The Crisis in Yemen – What You Need to Know

Sanaa, Yemen

I remember learning about the American Revolution in elementary school, again in junior high, again in high school, and yet again in college. By the time I hit grad school? Well, Hamilton was out by then, so I’ll count that as my fifth official re-learning of the war.

Each time I learned about it, I would learn something new. The issues and the players would get more complex. They became more real to me as I grew to be more compassionate and empathetic towards the plight of the revolutionaries. I felt their desperation for change. I cowered at the daunting thought of building a new nation, government, and financial system from the ground up. I admired the spirit of those contributing to the war effort, whether they were fighting the Red Coats, spying on the enemy, writing essays, or otherwise doing whatever they could to help achieve the end goal. I found myself grateful for the Founding Fathers who, in their great intellect and wisdom, were able to trail-blaze a country with progressive ideals and considerations for the future. I was proud to be a part of the future they’d dreamed of.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton says, “for the first time, I’m thinking past tomorrow.”

More on that later.

He also said that he was “just like [his] country…young, scrappy, and hungry.”

Scrappy.

One of the recurring points that would always come up when discussing the revolution, from elementary on upwards, was how this rag-tag group of dudes, who were a far, far cry from the mighty United States military of today, were able to defeat the most formidable military of the time. It was a testament to American ingenuity. The British soldiers may have had fancy red coats (that stuck out like sore thumbs against the white New England winters), the backing of the British Empire, and I guess some motivation to hold said empire together (even though, honestly, whether or not the colonists won their war didn’t directly affect the soldiers’ lives too much), but the Americans were clever, unbound by war protocol and traditions, and most importantly, they had something worth fighting for.

We were guerrillas, the likes of which the British had never seen. We knew our land better than they did, which gave us an important, yet often underestimated advantage. We blended into our surroundings, wearing camo-colored clothing. We were strategic because we knew that every step and misstep mattered.

And ultimately, that was how David took down Goliath.

Now, fast forward 200 or so years to when the US lost the Vietnam War.

My, how the tables have turned. How quickly we’d forgotten our guerrilla roots, so much so that we couldn’t even recognize, let alone counter, our own tactics being used against us.

Fast forward a few decades? Well, now there’s Yemen.

The civil war in Yemen has instigated what is currently the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. With 10,000 people dead over the course of four years, 7 million people (a quarter of the Yemeni population) on the brink of starvation, and an unremitting cholera epidemic, Yemen is in tatters.

However, to call the situation over there a “civil war” is to discount the forces and relinquish blame from those that brought the country to this point. The war that Yemen, which was already the poorest country in the Middle East, is fighting isn’t one entirely of their own making.

To the map…

Geography matters here – as it always does.

Map of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen

Yemen forms the southern border of the Arabian Peninsula, along with Oman. To its south lies the Arabian Sea, or more specifically, the Gulf of Aden. Aden is also the name of a notable city on the southern coast of the country. Oman sits along its eastern border, and Saudi Arabia sits along its northern border. On the west side is the narrow Red Sea, on the other side of which is East Africa (Eritrea and Djibouti). The capital of Yemen is Sana’a.

As far as the terrain and climate go, Yemen is a desert, but it’s not characterized by the sandy dunes most people think of when they think about the Middle East. Nope…Yemen has caves. Rocks and caves and coastline.

Everything I’ve said here is relevant, I promise. I’m not over here trying to write a travel brochure.

The Middle Eastern Cold War

This situation is fraught with complications, hidden and not-so-hidden motives, foreign intervention, religious turmoil, and more.

Briefly, as in the Cold War that was [not] fought between Russia and the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting an ideological war (Shia versus Sunni, respectively) without actually taking up arms against one another. Through a series of proxy wars, each side supports those in line with their own beliefs, ultimately hoping to spread their own doctrine and influence across the peninsula while stifling the other. Each nation, along with their regional allies, is backed by global superpowers, Russia and the United States.

So while it may be easy to characterize the conflict in Yemen as a civil war (I’ll explain that in a bit), it’s really a war being fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran (even though Iran officially denies involvement), and in effect, the US and Russia.

For more on this, here’s a previous article I’d written that goes into more detail.

The History of Yemen

To understand Yemen today, we have to go back 30 years to 1988.

Back then, Yemen was actually two countries. North Yemen, or the Yemen Arab Republic was comprised of the northwest corner of Yemen. Its capital was Sana’a, it had a population of about 7 million people, and its president was Ali Abdullah Saleh.

South Yemen, or the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen had a population of 2.5 million people. Under President and General Secretary Ali Salem al Beidh, South Yemen was a communist nation backed by the USSR. The capital city, Aden, sat right on the southern coastline.

And then, the Cold War ended.

Under the late President George H.W. Bush, the Cold War was brought to a close. South Yemen, losing much of their backing from the now dissolved USSR, rejoined with the north. The capital of the new Yemen was Sana’a. Saleh became president of the unified nation, with al Beidh serving as his vice president.

At this point, about 65% of the citizens were Sunni Muslim and 35% were Shia. A significant chunk of those Shia lived in the caves along the Yemen/Saudi Arabia border in the former North Yemeni region.

At the risk of getting ahead of myself, the Shia in this region are more specifically Zaidi, which is a further offshoot of Islam. They’re now called the Houthis, taking the name of Hussein al Houthi, a Zaidi with some pretty radical ideas. For now, just keep in mind that these guys are surrounded by Sunnis – Sunnis in Saudi Arabia to the north and Yemeni Sunnis to the south.

1991 – Civil War

Moving on, Yemen upset some people in the western and Arab worlds, so in response, Yemen lost a significant amount of aid. After a few years of unrest and increasing poverty, VP al Beidh decided southern secession was in order – again. After a short-lived civil war, the north won, and the country remained intact. Needless to say, al Beidh was out and Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was in. Soon after, taking advantage of the chaos across the land, Al Qaeda moved into Yemen on the eastern front.

2004 – Houthi Insurgency

The Yemeni government, growing wary of the Houthis in the north, decided to target their leader in an effort to prevent their ideals from spreading. The group, which had already been marginalized by the Sunni majority, fought back. The fighting was mainly limited to the northern cities, but eventually, it spread further and further south.

Hussein al Houthi was killed in 2004, but now’s a good time to delve a bit further into the Houthis and their beliefs. Let’s start with their slogan. It’s rough.

“God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. God curse the Jews. Victory to Islam.”

Told you it’s rough.

Following the September 11th attacks in the United States, Hussein al Houthi convinced his followers that rather than this being a victory for Muslims in the Middle East, it was a conspiracy. He believed that the attacks were an American and Zionist colluded effort to attack and villainize Islam.

It makes sense that the Houthis aren’t fans of the United States. They have a strong anti-imperialist agenda, and they believe it is their duty to fight against tyrannical governments and unjust rulers. They believe the US to be a pretty perfect representation of evil, advocating corruption, greed, etc.

2005 – The Arab Spring

A year later, the Arab Spring happened. If you’ll recall, this was characterized by a series of uprisings across the Arab world. Many of these uprisings were backed by the United States, with rulers being overthrown and new governments kind of being erected in their place.

Remember that line from Hamilton I’d mentioned earlier, about thinking past tomorrow? Well, that seemed to be a thing the US kept forgetting to do. As the US supported these various proxy wars and revolutions throughout the Middle East and Africa, more often than not, the countries achieved their desired end, but they were then unsure of how to proceed. At best, a new government would be put in place and it would go on to rule for a bit before seeing a fate similar to the one it overthrew. It’s like the girl who sleeps with a taken man and is then surprised when he cheats on her, too. Alternatively, at worst, no new government would be able to take control and the nation would collapse into chaos with riots, protests, and poverty taking over.

Anyway, this had a ripple effect across the Middle East. By 2011, the Yemeni Revolution took place, with Yemeni citizens demanding an end to corruption, a healthier economy, and lower unemployment rates.

Pretty standard and reasonable requests.

2012 – President Hadi

By 2012, VP Hadi had taken over as president – long story. Saleh was still knocking about, though.

The following year, the Houthis, along with a group of Saleh loyalists, amped up their own war efforts, eventually taking over the capital city of Sana’a in September of 2014. This takeover forced Hadi to flee to Aden, and then later to Saudi Arabia.

2015 – The International Coalition

Backed by the United States and led by Saudi Arabia, nine countries formed a coalition – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan. The coalition wanted Sana’a out of rebel hands and back under Hadi’s control. This seemed to be largely motivated by the fact that the coalition wanted control of the strait between Yemen and Djibouti, Bab-el-Mandeb. This strait is critical when it comes to shipping oil from Saudi Arabia outwards (check the map!). With the strait in rebel hands, it creates a chokehold on an international oil supply. You can imagine how the US wouldn’t like this.

And so, the air strikes started.

When people refer to President Obama’s legacy, his detractors often bring up these airstrikes. Highly controversial, they weren’t always as targeted as the US would have liked them to be. They contributed to thousands of innocent civilian deaths across the country, as well extensive damage to key infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and mosques. In addition to the air strikes, the United Nations imposed an embargo on arms sales and aid to the Houthi rebels.

Cue mass starvation, with over ¾ of the nation’s population in urgent need of food and medical aid.

Cue a cholera epidemic that’s still ongoing.

Realizing the situation was getting out of control, the UN tried and failed to negotiate some kind of peace deal in 2016.

Instead, the Coalition imposed an embargo on ports and airports controlled by the Houthis, only allowing very, very limited aid shipments in. The result was 2 million internally displaced Yemeni citizens, with even more sick and starving.

2017 – Death to Saleh

By 2017, Saleh decided to break his alliance with the Houthis in the hopes of achieving some kind of deal with Saudi Arabia. So…the Houthis killed him.

In the meantime, unrest in Aden, which had since been taken over by the Coalition, lead to the creation of the Transitional Council, a secessionist organization. Backed by the UAE, which had since distanced itself from the Coalition, the Council took back Aden.

Jump to 2018 and the Coalition amps up its air strikes, now backed by US President Trump.

In June, the Coalition attempted to take over the Houthi-controlled port of Hudaydah in an effort to cut their supply line. The UN opposed this move, alleging that such an act would further exacerbate the prevalent human rights violations. The Houthis were actually open to the UN managing the situation, but the Coalition refused to stand down.

As of now, on December 13, 2018, the battle has reached a ceasefire and the UN has given both sides 21 days to remove their forces from the city.

While all of this is happening, Al Qaeda has been strengthening, with their presence and influence being felt across the country. Al Qaeda isn’t really on either side of the fighting – they’re kind of just doing their own thing.

Jamal Khashoggi

You’ve heard that name, I’m sure. He’s the journalist that was killed by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS. When news of his death made headlines, President Trump refused to denounce the Saudi government for its actions, much to the chagrin of the US citizenry and US allies.

His death, something that would normally be completely intolerable, and President Trump’s inadequate response to it sent the message that Saudi Arabia could basically do whatever they wanted without facing US opposition because we still need them for their oil.

And you wonder why the Middle East has nicknamed us “oil whores.”

However, as of December 13, 2018, the US Senate voted to revoke support for the Saudi Coalition’s efforts in Yemen. This is in response to the Khashoggi murder and the humanitarian crisis that only seems to be worsening. This is a big deal. We’ll have to see what comes from this, if anything, but at the very least, this is a strong bipartisan move against Trump’s non-stand against Saudi Arabia.

Why are the Houthis winning?

Ok, “winning” might be a bit of stretch, but the fact that they’re not completely losing, in that they’re still fighting at all, is impressive considering the forces they’ve got working against them. They are formidable.

They’re the guerrillas, now.

In addition to their use of guerrilla warfare, the Houthis know the lay of their land much better than the Saudis do. Also, remember those caves? They make great hiding spots. Key strike zones are hard to pinpoint with air strikes because the rebels, along with their stashes of weaponry, are hidden among the caves.

Also, the Saudis aren’t exactly career military. Many of the soldiers lack experience, having come from civil employment positions in their country. Their generals aren’t much better, with many of them earning their titles via nepotism, not through their previous military successes.

Today

Today, the crisis continues. The UN is working towards peace, but honestly, the situation is so wound up in countless other situations that it’s hard to see an ending peace. At this point, I’m not even sure what that would look like, with both sides refusing to back down.

If you boil it all down, though, it comes down to oil. The religious backdrop of the conflict is just that – a backdrop. The US doesn’t have a stake in whether or not the Sunni or the Shia dominate the country of Yemen.

I’m reminded of the Michael Jackson song, Black or White. In the rap section by the unnamed and unknown rapper, he says,

“It’s a turf war on a global scale; I’d rather hear both sides of the tale.”

The Houthis believe they’re protecting Yemen from western influence and invasion, but in their fight against oppression, they have in many ways become the oppressors. The Coalition claims to be quelling unrest within the nation, but the conflict has only managed to aggravate the unrest far beyond anything anyone could have predicted.

The US, along with the UK and France, have been aiding the Coalition all along, profiting significantly from arms sales and maintaining oil ties to the Middle East.

And people are still dying. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

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