Yemen: A Crumbling Peace

The hard-won truce in Yemen entered its first 24 hours with 20 alleged breaches of the peace by Houthi rebels according to State-run Saudi Arabian TV.

The deal represents the first meaningful lull in fighting that has claimed almost 6000 lives since the rebels seized control of the Capital, Sanaa a year ago. With UN-sponsored peace-talks underway, a long-term solution to Yemen’s underlying issues seems unlikely. Though in a hopeful sign of progress, both sides have agreed to exchange hundreds of prisoners. The push for an end to the fighting comes chiefly from the rapid expansion of extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda as well as their rival, Daesh* (Islamic State) who have capitalized on the power vaccuum.

Tribesman loyal to Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi walks past a damaged tank at the Mass army barracks after the pro-Hadi forces took it from Houthi rebels in the country's northwestern province of Marib
A tribesman loyal to Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi walks past a damaged tank at the Mass army barracks after the pro-Hadi forces took it from Houthi rebels in the country’s northwestern province of Marib December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Ali Owidha

“A legitimate transition in Yemen can only be achieved through political negotiations and a consensus agreement among all political parties…”

United States Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Powers


Yemen’s unravelling remains a critial theatre for the West as well as the Gulf States in particular. As political instability has spread to the Arabian peninsula, Saudi Arabia united its Gulf neighbours in combating the Houthi rebels – alarmed by the possibility of losing a key Sunni state to Shia forces in such a critical area of the Gulf of Aden through which its goods, especially oil, pass.


Yemen has been fractured between the various groups now vying for political power and control in recent months.

Two forces, a dozen sides:

The conflict for control of Yemen has been waged on the scale of a civil-war, with regional powers invested in the fate of the impoverished Middle-Eastern country. Broadly, the two forces can be divided along ideological lines with the Shia Houthis vying for control from the former Sunni government and its affiliate southern tribal allies. Beyond the surface however, many regional powers are at play. The Shia Iranian government is accused of supplying and training the Houthi rebels whilst the Sunni Gulf States headed by Saudi Arabia has been providing direct support for government forces through air-strikes and most recently, a counter-attack by a mixed force of Sunni Arab troops.

Much like the muddied civil-war for Syria, the forces arrayed on the ground in Yemen are fractured between an array of causes though can be divided between the two “sides”. “Loyalist” troops for instance are themselves divided between the President, Mr. Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the various southern tribal leaders who fight against what is widely seen as a coup by northern Yemenis rather than for their government.

Houthi fighters in police uniform guard outside the presidential palace in Sanaa February 6, 2015. Source: Reuters

On the back foot are the Houthis, the Shia tribesmen of northern Yemen who have been battered in recent months by the Saudi-led airstrikes. Their fight originated as an insurgency in 2004, however has transformed into a powerful force that has been able to overthrow the government, and bring what was left of their forces to the brink of collapse. The government claims that their objective is to seize control and enforce their Zaidi sects religious law over the country, whilst the Houthis have consistently countered that it has always acted to counter the discrimination and persecution of its people.

The wild-card on the Arabian peninsula is the presence of the two terrorist extremist groups that are Daesh* and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Both groups have successfully capitalized on the power vaccuum to carve out a swathe of Yemenese territory (see chart 1) as well as carry out bombings on civilian centeres. Both government and rebel forces oppose the Islamist extremists. Perhaps Ironically, the Islamists are opposed to one another as well, with Daesh at war with AQAP and both sides holding a stated objective of eliminating the other with a goal of  being the sole representative of true jihad.

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  • The war in Syria rages on with little hope for an end in sight. With the rise of Daesh (Islamic State), the world has largely ignored the war crimes carried out by the Syrian government: Syria: Assad’s forgotten reign on terror
A Southern People’s Resistance militant loyal to Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi mans an anti-aircraft machine gun the militia seized from the army in al-Habilin, in Yemen’s southern province of Lahej March 22, 2015

The timeline to civil war:

The state of Yemen as it currently exists is a relatively recent development which is one of the key factors fuelling the country’s internal divisions. For more than forty years, Yemen existed in two parts – the Yemen Arab Republic of the North ruled by an autocratic monarchy, and the Peple’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. Both states acted independently until agreeing to unify in 1990 and form a single state of Yemen.

The conflict is in many ways a continuation of the low-level conflict that has been waged since Yemen’s civil war in 1994. Northerners, especially the Shia Zaidis who make up the Houthi rebels, complain that they are politically and economically marginalized and under-represented by the government which has been predominantly made up of Sunnis from the south.

By 2004, these tensions saw the creation of the Houthis who began an insurgency. Despite numerous truces, the fighting has continued in one form or another until the civil war.

Soldiers loyal to Yemen's government ride atop a tank in the country's southwestern city of Taiz
Soldiers loyal to Yemen’s government ride atop a tank in the country’s southwestern city of Taiz December 16, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

In January of 2014, President Hadi attempted to end the long-running conflict by holding the National Dialogue Council (NDC) which proposed giving the northerners more independence and representation through the country splitting into a federation of seperate states. The Houthis ultimately rejected this however after Mr Hadi insisted that any deal must extend his rule by at least a year. Under pressure, his government resigned, and President Hadi was placed under house arrest. The Houthis were able to assume power over the country largely unopposed and instituted a five member Presidential council with the aim of holding elections within two years.

With the help of sympathizers and former allies, Mr. Hadi was able to flee to the town of Aden where he denounced the Houthis, declared himself the lawful President, and made the town the de-facto capital. Years of tension erupted into conventional conflict, and President Hadi’s forces suffered consecutive defeats at the hands of the Houthis.

By march 2015, rebel forces had trapped the remnants of government forces in their stronghold of Aden. To prevent their impending collapse, Saudi Arabia gathered a coalition of Sunni states and began launching air-strikes in support of the besieged forces.

The UN estimates at least 5,700 people have died since the war between forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels escalated last March. (Ahmed al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)

Old Foes:

The Houthi rebels originate from the northern ethnic tribes of the “Zaidis” who make up around a third of Yemen’s population. The group’s name originates from that of their former leader – Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi who led the group during their first uprising in 2004. The Houthis themselves are part of a broader group known as “Ansa Allah”, roughly translatable as “partisans of God”. After Houthi was killed by the military in 2004, his family continued the fight by leading the newly formed insurgency. In 2011 the Houthis took advantage of the wide-spread protests that rippled across the Middle-East in the wake of the Arab spring, expanding their control of Sadaa and neighbouring provinces.

Armed … Yemeni tribesmen from the Popular Resistance Committees hold a position in the area of Sirwah, west of Marib city. Picture: AFP/Abdullah Al-QadrySource:AFP

A precarious future

As the poorest state in the Middle East, Yemen has struggled to develop compared to the runaway wealth being generated by its Gulf neighbours. Poor infrastructure, weak governance, rampant corruption and resource depletion have created a reality where more than 10 million Yemenis are food insecure and many more live in poverty.

Whilst the civil war in Syria remains an incomparable quagmire of destruction and misery, if Yemen were to descend into such a state, it would not have the resources to rebuild and as such should be of special concern to the international community. Much like Syria, Yemen has become a proxy for the continuing conflict between Shias and Sunnis led by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively. As the situation continues to deteriorate, it is the civilian populations who suffer first and foremost. With Europe struggling to handle the tide of refugees fleeing Syria, continued civil war will only ensure that millions of more people will join these flows as another humanitarian disaster looms.

*Mindful of the connotations that “Islamic State” implies, the editorial team of the Global Quorum echo the sentiments of world leaders in calling the fundamentalist group “Daesh” rather than validating their claim to statehood or as representatives of the Islamic faith.

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