With the world’s gaze fixed on the chaos of the Syrian Civil War, few in the global community are paying enough attention to the Yemeni conflict that has come to symbolize much more than one failed state’s continued political instability.
When Houthi rebels seized the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in September 2015, many pundits in the international press simply saw a country long plagued by sectarian violence, terrorism, and political unrest falling into yet another cycle of volatility. As the international community looked towards the escalating civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIL with increasing dread, such crude assessments of the situation in Yemen remained sufficient for the majority of the world. Meanwhile, for regional powerhouses jockeying for hegemony in the Middle East, Yemen’s civil war offered yet another opportunity to flex their respective political and military muscles.
At first glance, it is easy to explain the conflict in Yemen as a purely religious one. Like Iraq, Yemen is a predominantly Sunni nation with a sizable Shia minority concentrated in the northern mountainous plains of the Saada province. When Houthi rebels triumphantly stormed into Sanaa and forced then President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile last January, many were quick to highlight the sectarian nature of the conflict. Adherents of a relatively unknown branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism, Houthi separatists had previously risen against Yemen’s central ruling state and its Saudi-backed government in the 1990s.
Despite the clear religious divide between the rebels and government, Yemen’s conflict-ridden past has stemmed more from tribalism, geographic sectionalism, and political differences than pure religious hate. In fact, some argue that sectarian violence has only emerged in recent years as Saudi Arabia and Iran have grappled for political sway in the country.
Like many other conflicts in the Middle East today, the current conflict in Yemen can be traced back to the country’s unsuccessful political transition during the Arab Spring in 2011, in which Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of the presidency. Saleh, who ruled Yemen as its sole dictator for over thirty years, is notorious for simultaneously catering to U.S. and Saudi foreign policy demands in exchange for military and financial aid while quietly permitting the buildup of Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). Initial hope that Yemen’s government could keep its fragile federation of states together quickly deteriorated as the government failed to follow an U.N.-brokered transitional plan and Houthi rebels resumed fighting. With the Houthis positioning themselves as a welcome alternative to an inept and corrupt bureaucracy, they quickly captured large swaths of northern Yemen. Pushed out of office but still active in Yemen’s political community, ex-president Saleh saw the resurgence of the Houthis as an opportunity to align himself and his loyalist government fighters with a powerful rebel group in a ploy to take back the country. The Houthis, empowered by their alliance with Saleh, rapidly expanded their control of the country, capturing strategically important ports like Taiz and Aden over the course of a few short months.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has in one way or another been involved in Yemeni politics as the world’s most powerful Sunni nation and Yemen’s northern neighbor. Threatened by the image of victorious Shiite rebels in their backyard, Saudi Arabia quickly mobilized a coalition of Arab and African allies last March to end the Houthi insurgency. The Saudi’s intervention in Yemen proved to be a turning point in the conflict. By September, coalition ground forces had recaptured nearly 80% of the country with the help of a massive Saudi bombing campaign. Despite these initial successes, coalition fighters have encountered tough resistance from resolute Houthi forces who have the advantage of battlefield experience and are familiar with the rugged terrain. Furthermore, Riyadh’s indiscriminate airstrikes and use of cluster bombs have drawn criticism from the international community as civilian casualties climb to almost 3,000 deaths with countless others injured.
From Riyadh’s perspective, the Houthis are simply a proxy Shia force under Tehran’s ever-expanding influence. While the exact extent of Iran’s military aid is impossible to confirm publicly, the State Department’s acknowledgment of Iranian military supplies in Yemen and Tehran’s clear financial backing of the Houthis soundly demonstrate the Ayatollah’s desire to challenge Sunni control of the country.
Though Saudi Arabia has always commanded a powerful presence in the Middle East as the leader of the Sunni world, the Kingdom recently has adopted a hawkish foreign policy strategy as it seeks to curb Iran’s resurgence after the signing of the nuclear deal. Since the deal, Saudi Arabia has feared that an antagonistic Iran, bolstered by a stronger economy and improved international relations (Tehran and Moscow have worked closely with one another in Syria and Russian corporations are already looking to pour billions into Iran’s crumbling infrastructure), will encircle the Kingdom as it spreads it influence across the Arab world.
There is little hope that Yemen’s civil war will end any time soon. Riyadh has already expressed its determination to stay in Yemen until order is restored, which could take anywhere from months to years as Houthi fighters hunker down for a prolonged fight. If Saudi leaders are looking to “project power and military strength” in the region, they certainly want to avoid a premature retreat from Yemen, which would be spun as a victory for Tehran.
Continued fighting between coalition forces and Houthis will only worsen an already dire humanitarian situation. The country is reportedly on the edge of famine and the U.N. has declared Yemen a “category three crisis — on par with Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan”. To make matters worse, Yemen’s descent into chaos has allowed a diminished AQAP to seize control of Al Mukalla and Zinjibar, two important cities to the south, while ISIL has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks in the region as it also looks to capitalize on the country’s tumult. The United States and Europe must pressure both sides to a ceasefire in hopes of temporarily improving the situation on the ground until a more concrete solution can be devised, lest the world sit back and watch yet another Middle Eastern nation completely collapse.