Although eclipsed by the Syrian Civil War, the ongoing armed conflict in Yemen remains a significant example of instability in the Middle East as well as a worsening humanitarian crisis. Still reeling from the Arab Spring uprising, which led to a near-fatal assassination attempt on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen faced increasing pressure to enact reform. Houthi insurgents, a Zaydi Shia militia that had sporadically conflicted with the Yemeni government for over a decade, took over the capital in a 2014 coup d’état, overthrowing Saleh’s successor, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The civil war has now expanded to involve multiple outside actors, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (1).
Yemen can be explained as one of the numerous battlegrounds in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two regional powers, fueled by an economic rivalry and the Shia-Sunni religious divide, have long sought to expand their alliance networks across the Middle East. Now that a Shia administration replaced Saddam’s Baathist regime, Bashar al-Assad continues to hold on to power in Syria, and Hezbollah retains political and military influence in Lebanon. Moreover, Iran seems to be gaining in the geopolitical contest against Saudi Arabia. Iran’s release from the constraints of international sanctions in the wake of the nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Washington has also opened up resources for the Islamic republic to fund its various proxies in the region, including the Houthis. These conditions in the region certainly increase the pressure on Saudi Arabia to keep Sana’a in Sunni control (2).
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has launched airstrikes on Houthi rebel controlled areas in an attempt to restore the government of President Hadi. Although the Saudi military has been successful in maintaining Yemeni government control in Aden, it has yet to wrest control of the capital from Houthi forces. Saudi airstrikes have come under a significant amount of scrutiny given the resulting high civilian casualties and displaced population. According to international estimates, 7 million Yemenis lack food security and over 10,000 have been killed in the conflict. The Saudi air force in particular has been accused of indiscriminately firing on civilian areas, and one report indicated Saudi use of white phosphorous in its air campaign. The civil war has also been worsened by terrorist attacks from groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who have killed over 100 people in attacks on Shia mosques (3).
Although resource-poor and sparsely populated, Yemen seems to inevitably fit as a critical piece in the Middle East contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powers that have engaged in multiple proxy wars. The worsening humanitarian situation, however, warrants greater attention from the international community. In face of such civilian casualties and refugee populations, the United States must revise its dedication to supporting Saudi Arabia’s strategic goals in order to resolve the civil war. A power-sharing agreement brokered by an outside force may also prevent further conflict between the Houthis and government forces, as well as allow for humanitarian aid to reach Yemeni civilians. Regardless, the geopolitical conflict in the region must be balanced with a concern for civilian populations to prevent further humanitarian crises.
(1) Ghobari, Mohamed. "At Least 10,000 Killed in Yemen Civil War." The World Post. N.p., 30 Aug. 2016. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.
(2) Gibbins-Neff, Thomas. "Saudi Arabia appears to be using U.S.-supplied white phosphorus in its war in Yemen." Washington Post. N.p., 19 Sept. 2016. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.
(3) Laub, Zachary. "Yemen in Crisis." Council on Foreign Relations. N.p., 19 Apr. 2016. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.
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Matt Hinson is a senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University studying International History with a focus on religion & violence in the modern Middle East. His research interests include civil wars, terrorism, and national security.