Yemen facing humanitarian crisis as war takes devastating toll on civilians

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.

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Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, has been under the control of Houthi rebel forces since September 2014 (Image Source: Ferdinand Reus)

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.

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A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has been conducting air strikes against Houthi rebels since March 2015 (Image Source: Ibrahem Qasim)

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.

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Four years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya descends further into chaos

Whilst media attention throughout 2015 has been focused on the Syrian War and the Refugee Crisis in Europe, another complex conflict has been unfolding largely un-noticed, just across the Mediterranean. When the brutal regime of Colonel Gaddafi fell in 2011, Libya was at the centre of international news headlines. Four years later however, the growing instability in the country has become a side-show to these ‘main events’.

After the gruesome death of Gaddafi at the hands of rebels in Sirte, the initial outlook for Libya was overwhelmingly positive. It was viewed in the West as a country ‘freed from authoritarianism and tyranny’, with the opportunity to rebuild itself as a modern democratic state. After the Arab Spring protests spread to Libya in March 2011, a NATO bombing campaign was remarkably successful in aiding the rebels in removing the remnants of the previous regime, leading to the capital Tripoli being captured in August, followed by the death of Libya’s former strongman two months later. These events were accompanied by scenes of celebration and a mood of optimism, as the western-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) took power and a period of relative stability ensued.

However, it did not last long. Four years later, Libya is a ‘failed state’ plagued by militias. With no effective government, authority or state structures, Libya is a dangerously divided and fractured society on the brink of returning to full-scale civil war.

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The Libyan Civil War broke out after the ‘Arab Spring’ protests spread across North Africa in early 2011 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Libya currently has two competing governments. Firstly, there is the General National Congress (GNC) based in Tripoli, backed by the Libyan Dawn network of Islamist-inspired militia groups. Secondly, the rival western-backed government is effectively exiled in the Eastern city of Tobruk. Known as the ‘House of Representatives’ (HoR), it is internationally-recognized as Libya’s legitimate government and is more secular in nature. However, to view the situation in Libya through the paradigm of ‘two opposed governments’, would be a dramatic simplification of the reality. Libya is a country deeply divided along regional and tribal fault-lines, with a strongly disaffected population and growing risk of civil war.

These divisions can be seen most clearly through analysing the sheer number and diversity of armed groups currently operating in Libya. Irrespective of the protracted political crisis, it is these armed militias which dominate the day-to-day situation on the ground in the absence of any real authority.  Islamist militias such as the Libyan Dawn network are generally supportive of the GNC. However in reality, it is a broad coalition of various armed units and factions, with competing aims and desires. Alongside Libyan Dawn, many jihadist groups are present: including Islamic State (IS), Ansar al-Shariah and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. On the other side of this blurred divide are groups generally supportive of the Tobruk government, such as the armed forces and allied units led by General Khalifah Haftar, and powerful non-Islamist militias including Al-Zintan.

To add to the already-dangerous situation, Islamic State has begun to gain a foothold in Gaddafi’s former home town of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast. IS has been able to take advantage of the power vacuum, recruiting locals alongside foreign fighters from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. Whilst the country’s political leaders have been pre-occupied with the dispute between the two rival governments, IS has gradually introduced its extreme form of Islamic law in areas under its control, conducted massacres including the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in February 2015, and has threatened to exploit the exodus of migrants across the Mediterranean to smuggle fighters into Europe.

The contrast between the West’s enthusiasm to intervene in 2011, and their reluctance to discuss the situation in Libya over the last four years, has been considerable. A 2015 Report by Human Rights Watch draws attention to the recent escalation of conflict, which has caused widespread destruction of property, civilian deaths and injuries. An estimated 400,000 people are now internally displaced, whilst many foreign embassies and the NGO’s have evacuated their staff from the country. The Libya Body Count website has reported a total of 4,340 violent conflict-related deaths in Libya since January 2014; however in reality the total is likely to be far higher.

The continuing instability has created the perfect conditions for conflict to flourish. The lack of border security has resulted in the increased trafficking of humans and weapons, whilst the judicial system has broken down as militias frequently have attacked judges, prosecutors, lawyers and witnesses. The longer the current political impasse continues, the greater potential there is for the situation to deteriorate; and with the recent rejection of a UN-backed peace deal, there is little sign of progress.

Given Libya’s increasingly complex and volatile internal situation, characterized by division, violence and lawlessness; there is clear potential for the country to become ‘another Syria’.

However, to understand the current situation more fully, we must move beyond simply looking at these internal developments. We must also ask critical questions of western policy, exploring its weaknesses and exposing its contradictions. For example, the West was happy to help remove a human-rights abusing dictator in Libya; whilst at the time maintaining strong alliances with numerous other human-rights abusing, totalitarian dictatorships across the region. This raises questions about the ‘real’ aims of regime change, and exposes the selectivity and hypocrisy of western interventions.

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After leading Libya for more than 40 years – since 1969 – Colonel Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebels in Sirte, in October 2011 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

So after the initial optimism that followed the removal of Gaddafi, what can we learn from the disintegration of Libya? Firstly, it is clear that the problem of ‘complex civil war’ also exists outside the borders of Syria. Whilst the media and western governments primarily focus on the Syrian conflict, the considerable worsening of the situation in Libya has been largely ignored. Secondly, the conflict in Libya must be understood within the wider context of the growth of Islamist militancy in unstable regions. Alongside the proliferation of IS in Syria, Iraq and now Libya, other extremist Islamist groups are on the rise: such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The motivations of these groups are closely linked; therefore there is a need for western governments and the mainstream media to shift the focus from primarily being on IS in Syria, and instead pay more attention to the wider context and ideological linkages between conflicts.

Finally, Libya is an example of the dangers of western intervention. Four years after the removal of Gaddafi, the original aims of the Arab Spring protestors and well-intentioned western leaders, lie in tatters. Optimistic demands for civil, political and economic rights have disappeared into a power vacuum characterized by growing divisions, sectarianism and increasing violence.  The example of Libya exposes the double-edged sword at the heart of Western foreign policy in the Middle East: tolerate human rights abuses and prop-up an authoritarian regime to preserve stability; or foster regime change with the hope of bringing democracy, at the risk of dire consequences. This seemingly impossible dilemma suggests that a third-way might be preferable: neither supporting nor intervening against authoritarian regimes; but developing a long-term strategy to tackle human rights abuses, whilst encouraging political reform from the inside.