What’s Going on in Yemen?

The botched U.S Special Forces raid on an Al-Qaeda militant compound in Yemen’s Yakla Village in March finally brought the Yemeni Civil War to the American mainstream. But, as is usual, many generalizing, misleading, and downright untrue statements came out to play since about Donald Trump’s actions in Yemen, Barack Obama’s role in the Middle East, and the Yemen conflict in particular. Let’s dispel some of the myths cluttering your news feed, and give some of the history behind one of the world’s most deadly and underreported conflicts.

Yemen at war (source: http://bit.ly/2ruxTPf)

You may have seen a few people saying that “Obama caused” the death of one navy seal, at least 17 civilians, and the loss of a $70m V-22 Osprey military helicopter, because he planned the raid. Unlike your edgelord friends, I did my homework. A couple of Google searches show that A. The raid was not planned under Obama’s administration and B. it was, in fact, Donald Trump who approved the raid. Since Obama was jet skiing at the time of the raid, he probably found out about it when we did. But, guess what? We actually have no idea what Trump was doing, because apparently, he wasn’t in the situation room during the operation. Though who knows, maybe Obama is actually controlling Trump’s mind and making him do rash things, like sign off on complex special operations in between the appetizer and the steak and ketchup.

The other heavily researched claim I’ve been seeing is that Obama is the sole cause for the Yemeni Civil War. You know, because Yemen wasn’t already the poorest country in the Middle East suffering under a dictatorship, food shortages, and the lingering effects of imperialism and colonization. There was also absolutely no tension going on between former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, current President Mansur Hadi, Houthi Rebels, tribal coalitions, Southern Socialist secession movements, and hecking al-Qaeda beforehand. I mean it’s almost like we should acknowledge both past and present internal and external stressors in describing conflicts. Although, Obama firing off hellfire missiles left and right, and support of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen has made things worse for the already long-suffering state.

So, without any further ado, let’s get our facts straight:

What the Actual Heck Is Really Going on in Yemen?

The current conflict in Yemen has its roots in the Yemeni unification movement of 1990. Yep, that’s right, Yemen used to be two countries. North Yemen, or the Yemen Arab Republic, and South Yemen or The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

A Divided Yemen (source: http://bit.ly/1TEdFHZ)

North Yemen was formed after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire which saw the Imam Yahya Muhammad of the Hashemite Mutawakkilite Kingdom rise to power in 1918. At the time South Yemen was still a British colony.

Imam Yahya Muhammad was assassinated in 1948. After months of instability his son Imam Ahmad bin Yahya (Ahmad son of Yahya), took power. Ahmad’s reign took place parallel to the rise of pan-Arab Nationalism, whose most recognizable proponent was Egypt’s Gemal Abdel Nasser.

Imam Ahmad bin Yahya (Source: http://bit.ly/2qOjgp5)
Gemal Abdel Nasser (Source: http://bit.ly/2qPGOIo)

After Ahmad’s death in 1962, his son, Prince Muhammad al-Badr took power, but his reign was short-lived. Military officers inspired by Nasser’s pan-Arab ideals and trained by Egypt toppled Muhammad the same year he took power. The commander of the nationalist forces Abdullah as-Sallal created the Yemen Arab Republic.

Abdullah as-Sallal (source: http://bit.ly/2q4mYfq)
Muhammad al-Badr (source: http://bit.ly/2qaOi7D)

Clashes between royalist and nationalist forces began almost immediately, opening a new front in the Arab Cold War, (and you thought there was only one). The Arab cold war in Yemen looked like this:

Nationalist: (al-Sallal): supported by Egypt

Royalist (al-Badr): supported by Saudi Arabia/Jordan/Britain

The conflict ended in 1967 when Egyptian troops withdrew. In 1970 Saudi Arabia recognized the Yemen Arab Republic.

Now for South Yemen, or “Isn’t Imperialism Fun?”

South Yemen was originally a British colony and protectorate. The Colony of Aden eventually became the Aden Protectorate, which included all of South Yemen.

Colonial South Yemen (Source: http://bit.ly/2qQ8YTH)

In 1963 anti-British militias merged into two large rival nationalist groups; The Egyptian-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) and Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). Following a long guerilla campaign, the NLF was invited to peace talks in 1967 and took control following the unification of South Yemen, and the pushing out of FLOSY.

NLF supporters and British soldiers 1967 (Source: http://bit.ly/2rvkiHE)

Two years later in 1969 a faction within the NLF seized power and reorganized the country into the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen. The NLF then absorbed all political parties into the Yemeni Socialist Party, the only legal party, because authoritarianism is totally fine if you’re the only good guys…..right?

Flag of People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen (Source: http://bit.ly/2qOLH6m)

The new state quickly established close relations with the USSR, officially becoming a small part of the global cold war. So naturally, when South Yemen and North Yemen went to war in 1972, the international community couldn’t wait to intervene.

North Yemen: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, USA, China, West Germany, UK

South Yemen: USSR, Cuba, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Libya

The war ended the same year with negotiations between North and South Yemen. During the talks, it was decided that total Yemeni unification was the eventual goal of both states.

In 1980- the president of South Yemen Abdul Fattah Ismail fell out of favor with the USSR but was allowed to go into exile in Moscow. Ali Nasir Muhammad took over. In 1986, Ismail magically returned from exile in Moscow and wanted his old job back resulting in the South Yemen Civil War. The war lasted 11 days, yet created 60,000 refugees and killed 4,000–10,000 people.

Abdul Fattah Ismail (Source: http://bit.ly/2rxdhpL)
Ali Nasir Muhammad (Source: http://bit.ly/2qSdIdf)

By the end Ismail was dead, and Nasir fled to North Yemen. Ali Salem al-Beidh, an ally of Ismail, became the president of Yemen.

Ali Salim al-Beidh (Source: http://bit.ly/2q7ZbLw )

While unification was always on the table, in the late 1980’s oil exploration near the border between North and South Yemen caused the two governments to create agreements to exploit the new found oil wealth in the hope of developing both economies. In 1989, Ali Abdullah Saleh of North Yemen and Ali Selim al-Beidh of South Yemen started the unification process. In 1990 the unified Republic of Yemen was declared.

Saleh became Head of State, while al-Beidh became Head of Government or Vice President.

Ali Abdullah Saleh (Source: http://bit.ly/2qSSudn)

However, none of that mattered because Yemen then dissolved into a civil war in 1994, which saw VP al-Beidh go into exile and a heated series of political in-fighting.

Yemeni Civil War 1994 (Source: http://bit.ly/2rQ0r24)

Southern leaders attempted to secede and form the Democratic Republic of Yemen. They embarked on a short-lived resistance against the Northern Led Government. Afterward our friend, Ali Salem al-Beidh went on to form the Socialist militia and political group The Southern Movement, coequally known as al-Hirak (The Movement), which demanded southern secession from Yemen.

The Southern Movement, al-Hirak (Source: http://bit.ly/2qSQpxW)

So, Saleh was back in charge, except there was one problem, he just never left. Saleh served as the 1st president of Yemen for twenty-two years until the 2011–2012 Yemeni Revolution leading to his resignation, following a mediated agreement between his government and opposition groups. The revolution was sparked off for a number of reasons including food shortages, poverty, unemployment and the fact that Saleh attempted to amend the constitution to legally become president for life.

Yemeni Revolution 2012 (Source: http://bit.ly/2q8jJDI)

His successor and former VP Mansur Hadi had the incredibly “easy” task of uniting the opposition groups ranging from tribal oriented conservatives to far-left Socialists.

Mansur Hadi (Source:http://bit.ly/2rxbBw9)

On top of that, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise, were still doing the al-Qaeda thing,

AQAP Flag (Source: http://bit.ly/2qT51NV)

while Houthi Rebels continued their insurgency in the North, in search of autonomy in their native region of the Sa’Dah Governorate.

Houthi Rebel flag (Source: http://bit.ly/2qM0cYm)
Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, current Houthi leader

Side-note- AQAP and The Houthis are not allies. More on that when we get to the “war” part.

The Houthis are a religious political movement comprised of Shia Zaidi Muslims and have waged a low-level insurgency since 2004. They initially supported the Yemeni Revolution. Though in late 2011, Houthi fighters laid siege to the Sunni-majority village of Dammaj, almost entirely taking control of their native Sa’Dah Governorate.

So, now that the stage has been set, what happened after that?

In early 2012, the Houthi’s boycotted the single candidate election of Hadi. The Socialist al-Hirak also boycotted the vote.

Hadi didn’t include any Houthis in his cabinet, further driving animosity. The fighting in Dammaj continued and eventually reached a head in 2013 as Salafists accused the Shia Houthis of attacking a mosque, while the Houthis accused the Salafists of harboring foreign fighters in the mosque. The Houthis eventually won; a deal brokered by the Yemeni government allowed the losing fighters to leave along with their families.

Then in 2014, following several weeks of protests in the Yemeni capital Sana’a against the Hadi Administration, Yemeni Security Forces killed seven Houthi protesters. The tables were quickly turned as Houthi fighters swept in laying siege to the city in the Battle of Sana’a. The Yemeni Army was forced to retreat, and the Houthis took over the capital.

Houthi rally in Sana’a, 2017 (Source: http://bit.ly/2lwJJFc)

Following months of turmoil, which saw an attempt at a Unity Government between the two sides fail, the Houthis effectively forced Hadi and his entire cabinet to resign. The Houthis dissolved the House of Representatives and promptly installed a Revolutionary Committee in February 2015. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh is widely suspected to have aided the Houthis in taking over the capital.

On February 21, 2015, Hadi escaped to the city of Aden but rather than enjoy his exile, he promptly declared the Houthi government illegitimate and that Aden would be the new capital while the Houthis controlled Sana’a.

On March 19th, 2015 the war began in earnest with the Battle of Aden Airport, which saw the Yemeni Security Forces split into pro-Hadi and pro-Selah camps. Houthi pilots later bombed Hadi’s compound in retaliation for his forces’ victory in the battle.

al-Hirak fighters in Aden, May 2015 (Source: http://reut.rs/2rxl0UL)

The next day the newly formed Yemeni branch of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) entered the fray by bombing a mosque in Sana’a, targeting Houthis. The leader of the Houthis, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, then declared war on ISIS and all of its affiliates, of which he included the Hadi led government.

ISIS Flag (Source: http://bit.ly/2qTdJMj)

Wait, ISIS and AQAP use the same flag even though they fight each other? Yup, here’s why: http://ind.pn/1X9AwQV

Fighting then spread across the country between the four different factions, Pro-Selah, Pro-Hadi, al-Qaeda, and ISIS. As with most large scale Middle Eastern conflicts, it wouldn’t be long before others intervened.

Saudi Arabia’s intervention was to be expected. The kingdom has long been invested in Yemeni politics hoping to outdo the influence of its arch-rival Iran. In 2009 Saudi and Yemeni forces launched a campaign against Shia insurgents, while a weak ceasefire was reached in 2010, thousands were displaced, and clashes continued sporadically.

Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen again in late March 2015, leading an air campaign against Houthi rebels, pro-Saleh forces, al Qaeda, and ISIS. The coalition receives material backing from the U.S. and UK. Saudi Arabia likely intervened to prevent the creation of a pro-Iran state directly on its border. The Houthis receive support from Iran and allegedly the Lebanese Shia Islamist group Hezbollah. Iran’s occasional ally Russia is playing both sides of the conflict, and surprisingly declared support for Hadi’s Aden government. http://bit.ly/2r13k39

Aftermath of Saudi Airstrike in Yemen (Source: http://bbc.in/1Nlz0nv)

However, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are very preoccupied with keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad afloat.

Aftermath of Russian airstrike in Syria (Source: http://cnn.it/2rNxRiJ)

According to multiple human rights reports, both sides are committing atrocities. Saudi Arabia has targeted critical infrastructure and civilian areas with airstrikes and has used incendiary and white phosphorous munitions, much like Russia’s air-campaign in Syria.

The highly controversial U.S. Intervention in Yemen has been going on since the so- called War-on-Terror began. Obama drastically stepped up after the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda merged into al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009. They are considered the most active branch of al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, the U.S. led campaign against them has resulted in high civilian casualties due to drone strikes. Most of these strikes were carried out with the approval and coordination of the Yemeni Government. Critics of Obama’s drone program said that the strikes lacked proper congressional oversight, including the process by which targets were selected. In 2010 Obama sent 70m in military aid to Yemen.

Anti-drone program graffiti in Yemen (Source: http://cnn.it/1dFegU9)

Following the botched raid in January 2017, Yemen briefly withdrew its permission for the U.S. to conduct ground raids in the country.

The UN-affiliated International Crisis Group said of the raid:

“The use of U.S. soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-U.S. sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits.”

The current situation in Yemen is pretty bleak. Neither side seems capable of a clear victory. Peace processes have ground to a halt, and suffering in Yemen continues with high civilian casualties caused by all sides, starvation, and the spread of treatable diseases like cholera, measles and dengue fever.

Want to help the people of Yemen? Click Here and stop spreading misleading narratives to confirm your own biases.

Recap: Who’s Fighting:



  • Pro-Hadi Security forces
  • al-Islah- Sunni Islamist party and militia
  • Popular Committees/Popular Resistance (armed groups formed by members of various tribes)
  • Southern Resistance (al-Hirak)- Socialist political movement and militia that seeks cessation from Yemen. Fighting with pro-Hadi forces out of convenience.

Pro-Selah/Supreme Political Council:

  • Pro Selah Security Forces
  • Houthis- Shia Islamist religious political group and militia
  • Republican Guard of Yemen- an elite armor and mechanized infantry formation within the Yemeni Army, most commanders are pro-Selah
  • Ahrar al-Najran- Saudi Arabian Shia Islamist armed group that seeks the cessation of the Najran Region from Saudi Arabia

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (12,000 fighters 2010 claim — Source)

  • Ansar al-Sharia- an organization created by AQAP focused solely on waging an insurgency in Yemen rather than on international attacks. (1,000–3,000 fighters Source)

ISIS- Yemen Province (~300 fighters circa 2015 — Source)

  • Many ex-AQAP fighters