations on the ground, all of which have been struggling to provide civilians with the most basic level of support. Reports from Oxfam International, a major organization coordinating relief effort in Yemen, have announced shockingly high numbers; close to 20 million people have no food or water security, about 1.5 million people from Yemen are displaced with about 100,000 refugees in Somaliland or Djibouti, making Yemen one of the worst crisis in the world. Such destruction to the infrastructure and civilian population as a whole may be attributed to ground fighting and airstrikes. Indiscriminate bombings by both opposing parties have targeted all governorates in Yemen and have been happening 100 to 150 times a day for the past nine months. In total, this conflict has killed around 5,800 people since March, including 830 women and children, according to the UN. Not only is Yemen completely underfunded in terms of aid organizations being able to provide support to civilians, but the lack of media coverage on this war has failed to put a face to those suffering in this conflict.
The many states actively playing a role in this civil war have only perpetuated the situation, leaving unprotected civilians at the forefront of the destruction. If human rights violations and war crimes are not enough to bring this situation to the attention of the global community, then U.S. involvement in this war should also be noted. Although the United States does not have ground troops in Yemen, they have provided the Saudi led coalition with funding, weapons, and intelligence. A report done by the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy reported that the U.S. has $49 billion worth of new agreements of arms sales with Saudi Arabia, this along with $60 billion in weapons and intelligence last year. Second to Saudi Arabia in amount of weapons received by the U.S, is the United Arab Emirates, which received 1,600 guided bomb units that were explicitly used in Yemen. Although the National Security Council has called for the defense of the Saudi Arabian border and the Department of State has shared concern of aggressive actions by the Houthis, the helicopters, combat aircrafts, and missiles supplied by the U.S. to the Saudi led coalition have greatly contributed to the humanitarian catastrophe occurring in Yemen. In response to this, the National Security Council stated that, “the United States has no role in targeting decisions made by the coalition in Yemen.” Such actions have been addressed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who accused all parties involved in Yemen, including the U.S, as responsible for the harm civilians in Yemen are facing.
The Obama administration has received backlash from such actions as 13 members of Congress (led by Reps. Dingell, Ellison, and Lieu) sent a letter to President Obama calling on the administration to urge Saudi Arabia to better protect innocent lives. This letter appropriately stated that “when U.S. weapons and intelligence are utilized, the decision to conduct an airstrike should correspond to the standards that would apply to any U.S. military operation.” Regardless, the United States continues to support the actions of the Saudi led coalition in Yemen, when instead the U.S. should be pushing their allies towards peace talks and humanitarian relief efforts. The United States must also be concerned with extremists, such as al-Qaeda, that has already captured much of the southeast province Hadramawt, and now a have a strong hold in Yemen due to the instability in the state and lack of military focus on eliminating the terrorist group by the Saudi led coalition.
This conflict in Yemen has only been getting worse, and looking forward will drive Yemen further into state failure if a ceasefire and resolution are not met. Currently, Yemen is attempting a second round of peace talks taking place in Switzerland, as their first national dialogue failed in 2014. Such peace talks only consist of Yemeni nationals, the Hadi government, the Houthi rebels, and the general People’s Congress, with no foreign states involved. This is a major step in the right direction as a political solution that addresses reunifying the country and preventing further casualties is the only way to end the crisis. For the success of the peace talks, and ultimately relief to the Yemeni people, a ceasefire must be initiated and followed by the Saudi led coalition, something the U.S. should push their allies to do. If and when a political solution happens, what is equally if not more important is a plan for the day after. A “day after” plan must ensure the agreements of such peace talks are met and humanitarian and infrastructure assistance is provided. This plan must build up the civil society, as a stronger and unified Yemeni military and local police force is necessary to eliminate extremist in the region. As the country becomes safer from lack of constant airstrikes, aid organizations and the Yemeni government will have to work endlessly to rebuild demolished infrastructure such as homes, schools, and water and sanitation systems. A political solution and the plans following will not be easy, much closer to impossible if anything, but the well being and safety of the Yemeni people, along with global security, desperately depend on a ceasefire and unified government in Yemen.