Yemen: The Syria No One Is Watching

A wedding hall destroyed by a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen’s capital Sana’a July 12, 2015. A Saudi-led coalition continued bombing the capital on Sunday in violation of a temporary humanitarian truce. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

While the world continues to fret, shake its collective head and point fingers at each other over the civil war in Syria, the conflict has only deepened over the last six years.

But frankly, at least the world is watching Syria. Situated in the southern Arabian Peninsula, with nearly three times the land area of Syria and twice its population, Yemen faces the triumvirate crisis of war, famine and disease that threatens to turn it a failed state on the scale of Syria – or worse. Yet no one is watching Yemen.


That’s a complicated answer. First:

1. What’s going on in Yemen?

(Short version)

Four factions are fighting each other: (1) the pro-government forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi; (2) the rebel Houthis; (3) al Qaeda forces; and (4) ISIS.

(Long version)

The Houthis, currently led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, are a Zaydi group (a sect of Shia Islam) and live in the mountainous northern border region of Yemen. They have waged an on-again off-again insurgency against the government of Yemen since at least 2004. The Houthis have three grievances: (1) they seek to shore up their sect of Zaydi Shia Islam against perceived Saudi Arabia – Sunni influence; (2) they feel the Yemeni government is corrupt and marginalizes them; (3) the U.S. invasion of Iraq (a majority Shia country) frightened them and made them concerned about U.S. influence with their own government.

In November 2011, as the Arab Spring swept through the region, street protests by Yemen’s people (not the Houthis specifically, though they took part too) forced authoritarian president of 33 years Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Houthis boycotted the election of Hadi in 2012 (he was the only candidate allowed to stand for election, and received 99.8% of the vote). Instead, they chose to try to seize power for themselves.

In September 2014, following years of fighting, Houthi rebels stormed the capital Sana’a. By January 2015, Houthis seized the Presidential compound and forced Hadi to resign. Amid this takeover, the Yemeni Army fractured along religious, political and ideological lines, and did not intervene. Afterward, Hadi escaped to the nearby city of Aden, and in a televised address rescinded his resignation, declared the takeover of Sana’a an illegitimate coup d’état and said he remained Yemen’s constitutionally-elected president. (Although, as of 2017, he continues to declare himself the elected leader despite that his initial and only elected term was as a transitional president, and should have ended in 2014.)

The war really heats up two months later in March 2015. On March 20, four suicide attacks are carried out on mosques frequented by Houthis, killing 142 people and wounding 351 in the deadliest terrorist attack in Yemeni history. Islamic State claimed responsibility but the Houthis blamed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who international observers believe to be the more likely culprit of the attack. Houthis also blamed Hadi for working with AQAP.

Over the next several days, the Houthis conduct a number of military operations against the Hadi government. They begin a march toward the city of Aden, and Hadi flees to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. By March 25, Saudi Arabia and other countries begin a bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels, ostensibly at the behest of the Hadi government. Saudi Arabia retakes the city of Aden and in September 2015, Hadi returns to Yemen.

Since then, despite attempts at truces and ceasefires, the fighting has continued largely unabated for the last two years.

2. Who are the parties to the conflict?

Generally speaking–

Groups supporting President-in-exile Hadi:
(shown on map below in red)

  • Pro-Hadi Yemeni troops
  • Southern Movement and Southern Popular Resistance Committees
  • Saudi Arabia-led coalition (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait) with logistical, military and financial support from the United States, Britain and France

Groups supporting the Houthi rebels:
(shown on map below in green)

  • Houthis
  • Former President Saleh (despite the insurgency Houthis waged against him 2004-2011, he has negotiated an agreement with the Houthis in an attempt to wrest power back from President Hadi)
  • Pro-Saleh Yemeni troops
  • Pro-Houthi tribal groups
  • Republican Guard and Special Security Forces

Groups fighting for themselves, for independent territorial control, or whose allegiance is nebulous/changing:

Important caveat:

There are two primary branches of Islam: Sunni (85% – 90% of Islam) and Shia (10% – 15%). Their division traces back to the year 632, and a battle for the succession of the prophet Muhammad.

Although Shia Muslims are the vast minority, there are countries where as a result of politics, demographics, intent, etc., Shia are the majority in that particular country. Similarly, there are two billion Catholics in the world, but in the state of Utah, Mormons are the majority faith (62%). Iran is the predominant Shia majority country in the Middle East with 90% of its people adhering to Shia Islam, but other examples are Iraq (65%), Azerbaijan (70%), and Bahrain (50+%).

Saudi Arabia is the predominant Sunni country in the Middle East, and the most important country for Muslims of all faiths (it includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina). However, the Sunni-Shia schism spills over into international politics. This conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran as the two largest Sunni and Shia majority countries in the region drives much of the military, political, and diplomatic action between the two.

Recall that:

  • The Houthis are a Shia Islam sect.
  • Yemen is a majority Sunni Islam nation (about 65%, compared to 35% Shia).
  • President Hadi is also Sunni.

So it should come as no surprise that Hadi claims the Houthi uprising is really backed by Iran as an effort to destabilize a Sunni majority nation, and equally should no surprise that the Saudis are supporting the Hadi government.

Also, remember earlier, when I said the U.S. invasion of Shia-majority Iraq frightened the Houthis? Think about the U.S. from their perspective. They see the United States as an ally of Saudi Arabia (the Sunni majority country), and hostile to Iran and Iraq (Shia majority countries). Thus, they view the U.S. as having taken sides in the internal disagreement of Islam. It would be like if China was a key ally of the Vatican, but openly hostile to any Protestant-majority nations. You would probably assume China was taking sides within Christianity.

Yemen, when not under siege of war.

3. What does each side in this war want?

Hadi wants the Houthi rebels to lay down arms, and to be able to return to to rule as President. Saudi Arabia classifies the Houthis as a terrorist group, and wants them eradicated. Their official slogan would win them no sympathy from most Westerners: “Allah is great. Death to the U.S. Death to Israel. A curse upon the Jews. Victory for Islam.”

However, the stated goals of the Houthis sound much more ordinary: “[G]overnment accountability, the end to corruption, regular utilities, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary Yemenis and the end of Western influence.” In addition, they have stated they do not seek a cleric-led government (as in Iran); instead they want a modern democracy, and one where women have the right to vote and can hold political positions.

Following their takeover of Sana’a, the Houthis established the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, which eventually handed power to the Supreme Political Council, both attempts by the Houthis to administrate Yemen in the vacuum of real political power. However, these bodies are not internationally recognized. Without reconciliation with the Hadi government and/or a legitimate democratic change in Yemen, it is unlikely any Houthi-led government will be legitimate in Yemen, particularly as long as they only hold the capital by military force.

The Islamic State seeks, as ever, to create converts and establish its caliphate, but it controls little territory in Yemen.

al Qaeda in the Arabian Penisula (AQAP) is likely the best-organized and most dangerous branch of al Qaeda in the world. Like ISIS, it seeks territory to control and expand, and to promote its views and theology.

Saudi-led coalition airstrike on Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in February 2017.

4. What is the cost of the war thus far?

According to the U.N., as of six months ago more than 10,000 have died and more than 42,000 have been injured since the most intense fighting began in March 2015. According to the BBC, “With just under half of the population under the age of 18, children constituted a third of all civilian deaths during the first two years of the conflict.” Further, 3 million more have been internally displaced due to the fighting.

Because Yemen shares a land border only with Saudi Arabia, and the Houthis have no naval force, the country is essentially blockaded. This has led to the largest humanitarian crisis in recent memory, greater even than Syria. More than 14 million are without safe drinking water or sanitation. 17 million face the prospect of famine. 3 million children are malnourished, and 1,000 children die every week from preventable causes like diarrhea and malnutrition. Fully 70% of Yemen’s people are in need of some form of humanitarian aid.

As if that wasn’t bad enough:

5. Are there war crimes?

Arguably, yes:

  • The Saudi-led coalition has used internationally-banned banned cluster bombs in its attacks on Houthi targets, and even in residential areas.
  • As the caption of the opening picture hints, the coalition bombed a wedding, killing over 100 people and injuring hundreds more.
  • Like AQAP, the Houthis have also bombed mosques frequented by pro-government supporters.
  • The Saudi coalition has bombed refugee camps and the Houthis have prevented aid workers from giving aid to those in need.
  • The UN warns of “widespread, systematic” violations of international law and war crimes policies. The UN investigated 10 coalition air strikes that resulted in a total of nearly 300 civilian casualties:

“In eight of the 10 investigations, the panel found no evidence that the air strikes had targeted legitimate military objectives,” the experts wrote in a 63-page report presented to the Security Council on Friday.

“For all 10 investigations, the panel considers it almost certain that the coalition did not meet international humanitarian law requirements of proportionality and precautions in attack,” the report said. “The panel considers that some of the attacks may amount to war crimes.”

Remember, the United States is a party of the Saudi-led coalition. Those are our bombs being dropped. If war crimes are being committed, the United States is guilty, at least of being complicit if not of actually taking part.

Then, apart from the war crimes, there’s just the stupid, unbelievable stuff that goes on. Like how the US government “lost” $500 million in weapons it gave to Yemen, which it now fears is probably in the hands of the rebels it is fighting or al Qaeda. Or how the U.S. supplied Saudi Arabia with white phosphorus, which the Saudis have weaponized and use against Houthi targets.

A guard sits on the rubble of the house of Brigadier Fouad al-Emad, an army commander loyal to the Houthis, after air strikes destroyed it in Sanaa, Yemen June 15, 2015. Warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition bombarded Yemen’s Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa overnight as the country’s warring factions prepared for talks expected to start in Geneva on Monday. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTX1GJK0

6. So to return to our original question: Why isn’t the world paying attention to this terrible war?

There’s not an easy answer, but I believe it comes down to a confluence of several reasons:

  1. The U.S., Europe and our allies in the Middle East are aligned against the dictator in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, and this allows us to tell a narrative of supporting “underdog rebels” who are fighting against tyranny (whether or not that’s actually true). In Yemen, we’re on the side of the established government, and fighting against the rebels. It doesn’t make for as compelling news, and certainly doesn’t paint the U.S. in the best light. No one likes the country who puts down the rebellion. Americans love rebels, not the establishment. In Yemen, we’re the Russia: helping a dictator put down a rebellion, turning a blind eye to war crimes, and stirring up sectarian violence.
  2. Saudi Arabia is the leading power fighting the rebels, and despite atrocities committed by Saudis, we will not risk criticizing America’s biggest diplomatic and financial partner in the Middle East.
    1. The Trump administration recently touted a new $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, arms which almost certainly will be used in part to fight this war in Yemen. Criticizing the Saudis would risk this and other financial arrangements, something that the Trump administration (and in fairness, previous administrations) did not want to risk.
    2. Saudi Arabia is a key oil supplier. Same reasons as above.
    3. The Saudis are a rare ally for Washington in the Middle East. As our involvement continues to grow in the region, we need reliable allies. America seems incapable of not mucking around in the region, and it’s much better to do so with local support.
  3. Americans haven’t shown themselves particularly interested in keeping track of their own country’s proxy wars abroad. We can barely be bothered to be marginally aware of Syria or the Islamic State, despite our military involvement there and in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Israel – the list goes on and on. What hope then is there for Yemen?
  4. Ultimately, Americans don’t know much about Yemen, aren’t aware of Yemen, couldn’t point out Yemen on a map. It’s hard for the average citizen to get swept up in the issues of a foreign country on the other side of the world (unless you tell Americans they hate us / freedom / the flag, and then we’re certainly ready to bomb them).

7. What can we do?

If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post, I wish I could say that I had a magical solution to offer. I don’t. These are complex, nuanced issues, and even in 2,500 words I’ve done a poor job of explaining the multifaceted levels of conflict and moral ambiguity. I can tell you what we should not do, though:

  1. America should not be involved in the war. We should not be supporting the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, we should not be providing them weapons, and we sure as hell should not be sending Navy SEALs into Yemen (twice). In a war this nebulous, there is no “good” side to be on. America is not threatened by the conflict in Yemen. There are conflicts all over the world, all the time. It’s ridiculous to argue that any conflict anywhere has a real and tangible effect on American security to the point that we need to be militarily involved.
  2. We should not be ignorant. Continue reading about this conflict – it’s a serious (and I believe, fascinating) real-life issue. Yes, it’s more difficult to understand than The Bachelor or CSI. But you cannot complain about American policies or involvement abroad if you don’t pay attention.
  3. We should not keep silent when atrocities occur. There are always bullies on the playground, and just because I don’t think we should fight them all doesn’t mean we should ignore them. It’s not an either/or – there are more options than yes/no left/right war/peace. America’s attitude tends to be to randomly pick a bully and beat him to a bloody pulp, leaving all the bully’s friends and brothers to plot their revenge on us. There are better ways.

Thank you for reading. If this information matters to you, please share it with others.


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