One year on from the start of a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels, launched by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states, the air strikes continue as the increasingly complex war in Yemen shows little sign of ending. The impact on civilians has been huge: almost 6,000 have been killed, 2.5 million displaced from their homes, and almost 20 million people left without access to a regular food supply, safe drinking water or medical supplies. Whilst the world’s attention has been focussed on Syria, the destructive war in Yemen has left the country on the edge of ruin, and the population on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.
The conflict has its origins in September 2014, when Houthi rebels based in the north of the country, launched an offensive against the government and seized control of the capital, Sanaa. The country’s President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was initially placed under house arrest, before fleeing across the border to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In the following months, the rebels quickly took control over almost all of western Yemen, whilst government forces retreated to the east. In the midst of the chaos, jihadist militant groups such as Al-Qaeda were also able to exploit the power vacuum and gain a foothold.
The Houthis, who constitute a minority of Yemen’s population, allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from power during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Saleh remained a powerful force in Yemeni politics, retaining the loyalty of a large portion of the security forces.
The major Gulf power, Saudi Arabia, looked on with increasing concern and interest as the conflict unfolded across its southern border. In March 2015, the Saudi defence minister Prince Salman quickly assembled a coalition of Arab air forces, including the UAE and Bahrain, and began a campaign of air strikes against the rebels on 26th March. Initially, the alliance hoped that their overwhelming firepower would turn the tide of the conflict within a few months; yet 12 months later, little progress has been made and civilian casualties are mounting.
Over the past 12 months Saudi Arabia has been increasingly involved, training and equipping forces loyal to President Hadi in an attempt to confront the rebels on the ground. Law and order has collapsed, leaving the country in a state of chronic disintegration with no central authority. In the East, the conflict has gained a new layer of complexity as armed militias and violent jihadist groups have emerged to play a more prominent role.
There is now growing international opposition to the bombing campaign, with the EU Parliament recently voting to call for the imposition of an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. However, not all world powers share this view, as the US and the UK have continued to supply aircraft and weapons to their long-standing regional ally Saudi Arabia, including precision-guided missiles which have been used in the air campaign.
Whilst numerous human rights groups have argued that civilians represent the majority of casualties from air-strikes, the Arab coalition has said that its targets are chosen carefully, and continue to insist that they abide strictly to international rules on the conduct of war. Several previous attempts at peace talks in Switzerland have failed, but a new round of talks is due to be held in Kuwait in the coming weeks, initiating a renewed attempt to find a solution. However, as the war has become increasingly complex and more international actors have become involved, a peace deal any time soon is looking unlikely.
To understand the complexity of the conflict, it is important to look at the wider strategic context. The division between Sunni and Shia Muslims has long been a source of tension in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia (the most powerful Sunni state) sharing an intense and long-standing rivalry with Iran (the most powerful Shia state). The Houthi rebels in Yemen are also Shia, and are backed by Iran. In this context, the conflict in Yemen can be viewed as a sectarian, proxy war between the two regional rivals, with Saudi Arabia reluctant to allow one of its neighbours to be controlled by a Shia-led government, and determined to maintain its dominant influence in the Arabian Peninsula.
These tensions have flared up more visibly in recent years as the Middle East has entered a period of upheaval, and Iran has re-entered the international community after signing a nuclear deal with the West. As a result of these two factors, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has increased dramatically, with both states looking to increase their control and influence over the region, driven by a sense of paranoia and opportunity. In particular, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become more assertive and outward-looking since King Salman replaced King Abdullah in January 2015, revoking the country’s traditional diplomatic stance in favour of a more confrontational and active approach.
As this geopolitical game has extended its influence to Yemen over the last 18 months, it is civilians who suffer the worst consequences. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world before the conflict began, plagued by years of instability, poor governance and widespread poverty. Even prior to the conflict, 50% of Yemen’s population lived below the poverty line, whilst the youth unemployment rate was over 60%. Now, after 18 months of fighting, the humanitarian situation has ‘severely deteriorated’, according to the UN’s Human Rights Co-ordinator Johannes van der Klaauw. Since the conflict escalated in March last year, the UN estimates that 5,878 civilians have been killed and up to 30,000 wounded. The country’s infrastructure has been almost completely destroyed, and basic services have ground to a halt.
Both sides in the war have been accused of committing serious abuses, many of which amount to war crimes. Human rights groups have accused the Saudi-led coalition of using cluster bombs, and targeting homes, hospitals and factories. The Houthi rebels have also been accused of shelling residential areas and laying mines; whilst the UNHCR said in November last year, that it has verified more than 8000 reports of human rights violations since the conflict began.
Further exacerbating the effect on civilians, the Saudi-led coalition has imposed crippling import restrictions and a naval embargo on the country, resulting in severe food and fuel shortages. According to a UN report, 21 million out of Yemen’s 26 million population now require humanitarian aid, whilst 19.3 million are without access to safe drinking water, and 2 million people are ‘acutely malnourished’. In addition, 14 million people lack basic healthcare due to the destruction of hospitals and a lack of supplies, whilst 1.8 million children have been unable to go to school. An estimated 120,000 people have fled the country, whilst those that do remain in Yemen, live under the fear of constant bombardment from aerial attacks and ground fighting. Humanitarian organizations attempting to work in the country have been severely hampered by funding difficulties and access constraints.
As each month passes, the situation for civilians in Yemen is becoming increasingly desperate. A solution looks to be a distant prospect, as the conflict continues largely un-noticed by an outside world focused on recent developments in Syria and Europe. Obscured from view, the war in Yemen shows little sign of ending, leaving its cities in ruin and its citizens on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe.