by Shaker Transcendental Moose
[Content Note: War; violence.]
I am an American whose work looks closely at Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Since early last year, Yemen has been in a civil war that easily rivals the devastation in Syria, but coverage of the war in the States has not been thorough, and I've discovered lots of people are completely unaware of what's happening there. The situation is complicated and violent, no side comes off as a shining hero, and Yemen is the poorest country on the Peninsula, so it's not especially surprising that the media hasn't bothered looking at it much.
But it's important to me to do some awareness-raising around what's happening in Yemen for my fellow citizens, because the situation for ordinary Yemenis is deplorable. Yemen is, on one hand, a proxy war for Saudi Arabia and Iran; within Yemen, the lines fracture between Shia and Sunni Muslims for the moment. On one side, Iran is purportedly supporting Yemen's former president (deposed during the Arab Spring) and a rebel group called the Huthis; on the other, the internationally recognized president is backed by the Saudis, who have been conducting airstrikes in Yemen since March of last year. The airstrikes have killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians—oh, and the U.S. and U.K. are supplying them with weapons and not saying a peep about the civilian deaths.
All of this is happening under our radar, because of the sparse coverage in Western media—which is largely (though not exclusively) attributable to Yemen's poor oil reserves and its status as a "backwater," even among its neighbors. For Westerners, it's easy to get in the mindset that the Middle East is a monolith, a vast desert of indistinguishable peoples more or less at constant war with each other, while extravagant royals laugh from atop their oil-funded thrones. So it's no surprise at all that Yemen's civil war and threatened collapse hasn't warranted much notice in the west. It fits the narrative; it doesn't raise eyebrows.
Yemen wasn't always at war, of course. Going back to ancient times, the land was known as Felix Arabia—"happy Arabia." It was a bustling land of trade and culture. The name "mocha," as in the coffee beverage, comes from one of Yemen's ports. And the capital city of Sana'a, which looks like a fairy-tale city of gingerbread houses, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in human history.
However, modern history has not been kind to the country, which had been divided as North Yemen and South Yemen until 1990. When the Arab Spring pushed out Yemen's president of over 30 years (president of North Yemen until unification), the country teetered on the brink of instability. When the Saudis showed up to bomb the Yemenis into submission, it tipped over the edge and careened into civil war.
The situation in Yemen is complicated. It's one of the reasons Yemen lurks in obscurity, because the nuances are difficult to pull out for a quick soundbite. Even John Oliver's [CN: video autoplays] coverage last year didn't last more than a few minutes and only touched on the barest of surface level conflicts—which is still more than most media outlets can say.
For the most part, Western media doesn't have much taste for political complexity, particularly when it is so outside of our sphere of caring. If we can't be bothered to learn about the intricacies of Syria before US presidential candidates suggest we carpet bomb the entire country of millions, then we certainly won't do more than a cursory glance at Yemen, perhaps just to find out where it is on a map.
You could say it started—insofar as situations like these have any sort of discrete beginning—when former president Saleh teamed up with a rebel group called the Huthis (against whom he fought six wars when he was in power—internecine fighting amongst Yemeni groups is common in a nation which has rarely been unified, and often carved and divvied up by imperial powers). Saleh and the Huthis, in northwestern Yemen, are Shia, while most of the rest of the country is Sunni; the sectarian divide, which used to be far less than it is today, has deepened into a chasm.
In the South, the internationally-recognized President Hadi is struggling to unite hundreds of individual militias, a government on the verge of collapse, and a movement of Southern Secessionists to fight the Huthi rebellion, which has taken over most of the historic North Yemen. "Unity" at the moment only exists as long as each side has a common enemy; the differences between the groups can only be put aside while there is a strong enough Other to fight.
Aside from its internal divisions, Yemen is the site of a proxy war between Iran, widely perceived as supporting the Huthis, and Saudi Arabia, which is propping up Hadi and targeting the Huthis to counter Iran's influence. To this end, Saudi Arabia has been conducting a disastrous airstrike campaign for the last year, ironically named "Operation Restoring Hope." Hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians have died in these airstrikes. Children in Yemen are growing up playing "1, 2, 3 airstrike."
And here's the part westerners should really care about: The US and UK are providing arms and advisement for these operations, including cluster bombs—an enormous human rights violation the world has mainly managed to ignore.
To make matters worse, the political instability has tilled and composted the perfect soil for Islamic terrorism to grow. Yemen is home to one of the most dangerous branches of al Qaeda: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
As a historical note, AQAP was the group responsible for the underwear bomber and the printer cartridge bombs in 2009 and 2010 and claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015. Their leaders have consistently called for attacks against the US, the West, and the Saudi Arabian government. And they've taken advantage of all the chaos in Yemen to literally take over swathes of territory. Now it's not just Islamic State in Iraq and Syria we have to worry about as a proto-state in the Middle East—although IS has a budding affiliate in Yemen as well, which has conducted attacks killing hundreds of people.
AQAP has tried to control territory before, but back in 2011-2012, there was at least enough of a government to manage a capable counterterrorism operation. Until a few days ago, the only such counterterrorism operations have been comprised solely of U.S. drone strikes.
Killing civilians in US drone strikes has similar effects on the local population as killing civilians anywhere else—it foments resentment and hatred against the country dropping the drones.
AQAP has used the unrest to control areas of Yemen the government has had historically little involvement in, and they're doing their best to win over the hearts and minds of the populace: digging wells, building bridges, repairing roads, and providing humanitarian assistance. Part of why they've been able to manage what the Yemeni government can't is that their control over one of Yemen's largest port cities yields them as much as $2 million USD per day from extorted port tariffs—plenty of money to not only provide services to the public, but also to pay fighters and fund terrorist attacks.
And lest you be thinking, like many Yemenis, that some government, even by al Qaeda, is better than no government at all, it's worth pointing out that al Qaeda's strict interpretation of Islamic law involves publically stoning adultresses, for example, and declaring Shia Muslims fair game for targeting. The group is also responsible for an epidemic of assassinations of government figures in southern Yemen's capital city of Aden.
A recent operation launched by the UAE is attempting to clear out AQAP from their port city strongholds, but historically, AQAP has excelled in scattering under pressure and regrouping as soon as their adversaries turn aside and focus on other things. With such swollen coffers and a dramatically successful year behind them, AQAP will almost certainly remain resilient in the face of the pressure they're likely to face.
The human cost of Yemen's civil war is devastating. 21.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and over 14 million are food insecure. The country has its toes on the very edge of outright famine. Around 6000 people have died, over 2500 of them civilians, many of them children. Hospitals have been struck by Saudi bombs; cities have been beseiged by the Huthis; the Saudi-led coalition has blockaded Huthi-held ports, and everywhere people are suffering.
Yemen relies on importation for most of its food requirements, and as a result of the war, starvation is rampant, and not just among the humans—as animals are starving, too. "Yemen after five months," said the head of the International Red Cross Peter Maurer in August, "looks like Syria after five years."
There's no easy solution to Yemen. Even if one side, North or South, wins a decisive military victory, that side's component factions will probably fall to fighting each other. While peace talks and a tenuous ceasefire are ongoing, neither side is coming to the negotiating table in good faith, because neither side perceives themselves as losing. And the proxy war between the Saudis and the Iranians is not likely to drop off anytime soon.
But the West needs to be held accountable for its quiet collaboration in this war. And even more importantly, the West needs to be held accountable for its silence and apathy.
If we close our eyes and let ourselves forget this war, the human cost will be even more staggering.