Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Endless War in Yemen

war in yemen
tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels hold their weapons as they chant slogans during a gathering to mobilize more fighters into battlefronts in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo AP

Only days after his inauguration as President of the United States, Donald Trump faced his first fiasco in Yemen, during a raid against a purported Al-Qaeda base on January 29, 2017, which killed one American elite commando, as well as at least eight Yemeni civilians – among which an 8-year-old girl of American nationality.

It will not be the new U.S. President’s last fiasco, either. Yemen has always been a hornet nest for outsiders trying to interfere. The Saudis should know this too by now: almost two years after the ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ was launched in 2015 by Saudi Arabia, the country is still engulfed in civil war. The operation was aimed against rebels from the Houthis, a political and religious movement that had led a coup d’état, and their allies, including the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been ousted in a previous coup in 2012 and helped the Houthis seize power. The Saudis are not an inch closer to success today than the day of the launch, and the country is in a bigger mess than ever.

A citizen of Aden, who wishes to remain anonymous, offered his theory: the Islamist terrorist organization Al-Qaeda (AQAP), which is active in Yemen, is teaming up with or creating, the alliance between the Houthi rebels and President Saleh’s forces. “Members of the Southern Movement are killed by Al-Qaeda fighters”, he said. The Southern Movement is a separatist coalition from southern Yemen, resisting the Houthis’ northern rule and demanding secession. For him, that Al-Qaeda would attack them proves that the terrorist group is part of “Saleh’s forces”.

This is quite an unlikely combination, at least from a sectarian point of view. It is not sure whether the Southern Movement is considered a real threat by either AQAP or the Houthi/Saleh alliance, for the Southern Movement has been lacking leadership and coherence for years and is unlikely to actually move ahead with its separation agenda.

That said, in Yemen, all is possible., and all may be happening. It is very hard to assess the situation from the outside. One thing is certain: the war in Yemen continues and will not stop any time soon. The intervention by the Saudi-led coalition in March 2015 has brought more chaos and more parties to the battlefield than ever before.

To point out exactly who is fighting whom and where is virtually impossible. Each city or area historically has its own tribal, cultural, sectarian particularities and in each of these places, different parties are fighting each other. What is going on in the capital Sana’a is not the same as what is going on in Taiz or Aden or the Hadramaout, to name just a few places.

The situation in Sana’a may be relatively easy to grasp. Historically a Zaidi stronghold (the Shia school followed by the Houthis), the capital was taken by the Houthi-Saleh alliance during the coup in 2014. Since then, it has been under semi-permanent attack from the air by the Sunni Saudi-led coalition. Numerous attempts by the Saudi coalition to retake the city of Sana’a have proven unsuccessful. As Sana’a is still firmly under Houthi control, the government of the previous President, Hadi, ousted in the 2014 coup but recognized by the international community as the Yemeni government, has not returned to the capital. It replaced its seat to the southern port of Aden in 2015. It also moved the Central Bank, which caused new problems, especially for the citizens who work for the government. Their salaries have not been paid for months, allegedly because the Houthis, furious that the bank has been moved, are withholding the lists of employees.

Aden is not so much under permanent Saudi airstrikes, but it is being the theatre of gunfights between militias of all sorts, from Al-Qaeda to the Southern Movement, and troops loyal to the Hadi-government. There are ‘tens of different parties’ fighting in Aden, according to an anonymous source. The place is virtually lawless, he says, because ‘President Hadi is weak.’

In Taiz, a city with a Sunni-majority sitting on the border between what used to be north and south Yemen, there are regular Saudi airstrikes, as well as fierce fighting on the ground between the Saleh/Houthi-rebels in the north and the al-Islah party, also called the Yemeni Congregation for Reform. The latter is Yemen’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Taiz is traditionally their stronghold, which is the reason why the Houthis pushed for Taiz.

The Saudis have changed their stance towards al-Islah several times. For years, Saudi Arabia had supported the al-Islah leadership, until it changed its mind in 2014 and considered al-Islah a terrorist organization (at least in public). But after the takeover of Sana’a by the Houthis, the country has changed its stance again, going back to dealing with al-Islah as an ally more than an enemy.

This last change of mind has not been well received by the other Gulf countries and coalition partners of Saudi Arabia, especially the UAE, which alongside the Saudis play the most active military role in Yemen. The UAE still considers all branches of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist organizations – its monarchy, like that of the other Gulf States, feels threatened by the popular Brotherhood movement – and is unhappy about the Saudi rapprochement towards al-Islah.

From all cities, Taiz is probably suffering the most from the war. It is being shut off from supplies and with snipers all over the place, civilians often get killed after being caught in gunfire exchanges.

And then there is the vast area of the east of Yemen: traditionally out of reach of any governmental control whatsoever, it is now for significant parts controlled by Al-Qaeda or local tribes supported by the Saudi-led coalition.

The civil war in Yemen is a complex situation, but the various conflicts in different cities have one thing in common: everywhere, the humanitarian situation is dire. Millions are on the brink of starvation. Hunger is not new to Yemen but used to affect mostly its lowest class. Now it’s creeping upwards, hitting the middle-class as well. Aid organizations are having trouble reaching the areas where the need is the direst, and when they do, supplies often end up on the black market.

Yemen’s near future doesn’t look promising. “An endless war, like Somalia or Iraq,” is the prediction of the Adeni citizen. And although his observation about Al-Qaeda and the Houthis/Saleh alliance is up for debate, this one is spot on.

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