Understanding the Yemeni Civil War: An Act of Internal Defiance or a Result of External Intervention?

Artwork by Saba Jallas.

buy Lyrica in australia Misoprostol without prescription The nation of Yemen, situated on the periphery of the Arab world, has had a complex past, vastly different from its sister states in the region. However, despite profound differences, it too has succumbed to a war that seems like a civil conflict but is an indirect result of regional power politics.

Yemen, a country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula with a view of the Indian Ocean, has become the newest country to descend into a full-fledged civil war. Almost 4000 Yemenis have died—half of those being civilians—and over a million people have been displaced from their homes. Yemen is fractured along multiple lines, featuring a complex set of conflicting identities: tribes from the northern region versus those from the south, Shi’a Muslims against Sunnis, and the former Communist regime against the (now former) State. All of these conflicts lay the foundation for a civil war, but it was the proxy war between the regional superpowers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, that has caused the conflict to reach its current heights. Before we can delve into the current politics of geographic identity in Yemen, it is important to understand what has brought the nation to this point.

Yemen acquired its current national and local political boundaries relatively recently. In 1990, North Yemen and South Yemen decided to merge, decades after being decolonized. The two countries developed under very different models: North Yemen was influenced by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s idea of pan-Arab nationalism and a unified Arab state while South Yemen became a Marxist state after colonial independence. Since the people were somewhat homogenous and the two countries had been a unified actor before colonization, they came together to create Yemen.

However, unification came with its set of problems. Within four years of unification, a civil conflict emerged between the two factions based on political ideologies, resulting in the defeat of the southern armed forces, and a temporary split of the country back into the two political entities that existed before 1990. The civil war of 1994 escalated due to the grievances perceived by the South, including the violence waged by the North against the Yemeni Socialist Party and the economic marginalization of the South. The South lost the two-month civil war, which resulted in the reunification of the state under the northern government and the subsequent purge of Yemeni socialism by the new cabinet. While the conflict was resolved in the short run, it sowed the seeds for further political tension in Yemen and ultimately led to the introduction of secessionist groups in the South in 2007.

As unrest spread across the Arab world in 2011, it was mirrored in Yemen as well. A youth-led popular demonstration movement challenged the then-head of state, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s presidency in Yemen. After months of protests and the student movements’ spread to several cities, President Saleh officially stepped down from his position in November of the same year. The former vice-President, Ali Salim Al-Baid, who been in exile for being a part of the Socialist party based in the South, assumed the position as the new head of state. Steadily, the political chessboard of Yemen started becoming convoluted, ultimately leading to a conflict that became internationally recognized as a civil war in 2015.

So what was it that triggered the war? Unfortunately, there isn’t just one obvious factor we can pinpoint. Tribal allegiances and high unemployment both contributed to Yemen’s destabilization. Yemen has a complex array of subnational tribes and regional identities to which the tribes are more loyal than the larger state. The desire for tribal autonomy remained throughout the tenuous history of the nation, and thus there was never a strong enough affiliation of authority with the state. Moreover, the political identities of these tribes were further fractionalized when religious politics came into play because the tribes belong to different sub-sects of the Islamic faith. Though Islam was integrated into the state’s security apparatuses and was used as a method of curbing political unrest, the policy of using religion to quell freedom of speech set the stage for religiously motivated violence and political freedom.

Additionally, several demographic challenges existed and were not dealt with in the years leading up to the civil war. Among those, around two-thirds of the Yemeni population were under the age of twenty-four and faced a thirty-five percent unemployment rate, a statistic that has not improved in the last year. Remittances are a primary way of support for the population, and the average Yemeni expatriate supports up to seven people back in the country. Ultimately, the frustration of a politically and ideologically charged youth was a major catalyst for the revolution.

But, of course, the central turning point in the history of the country occurred in the summer of 2014. The Zaydi Shiite Houthi clan of the North led a military offensive against the various tribal allies of President Hadi. The attack gave the marginalized northern tribe effective control over the capital of the country Sana’a as well as other parts of Yemen. The Houthis were a small group and, under normal circumstances, would not have had the political or military power to overthrow the government. Nonetheless, they managed to pull off an effective coup d’etat. The North’s success can be linked to the Southern separatist movements, whose agenda of state separatism had spread across the region, propagated by several factions within the nation, regardless of allegiance to any sub-national group.

The factors mentioned above regarding the war in Yemen may seem like all the traditional ingredients required to create political tensions within a Middle Eastern country. However, there is one more aspect that pushed the war to the state that it is today: the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is seen as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world while Iran is seen as the head of the Shi’a Muslim world. Yemen, a country with the population of 53% Sunni Muslims and 47% Shi’a Muslims—and their various subsects—has a geographically strategic location of both access to the Red Sea as well as the Gulf of Aden. The Saudis have expressed strong support for anti-Houthi sentiment, declaring the Houthis a terrorist organization in 2014, and there are rumors that the Houthis are Iran’s proxy in the region. The domestic group that wins this proxy war will determine which of the two powerhouses of the greater Middle Eastern region will have an adequate control of the area.

Yemen was already undergoing massive changes that were related more to internal politics of identity than to the regional developments. However, faced with decades of chronic instability that undermined any effort made on behalf of progress towards an equitable society, Yemen descended into violent chaos. The historical animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, to put it lightly,  spilled over to a country that was only tangentially related to their religious politics. The civil war in Yemen is not just a response to structural factors present within the country, it is an indication of the perseverance of political dominance by regional powers.

Nonetheless, it is becoming more apparent that Saudi Arabia is much more invested in Yemen than Iran, as evidenced by the more intrusive involvement the Saudis have had. Indeed, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes and ground offensives in an effort to try to shift control to the Sunni side. Yemen on the other hand has not directly involved themselves in the war, although they have fueled it by training and supplying weapons to the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and Iran have prolonged the duration of the civil war by continuing to give support and instigate the factions within Yemen, with no benefits received by either end.

The two countries have found themselves in a deadlock, with neither being able to move forward or completely pull out. In a way, Saudi Arabia needs to win this war more than Iran does, for it has over 1,300 kilometers of shared border with Yemen. Losing control of Yemen would make Saudi Arabia susceptible to its historical enemy. Moreover, while the Houthis remain in charge of the central government, Saudi Arabia loses its credibility as a powerhouse in Yemen, a weak message in the region. Iran, on the other hand, does not have a large stake in the war, for the country is focusing its efforts on Lebanon and Hezbollah instead. Lebanon is geographically more central to the Middle East, has better naval access to Europe, the Levant, and Maghreb countries, and is a politically easier region to exert control over, relatively speaking. Nevertheless, the Houthis are staying in control, and Iran has had a hand in maintaining that status quo. If Iran stops helping the Houthis, Saudi Arabia gains control; but if Iran continues to help the Houthis, even though it is not in its best interests, Iran exercises de facto control over Yemen.

It is unclear which country will try to broker peace first, if a brokerage occurs at all. The conflict has been relatively contained, save for the fact that it has been prolonged due to its nature as a proxy war. In any case, given the fractured nature of Yemeni society, there are two foreseeable scenarios. For one, the country may split back into the two political entities from before 1990. Otherwise, a new coalition government could be established, in line with the events of both 1990 and 1994, but the underlying political tensions would continue to brew until something else gives. Both of these scenarios are only possible if Iran and Saudi Arabia step back from supporting the civil war in Yemen, an event that does not seem likely in the near future.