The conflict in Yemen shows how a lack of democracy and a clash of ideologies can destroy a country. Any discussion of the 2015 Yemeni civil war must begin with an understanding of the political instability in Yemen, which has existed from the start of the unification process and continues on today. The internationalization of the conflict in this country, which began with the exile of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in Saudi Arabia, is also related to the two branches of Islam: Shi’ism and Sunnism. The following analyzes the escalation of the conflict in Yemen from unification (1990) to the present.
1994 Civil War in Yemen. On April 22, 1990, the Sana’a Agreement was signed laying the foundations for unification and the operating rules for the new State of Yemen during a 30-month transition period. On May 22, the President of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas, proclaimed the Republic of Yemen in Aden.
However, the ideological gap between the northern traditionalists and the southern progressives affected Yemen’s unification. The alliance of the General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) entered into a crisis prior to the 1993 elections following the failed attempt to merge the parties. The tension was exacerbated by the urgency of the traditionalist party, al-Islah, to ensure that Sharia law remained the sole foundation of the Yemeni constitution.
Meanwhile, YSP leaders were bothered by the dominance of the GPC in the Yemeni House of Representatives. On October 11, 1993, Saleh was reelected President of the Republic of Yemen and Vice President Ali Salem al Beidh refused to take part in the unified government. Beidh also called for an end to the violence against members of the YSP, the arrest of the perpetrators of the recent murders of members of his party and the adoption of reforms related to the demilitarization and modernization of the country.
Despite conversations between Saleh and Beidh in Amman, a city located near Sana’a, on May 5 the country plunged into open civil war. Saleh decreed a state of emergency to neutralize the progressive elements and accused Beidh of leading the nation into the abyss of fratricide.
The war between the government forces commanded by Saleh and the progressive army of the south, fighting in the name of the YSP, lasted 70 days. The government forces bombed the southern city of Aden and killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians. They also destroyed the water pumping station and cut off the water supply in that city.
Finally, on July 5, 1994, northern troops occupied Yemen’s southern city, and two days later Saleh announced complete victory. On July 27, the President of the Republic lifted the state of emergency. The civil war left between 8,000 and 10,000 victims, most of them soldiers and civilians from the south. After the end of the war, the government detained hundreds of YSP members and excluded Beidh, Attas and another 14 high-ranking progressive leaders from the general amnesty.
Houthi Insurgency (2004-2010). From 2004 to 2010, there was a total of six wars between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. That series of armed attacks was caused by a lack of democracy in Yemen, Saleh’s support of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the assassination of Sheikh Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, founder of the Houthi movement. The evolution of these six wars is detailed in the timeline above.
Arab Spring (2011). With the arrival of the Arab Spring to Yemen in January 2011, protests began demanding the resignation of Saleh. Subjected to growing national and international pressure, the leader resigned as president of Yemen. Former President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi accepted the position of interim president during a transition negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). However, Hadi was unable to establish a dialog between the Houthis and the central government. Taking into account that the primary branch of Islam in Saudi Arabia is Sunnism and that the base ideology of the Houthis is Shi’ism, the inauguration of Hadi shows the ideological gap between both sides. The Houthi rebellion continued.
Houthi Takeover (2014). In 2014, the Hadi administration announced cuts to the fuel subsidies. That was the spark that led to the Yemeni civil war. On August 18, 2014, the Houthis began massive protests and occupied a large portion of Sana’a late that year, continuing their advance to the south. As a result of that pressure, the government resigned in 2015. Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia.
Internalization of the Conflict (2015). Ousted President Hadi requested a military intervention by the Arab and Gulf States. In 2015, Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes against positions of the armed group of Houthis in Sana’a and Saada to restore the Hadi administration in Sana’a.
According to the Congressional Research Service, from the internationalization of the conflict in Yemen (2015), Saudi Arabia launched continuous airstrikes in the north of the country and the Houthis launched ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in Saudi territory. That series of airstrikes continued through early March 2021. The Yemen Data Project, a data collection project, has counted over 22,700 airstrikes by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia from March 2015 to the date this analysis was drafted.
September 2015 was the month with the most airstrikes, with a total of 921 strikes launched by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, between April and May 2016, airstrikes in Yemen were reduced enormously. That was thanks to the intervention of the United Nations (UN), which reached a ceasefire agreement between the Yemeni government forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the Houthis in April 2016. However, according to the UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, there were still deep divisions between both sides and the ceasefire was not respected. As a result, the number of airstrikes per month by the Saudi-led coalition once again rose beginning in August 2016.
The above map shoes the airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition by region and month. The red dots indicate the airstrikes by the government. The red dots constantly appear in Saada, Al Jawf and Al Hudaydah. In other words, from 2015 to the present, the Saudi-led coalition attacked those three regions nearly every month.
Given that the majority of the north of Yemen is controlled by the Houthis, the airstrikes launched by the Saudi-led coalition generally targeted those northern regions. The area affected most by the airstrikes from March 2015 to present is Saada.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that August 2016 was the month that saw the escalation of military activities by the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition. The use of artillery and airstrikes intensified in the areas of the regions of Al Jawf, Sana’a, Shabwah, Taizz and Marib, and on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. All of that caused a greater number of civilian victims and the destruction of civilian infrastructure.
The OCHA also indicates that, from the start of the Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war through August 2016, over 40,000 victims were reported (6,787 dead and 33,857 wounded). The region affected most was Taizz. However, due to the difficulty of collecting data on the victims, the OCHA said that the actual figures are probably significantly higher.
In addition to physical damage, the Yemeni conflict caused a forced displacement of the population. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 4 million people have been displaced by the conflict in this country.
Time of Pandemic (2020-2021). While Saudi Arabia proposed a ceasefire to prevent the propagation of COVID-19 in Yemen, in March 2020 the US administration announced the freezing of $73 million for humanitarian aid in that country for fear that the Houthi rebels would control that aid. Yemeni Health Minister Qasem Buheibih asked other Arab nations for help in the fight against COVID-19. The pandemic and the freezing of financial aid by the US have worsened the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Ceasefire (March 22, 2021). On March 22, 2021, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud proposed a ceasefire in Yemen. However, the Houthis rejected Faisal's proposal and said that if the Saudi airport and the port of Al Hudayda were not reopened, it would not be possible to accept the ceasefire proposed by Saudi Arabia.
On February 4, 2021, President Biden announced that his administration would increase American efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen by appointing a special envoy to the Arab country and ending US support to Saudi Arabia, including the sale of arms.
On May 13, 2021, the Houthis launched a military operation against the Saudi state oil facilities. The spokesman for Houthi military operations, Yahya Sari, said that the group had fired seven ballistic missiles and drones.
Prior to the internationalization of the Yemeni conflict in 2015, the people of Yemen were already living under constant armed attacks by the Houthi movements and the central government. However, the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition since 2015 has worsened the conflict in Yemen. As a result, civilians in Yemen are facing a humanitarian crisis. Despite the crisis caused by the pandemic and the exhaustion of both sides caused by a ceasefire, the deep political and ideological division between the Houthis and the central government, backed by Saudi Arabia, are hindering the end of the war in Yemen.
Jungyun Yuna Lee is Student of the Doble Grado Universitario en Periodismo y Relaciones Internacionales
Coordination: Dr. Ángel Fernández Fernández. Director of the Máster Universitario en Comunicación y Emprendimiento Digital