The Conflict(s) in the Yemen(s)

Understanding the Civil Wars found within Civil Wars

A Houthi militiaman stands amidst the destruction caused by a Saudi airstrike in Sana‘a, Yemen on 26 March 2015.

The current Yemeni Civil War, ongoing since 2015, is but the latest devastating period of violence for the most underdeveloped and poor country in the Middle East. Popular analyses of the conflict have framed it both in a national context, with various local entities competing for power, and in an international context, as a proxy war principally between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The latter framing has naturally placed Yemen as but one theater in the larger proxy war between not just Saudi Arabia and Iran as countries, but as a larger contest for power and influence between Sunni and Shi‘a entities throughout the Middle East.

Although these analyses are not inaccurate, they lack a longer view of Yemen’s particular history, especially what that history has meant to the broader problems of Yemeni state formation and consolidation. Considering the current conflict based only on factors from the last few years is limiting and, consequently, leads to misinformed conclusions about both local and international actors involved in it. What we reflexively and easily imagine as the singular, united nation of “Yemen” has only been the iterative status quo since 1990, even then with pervasive civil strife before the latest state collapse since 2015. Unfortunately, division and conflict, rather than unity and peace, have defined the domain’s history.

Thus, accounting for Yemen’s history allows us to accurately conceive of the latest Civil War as another stage deriving from its earlier conflicts. In addition to this, we must not fall into the trap of recognizing Yemen as a singular entity, rather, as a congeries of tribes, sects, and two previously disunited modern states. Consequently, there has never been a meaningful program for national integration and development, with the domain defined far more by particularistic political actors possessing parochial agendas. Those actors, in turn, have typically cooperated and clashed with external forces that have treated the domain as a vital frontier of influence historically. The motivations of these actors, local and international, however, have constantly shifted through history based on contingent circumstances and alliances of historically contextual convenience.

Two Regions, Two Islamic Branches, and Two Colonial Powers

Apart from specific state formations, two distinct geo-socio-political regions of Yemen developed historically, partly due to sectarian differences and partly due to the circumstantial influence or control of external powers. From 1872–1918, the Ottoman Empire possessed the area known colloquially as North Yemen, governing it as the Yemen Vilayet. A Vilayet was a first-order administrative division, equivalent to a province, and led by a Vali (Governor) directly appointed by the Sultan. From 1874–1963, the British Empire possessed the area known colloquially as South Yemen, governing it as the Aden Protectorate.

Top: The Middle East and North Africa in 1914. Bottom: The two colonial Yemens, Ottoman and British.

Even before the consolidation of Ottoman control, a politically dominant Shi‘a population of the Zaidi/Fiver sect had defined the community of North Yemen. Most news today that casually refers to “Shi‘a Islam” refers, by default, to the largest Twelver sect, which is dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. The Fiver sect is the second largest Shi‘a sect globally. Fiver belief affirms that an Imam that holds both temporal and religious power must lead the community. Fiver belief does not hold the Imam to be infallible, but he must be descended from the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter, Fatima. These beliefs play an important role in Fiver political mobilization, which will prove relevant time and time again when discussing later aspects of this history.

Whereas the Fiver Shi‘a sect has defined North Yemen, the Shafi’i School of Sunni Islam has defined South Yemen. Socio-politically, however, the latter has been locally divided between different sheikhs and tribal entities. These entities were compelled into recognizing British suzerainty over the entirety of South Yemen during the colonial period, while maintaining direct local control over their respective communities. The eastern part of South Yemen, Hadhramaut, is historically significant in contributing to the development of Islamicate cultures of trade throughout the Indian Ocean. These cultures of trade spread Hadhrami populations and Shafi‘i Sunni Islam as far as Indonesia. Members of the Hadhrami diaspora, therefore, have often played important roles in the foreign and religious affairs of their countries.

The Two Yemens and the Cold War

North Yemen gained its independence from the Ottomans in 1918 and declared itself as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, colloquially referred to as the Kingdom of Yemen, or North Yemen after Southern independence. The Kingdom was a theocratic absolute monarchy, led by a Fiver Imam vested with temporal and religious power. Facing Arab nationalist pressures from the Egyptian President, Gamal Nasser, the Kingdom briefly joined the United Arab Republic in the confederation known as the United Arab States in 1958, before withdrawing in 1961. In 1962, Egyptian-trained Yemeni Free Officers, led by the commander of the royal guard, overthrew the government of the Imam.

The North Yemen Civil War ensued, with the Soviet Union and Egypt supporting the Free Officers and Saudi Arabia and Jordan supporting the Fiver Imam. The Cold War context at that time is instructive for how we should analyze even the current stage of Yemeni conflict. Some observers have interpreted the current Yemeni Civil War as a primordial conflict between Sunni and Shi‘a. Saudi support for the Fiver Imam during the Cold War, however, indicates that alliances and divides are formed contextually based on the contemporary concerns of the period. Cold War concerns meant emphasizing monarchical solidarity above sectarian differences. The Yemeni Free Officers eventually won the North Yemen Civil War, capturing the capital, Sana‘a, in 1968 and consolidating the new regime as the Yemen Arab Republic.

South Yemen gained its independence from the British much later. The British began to lose control in 1963 with the start of an armed rebellion. Between 1963 and 1967, local leaders reorganized the Aden Protectorate into two transitional entities, the Federation of South Arabia in the West and the Protectorate of South Arabia in the Hadhramaut East. They did so in order to distance themselves from the British and embrace Arab nationalist pressures that were emanating once again from Nasser’s Egypt. South Yemen eventually gained independence in 1967 with the British withdrawal. One of two armed groups involved in the rebellion, the National Liberation Front (NLF), seized power and organized the country into the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a Marxist socialist republic. It also continued to be referred to as South Yemen colloquially.

The Two Yemens of the Cold War.

Thus, from 1967–8 onwards, the two Yemeni Republics were defined by their orientations as Nasserist Arab nationalist in the North and pro-Soviet Marxist in the South. Through to the end of the Cold War, relations between the two states fluctuated between friendly and hostile. A brief war erupted between the two states in 1972, with a peace brokered by the Arab League with a nominal declaration of intent for eventual unification. Tensions remained between the two states nonetheless. Separately, in 1986, the South Yemen Civil War (also known as The Events) broke out, caused by tribal and ideological divides between factions in the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), the successor to the NLF. Although only lasting 12 days, the war resulted in thousands of deaths.

A Dysfunctional Unification

As the Soviet Union began to reduce its foreign aid to friendly states in the late 1980s, South Yemen found itself systemically weakened. Realizing that the state could not be self-sustaining, earnest talks of reunification with North Yemen began in 1988. Two years later, the two Yemens unified as the Republic of Yemen and the Northern capital of Sana‘a became the united capital.

The new, united Republic of Yemen made attempts to integrate the armed forces of the two states as well as bringing Southern politicians into the new united government, most notably in the positions of Vice President and Prime Minister. However, the weakness of Southern politicians in the Parliament meant that numerous Southern grievances went unaddressed. Additionally, tensions were enflamed by a Northern Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islamist group, al-Islah, which demanded that Islamic law be the only source of legislation, rather than just “a principal source of legislation” as stated in the Constitution.

The unified Republic of Yemen since 1990.

Deciding that proper unification had failed, in 1994 Southern leaders moved with their militias to the strategic port city of Aden, the most important city of the South, and declared the Democratic Republic of Yemen. This state went unrecognized internationally, though Southern leaders did receive aid from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s intervention, this time on the side of former Marxist Southerners, was not ideological or structural, but merely motivated by the threat of a strong, united Yemen. The ensuing Yemeni Civil War of 1994 lasted just over two months, with the top echelon of Southern leaders of the former YSP fleeing the country. The remaining Southern leaders and forces were given a general amnesty.

Festering Wounds

Considering the plethora of conflicts, and conflicts within conflicts, that have already been reviewed, it is remarkable that only at this juncture can we begin to discuss the factors that led more immediately to the current Yemeni Civil War. The immediate causes of the current war are intrinsically linked to the deep history of Yemeni civil strife. The festering wounds of that strife have meant that no meaningful, lasting Yemeni domestic peace has been possible, even with the official cessation of inter-group hostilities.

Within the Northern Fiver community, a new revivalist movement began in the 1990s. Officially, the group is called Ansar Allah, but it is most often colloquially referred to as the Houthis for its leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. The Houthis are steeped in Fiver Shi‘a revivalism. Their revivalist ideology is parochial since it mobilizes its followers using the historical memory of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom and its Imam. Their public advocacy, however, downplays this for pragmatic reasons, since the Fiver community is a minority in the whole of Yemen. Woven into their ideology of religious revivalism is also anti-imperialism/Westernism, anti-Zionism, and, although officially denied, patently obvious anti-Semitism. The Houthis began a violent insurgency in 2004 to overthrow the Republic of Yemen and its President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been President since 1990 and happened to be a Fiver himself.

Furthermore, since the end of the Yemeni Civil War of 1994, unrest continued throughout the country on the issue of the proper integration of the South, culminating in widespread protests against the South’s marginalization in 2007. The national government’s response to these protests was extremely violent, with arrests and the use of live ammunition to deal with protesters. This incident gave birth to the Southern Movement, which, at first, was a low-profile effort to organize towards a new Southern independence, once more.

State Collapse and Civil War, Again

All of these matters were significant factors in the socio-political state of Yemen by the time the country became swept up in the Arab Spring of 2010–2 and in the unfolding of the latest Yemeni Civil War. Similar to various other Arab national populations at the time, Yemenis (including Houthis) took to the streets to protest corruption, economic conditions, and the authoritarianism of President Saleh, who was planning to change the Constitution to make himself President-for-life. Protests consumed the whole country and by February 2012, per a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saleh resigned the Presidency and was succeeded by his Vice President, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who happens to be Sunni. This period of Saleh’s ouster has been referred to as the Yemeni Revolution.

Hadi led the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in 2013-4, which was an attempt to bring all the important Yemeni factions into discussion about grievances and various approaches to politically reorganizing the country. The Houthis, sensing the state’s weakness, mobilized for protests in their own communities and in Sana‘a, as well as laying siege to Sunni-minority areas within Houthi-controlled zones. The confrontation culminated in a battle for Sana‘a itself in September 2014, which the Houthis won.

The Houthis then forced Hadi into a settlement that gave them vast influence over government institutions, however they remained displeased with a later proposal to politically reorganize the country into federal regions. In response to this federal proposal, in February 2015 the Houthis dissolved the Parliament and put Hadi under house arrest. Before the month was out, Hadi escaped house arrest and fled to Aden, declaring that he was still the legitimate President of Yemen.

Top: The 20 Governorates and 1 Municipality of the Republic of Yemen. Bottom: The federal regions and federal capital proposal that sparked the Houthi coup.

These turns of events set the immediate stage for the current Yemeni Civil War. On one side there has been the Houthis, controlling Sana‘a and most of North Yemen. They had been aided by, of all people, former President Saleh, along with divisions of his Republican Guard. This alliance lasted until the end of 2017, when Saleh called for dialogue with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Houthis turned on him and fighting in Sana‘a erupted between Houthi forces and forces loyal to Saleh. He was killed while trying to escape the city on 4 December 2017. The Houthis have received aid from Iran, which is where the proxy conflict manifests with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia supports the remains of the internationally recognized Government of Yemen, still officially led by Hadi. The Hadi Government is further aided by the Southern Movement, which went from being a low-profile effort to fully manifesting in activism and armed struggle during the Arab Spring and Yemeni Revolution. This coalition’s strength has been in Aden and the rest of South Yemen, but its hold on territory has been disrupted by al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) and its umbrella organization of Ansar al-Sharia. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has also had a presence but is limited to cells operating in select locales.

Areas of control in Yemen as of 21 May 2018. Green: Houthi. Red: Hadi Government. White: al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula/Ansar al-Sharia. Yellow: Southern Transitional Council.

The Hadi-Southern alliance has suffered a serious rift over just the last year, however. Hadi fired Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, the Governor of Aden, for supposedly being disloyal on 27 April 2017. Supporters of al-Zoubaidi and some factions of the Southern Movement rallied thereafter against Hadi. This rallying culminated in the declaration of the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Hadi, naturally, declared the STC to be illegitimate, but in January 2018, the STC seized government buildings in Aden and has proceeded to subsume the Hadi Government’s authority in numerous other areas since. The fact that the UAE is supporting the STC is an indication to some analysts that even though disputes between the Hadi Government and the Southern Movement are genuine, such disputes are exacerbated by a new sub-proxy war between the UAE and Saudi Arabia over newfound natural resources in eastern Yemen.

A Humanitarian Catastrophe

The terrible human toll of the current Yemeni Civil War cannot be overstated. The War is now three years old and as of this year, an estimated 10,000 people have died. That number, though devastating on its own terms, pales in comparison to the larger humanitarian crises that continue to unfold on a daily basis for vulnerable civilian populations throughout the country. Yemen’s population stands at 28 million people, and the United Nations estimates that three-quarters of them require outside assistance to stave off disease and hunger. Furthermore, over one-fifth of Yemeni children under the age of five are at ten times the normal risk of mortality. In addition, 2 million people have been internally displaced.

Yemenis in Sana‘a present food ration documents to receive provisions from a local charity on 14 April 2017.

Some of the issues driving hunger among the population existed before the war and have only been exacerbated by it. Fresh water in Yemen is naturally scarce, thus the country relied heavily on food imports even before the War. Imports of food and other aid have been regularly delayed or diverted altogether because of a Saudi-imposed naval blockade. This blockade has specifically targeted the western ports of Salif and Hudaydah, currently controlled by Houthi forces. In peacetime, these ports had already been responsible for receiving 80% of all imports, so the impact of the blockade is significant. For the food and basic necessities that do enter the country, prices have increased past 150% over the last three years. Among the causes of this is abuse by Houthi forces, which extort payments on all parcels that pass through their zones of control.

To make matters even worse, in April 2017, a cholera outbreak began and is now responsible for over 2,200 deaths. The malnourishment among the population has made it even more vulnerable to cholera, which occurs due to inadequate clean water and sanitation. Overcoming the disease is typically possible with the use of clean water to overcome acute diarrhea. A lack of clean water means a vicious cycle that will only worsen the outbreak over time.

Both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have been accused of war crimes. Particular attention has been paid to the Saudi blockade and to Saudi airstrikes. The former has seen aid groups pleading with the Saudis to operate more earnestly in swiftly processing genuine aid shipments versus weapons shipments that they can legally block. The latter has seen the same aid groups accuse the Saudis of intentionally bombing civilian areas like marketplaces and medical centers. The Houthis have also been accused of targeting civilians and illegally stationing their troops in and among civilian concentrations. There have also been reports of Houthi violence against civilian protesters and journalists, as well as Houthi forces preventing aid staff from conducting their work.

Self-Preservations and The Improbable State

After the Cold War, many conflicts in the Middle East have understandably been interpreted as a matter of sectarianism, for the divides between belligerent groups are, indeed, often sectarian. Considering the histories and circumstances of particular countries, however, indicates that even when the divides are sectarian, conflicts are not actually about theology. Salafi/Wahhabi groups like al-Qaeda or ISIL are the exception. Sectarian identification among other actors in crises is not about a cosmic Sunni-Shi‘a theological conflict, but rather about convenient identifications for communal self-preservations. Times of change or crisis exacerbate such convenient sectarian identifications. Sects, thus, come into conflict with one another not because of religion, but because of the socio-political fear of who is going to dominate whom at the cessation of conflict.

These sectarian differences have combined with historically rooted regional and state differences within Yemen today. As the conflict grows in its violence and its duration, these differences will only exacerbate intransigent socio-political identifications and alliances. Consequently, what is left of the internationally recognized Hadi Government will increasingly have no natural constituency, even if sustained Saudi intervention is able to restrict the Houthis to a relatively small area of the country. The Fiver community will not abandon the Houthi struggle just as the Southerners will not abandon their struggle with more of the latter likely merging it with fealty to the STC.

A meaningful and lasting peace in Yemen, as will have to be brokered by and with other Middle Eastern and Western countries, will require recognition of this difficult reality. Reflexively holding to a fixed policy response that only involves an antebellum restoration of unity under the Hadi Government is unrealistic. That will likely lead to a worsening and prolonging of conflict. Yemen’s future and the hope of even a minimal, lasting cessation of hostilities will require a recognition that each of the principal actors, with the exception of AQAP and the cells of ISIL, will have to be allowed a degree of de facto autonomy in their areas of control. This will reduce the existential fear of being wiped out under an artificially imposed reunited state, the apparatuses of which might then serve as a leviathan imposing the interests of only one group. The fixed state system, although contributing greatly to global stability, becomes a liability in crises where the flaws of the central state caused the conflicts in the first place. Solving crises like Yemen will require policymakers to consider solutions beyond arbitrary state reunification.