Civil War in Yemen

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Asif Haroon Raja l

Sectarian and tribal divides in Yemen had sharpened during the long rule of President Gen Ali Abdullah Saleh. Separatist movement in South Yemen sought independent country. Saleh unified the country for the first time as an independent state in 1990. The Houthi movement in North Yemen, which champions Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, and backed by Iran, had fought a series of rebellions against Saleh during his rule. Saleh had stated that ruling Yemen and its fractious politics was like dancing on the heads of snakes.

The conflict in north was re-energized in 2004 by the government’s attempt to arrest Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a Zaidi religious leader of the Houthis and a former parliamentarian on whose head the government had placed a $55,000 bounty. Several military campaigns by Saleh, with Saudi armed support, failed to defeat them.

Situation flared up after Arab Spring

Trouble flared up after the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011. Houthis took control of the northern most mountains of Yemen around their stronghold of Sadah Province and neighboring areas in early March 2011.

Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in a bid to force President Saleh to end his 33-year rule. He responded with economic concessions, but refused to resign. The capital city Sana’a became highly turbulent owing to clashes between the protestors including tribal militias and the military. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) led Gulf States prevailed upon reluctant Saleh to make way for his Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Al-Hadi, a Sunni southerner.

Saleh who was a Zaidi, didn’t reconcile to his ouster since he desperately wanted his son Ahmad Saleh, Commander Republican Guards, to become the president.

Transfer of Power

Under an internationally-brokered deal, Yemen finally saw a transfer of power in November 2011 to Hadi, paving the way for elections on February 21, 2012. Hadi received 99.2% votes, but Houthi tribe in northeastern Yemen (9% of total population) boycotted the election, and the security situation kept deteriorating. Hadi’s attempts at constitutional and budget reforms sparked outcry by Houthi rebels.

Fall of Sana’a

With the passage of time, tribal groups in North Yemen that make up the Houthi Ansarallah movement in which many are Zaidi Shias gained strength. With active support of army units loyal to Saleh, those among the Sunnis disillusioned with the transition as well as Iran, Houthis managed to capture capital city of Sana’a in September 2014. They demanded lower fuel prices and a new government. President Hadi was forced to sign a power sharing agreement.

Finding faults in the agreement, the Houthis seized the presidential palace in January 2015 and put Hadi under house arrest. Hadi managed to flee to Aden next month. Houthis proceeded to push southwards towards 2nd largest city Aden and next to third largest city of Taiz in March 2015 other major cities in the south and southwest. Thereon, the power pendulum swung in favor of Houthis and strength of Hadi loyalists kept depleting. Once the pressure of Houthis gathered steam in Aden, and Hadi sought refuge in KSA in March 2015, Riyadh considered it necessary to save Aden.

KSA Security Threatened

Houthis presented a big threat to the security of KSA and Holy mosques as well as to the Arabian Peninsula and backyard of KSA. With Yemen and strategic chokepoint Bab al- Mandab in its bag, it would have become easier for Iran to create unrest in KSA, particularly among its southern regions bordering northern Yemen where the tribes are affiliated with each other and also the Shia heavy province in Eastern KSA which had become restive in 2011 as a result of Arab Spring.

Gain in Yemen strengthened Iran’s arc around KSA formed by Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah axis and made its task of bringing a regime change in Shia heavy Bahrain easier. Loss of Yemen to Houthis would have established credentials of Iran as the regional policeman, a role aspired by KSA.

Explosive situation in Yemen made Arabian Peninsula vulnerable to exploitation by foreign powers as well as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) and thus a threat to the integrity and sovereignty of KSA.

Joint Arab Force

Arab League gave a go-ahead to the formation of Joint Arab Force (JAF) and to launch air war against the Houthis. A coalition of eight Arab States, KSA, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Morocco was formed. However, the Arabs knew that air war alone wouldn’t fetch decisive results and that the Houthis would continue making advances.

KSA’s Expectations

Mindful of the weakness of the Arab militaries, KSA looked towards Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey to provide ground forces for the Arab Force to put fear into the hearts of Houthis and also to deter Iran as well as IS. It wanted a division size from Pak Army to take on Houthis directly, PAF to lead the air assault and Pak Navy to become part of blockade of Gulf of Aden.

KSA expectantly looked towards the two longstanding allies, Egypt and Pakistan. However, to its utter disappointment, both refused to provide ground troops for the war. Pakistan’s parliament unanimously voted against any participation in the war and option of neutrality strained Pakistan’s relations with KSA and UAE. Yemen’s neighbor Oman, also refused to join the Saudi led coalition.

Egypt’s Role

Gen Fatah al-Sisi who had deposed Muhammad Morsi and gained power in Egypt in July 2013 as a result of a military coup expressed keenness to play a lead role in the war to re-establish its credentials as leader of the Arab world, which it had lost after signing peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Sisi was indebted to KSA for recognizing his regime and providing $10 billion assistance.

Although Egypt promised to provide substantial air, naval and land forces, it avoided getting involved in ground fighting inside Yemen because of its bitter experience in 1962-70 conflict in which it had lost 24000 soldiers fighting Houthis and KSA was supporting their opponents. Exhaustion in this prolonged conflict was a reason behind Egypt’s shocking defeat at the hands of Israelis in 1967 Arab-Israeli War. KSA also had a rough experience in its fight with Houthis in 2009 in which it lost over 300 soldiers in a span of 3 months.

Start of Air War

Failing to get troops from Pakistan, KSA deployed troops along its southern border facing Yemen and on March 26, 2015, the Saudi-led JAF launched air attacks against Houthi-Saleh forces at the request of Yemeni President Hadi, duly legitimized by the UN. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) was the chief mover and was confident that Houthis will be humbled within months.

All agreed to stem Iran’s interventionist policy in Arab world and to restore Hadi’s government. The coalition received logistical and intelligence support including air refueling from the US, UK and France. The JAF conducted 19000 raids killing 60,000 people but still couldn’t pushout Houthis from Sana’a. The air war has been costing Riyadh $5-6 billion a month.

Arms Supply by Iran. Numerous Iranian weapons shipments to Houthi rebels were intercepted in the Gulf of Aden by a Saudi naval blockade in place since April 2015. In response, Iran stationed three warships in Gulf of Aden which gave rise to the fear of Yemen crisis morphing into a bigger conflict. However, covert assistance had become difficult in the wake of arms embargo imposed upon Houthis by the UNSC on April 14, 2014 and Russia abstaining from voting.

Coalition Ground Forces. UAE provided largest contingent of ground troops and have been instrumental in recapturing lost territories from Houthis. They played a lead role in the battles of Aden, Taiz and Hodeida. UAE forces have also successfully protected shipping routes in Gulf of Aden. UAE military has been training 90,000 Yemeni soldiers and coordinating employment of 16 Yemeni militias numbering 20,000 men fighting the Houthis in Hodeida. Saudis have restricted their effort to air only as well as protection of 1100 miles border with Yemen.

Houthis Gains

By September 2015, bulk of port city of Aden came under the control of Houthis. Apart from the battle in the north, Aden saw intense battle between Yemeni Army supported by coalition ground troops and Houthis supported by loyalists of Saleh in Yemen Army and aided by Iran in the south.

The Houthis took control of Hodeida and captured 75% of the third largest city of Taiz by August 2015.  They were partially pushed back from Taiz in 2018 by coalition troops.

The Houthis gained control over bulk of the country and installed their government under Abdul Malik Houthi. It was matter of time for the Houthis to dismantle most positions held by beleaguered Hadi loyalists in southern Yemen including leftover pockets of Aden since air attacks had done little to stem their tide. They were confident that air war will not help the Arabs to win the war. UN mandated negotiations also suited them since they were in a position to negotiate from a stronger wicket.  Iran emerged as the chief gainer since it is the only country which enjoys strong influence over Houthis.

Counter offensive. Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi helped by the coalition ground troops led by UAE troops drove out the Houthis and their allies out of much of Southern Yemen over the next few months. Hadi set up a temporary home in Aden but his government struggled to provide basic services and security to the people of Aden. A UN effort to broker peace talks between allied Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized Yemeni government stalled in the summer of 2016.

Non-state Actors. The turmoil allowed entry to al-Qaeda in Yemen. It grew in strength and converted Yemen into its main base for the Arabian Peninsula. Its fighters were subjected to 250 drone attacks by the US from Socotra military base. Later on, IS also sneaked in. Militants from al-Qaeda and the IS took advantage of the chaos by seizing territory in the south and carrying out deadly attacks, notably in Aden. Houthis-Hezbollah ties deepened.

USA’s Involvement. The US combated terrorism in Yemen in collaboration with the Yemeni government since the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Since 2002, the US carried out airstrikes/ drone attacks against Al-Qaeda and the IS in Yemen. In 2016, the US conducted 35 strikes, 130 in 2017 and 36 in 2018. Like Obama, Trump is also supporting the air war but the Congress of late is reluctant to vote for new arms sale to the coalition and so is UK. In October 2018, Mike Pompeo, and James Mattis, both called for an end to the fighting and publicly expressed support for peace talks proposed by the United Nations (UN).

Houthis – Saleh’s Alliance

Nexus of Houthis and the army units loyal to Saleh neither had the capacity to overpower all regions of Yemen nor to retaliate against air attacks because of non-availability of ack ack guns or to mount ground invasion inside KSA. 3000 miles deep desert stretching from Yemen-KSA border up to built-up areas in depth is too formidable to traverse by attackers.

Foreign accounts/assets of Saleh and his son Ahmad were frozen and ban imposed on their travelling. These development had to a large extent tilted the scales in favor of Arab supported Hadi regime in exile. Had the US decided to target Houthis with drones from Djibouti, it would have added to their troubles.

In July 2016, the Houthis and the loyalists of former President Saleh, announced the formation of a “Political Council” to govern Sana’a and much of northern Yemen.

In December 2017, Saleh broke with the Houthis and called for his followers to take up arms against them. Saleh was killed in the same month and his forces defeated.

In January 2018, fighting broke out between KSA backed Yemeni government forces and UAE-backed separatist Yemeni forces in Aden.

Induction of Missiles. Provision of ballistic missiles and later on drones to Houthis by Iran and launch of missiles into cities of KSA including Riyadh in November 2017 added a new dimension to threat perception.

Enforcement of Blockade. Missile threat prompted the Saudi-led coalition to tighten its blockade of Yemen. The coalition said it wanted to halt the smuggling of weapons to the rebels by Iran – an accusation Tehran denied – but the restrictions led to substantial increases in the prices of food and fuel, pushing more people into food insecurity.

Battle of Hodeida

On June 13, 2018, 2000 UAE soldiers and others launched a sweeping ground operation codenamed Golden Sparrow along the Red Sea coast up to the rebel-held Red Sea city of Hodeida, whose port is the principal lifeline for almost two thirds of Yemen’s population. The port city as well as two other ports along the Red Sea had come under the control of Houthis. Aim was to cut off supplies to Houthis and force them to negotiate.

After fierce battles, Stockholm agreement led to ceasefire on December 18th 2018 and entry of the UN force to separate the two antagonists and supervise redeployment of the two warring antagonists. Fighting renewed in May 2019 and both sides continue to violate ceasefire. Withdrawal has so far not taken place.

Drawdown of UAE troops

Sudden decision of UAE to pullout its forces from Yemen is bound to change the complexion of the war. Reportedly, it has already withdrawn 80% of its 5000 troops. It will be a big setback for KSA since for four years UAE has been the military linchpin of Saudi-led war and has been lavishly providing soldiers, funds and weapons and was in the vanguard of ground war. UAE forces were the only effective check against the Houthis. Major reason is that it has become too costly; secondly it has been realized that there is no military solution to the Yemen crisis. UAE military is confident that the 90,000 Yemeni soldiers trained by them will be able to fill the vacuum after their departure.

KSA will now be in the forefront and MBS will be looking toward Washington for greater military support in the form of Special Forces, military advisers, intelligence sharing and drone war. MBS has already approved bigger presence of US troops at the airbase in KSA. Houthis on the other hand will get encouraged to renew fighting in three major cities and capture them.

Human-rights Abuses

The Saudi-led coalition have been targeting Houthi positions and their military installations including missiles arsenal. Fighting is going on in 15 of 22 provinces of Yemen. Human and material collateral damage is increasing with every passing day. Since 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented about 90 apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes, which have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Coalition has used at least six types of widely banned cluster munitions produced in Brazil, the US, and the UK.

The coalition has conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes killing thousands of civilians and hitting civilian objects in violation of the laws of war, using munitions sold by the US, UK, and others, including widely banned cluster munitions.

The Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions on imports have worsened the dire humanitarian situation. The coalition has delayed and diverted fuel tankers, closed critical ports, and stopped goods from entering Houthi-controlled seaports. Fuel needed to power generators to hospitals and pump water to homes has also been blocked.

Houthi forces have blocked and confiscated food and medical supplies and denied access to populations in need. They have imposed heavy restrictions on aid workers and interfered with aid delivery. Both sides have recruited boy soldiers as young as 11 years.

Houthi forces have used banned antipersonnel landmines, recruited children, and fired artillery indiscriminately into cities such as Taiz and Aden, killed and wounded civilians, took hostages, used torture and other ill-treatment of detainees and fired 500 missiles and 150 drone attacks into KSA from Taiz city.

Civilians Worst Affected. The armed conflict in Yemen has taken a terrible toll on the civilian population. Civilians are suffering from a lack of basic services, a spiraling economic crisis, and broken governance, health, education, and judicial systems.

Human Catastrophe

Parties to the conflict have exacerbated what the UN has called the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe, with 14 million people at risk of starvation and repeated outbreaks of deadly diseases like cholera. Famine is knocking at the doors of war-stricken regions.

War is in its 5th year but there are little signs of its abating. Till June 2019, the death toll reached the 100,000 mark of killed and wounded.

Demand for Ceasefire

Immediate ceasefire was demanded by Iran and Russia. Ceasefire, or even operational pause would have been to the advantage of Houthis since they were in control of bulk of the territory and would have helped them in receiving military/logistics assistance and to consolidate their gains. In case of proposed dialogue, they would have dictated terms of their choice. Houthi government in Yemen would be pro-Iran and anti-KSA.

These stark realities impelled KSA and its Arab allies to disagree cessation of air war till Houthis agreed to surrender arms and re-establish Hadi regime and then open dialogue.

War a Disaster

The war in Yemen has been a disaster for the US interests, for Saudi interests, and above all for the Yemeni people. It has been a strategic blunder as well.

The conflict continues to take a heavy toll on Yemeni civilians, making Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The UN estimates that the civilian casualty toll has exceeded 15,000 killed or injured. Twenty-two million Yemenis remain in need of assistance, eight million are at risk of famine, and a cholera outbreak has affected over one million people. All sides of the conflict are reported to have violated human rights and international humanitarian law.

Women in Yemen face severe discrimination in law and practice. Violence against women in Yemen has increased—an estimated 3 million women and girls were at risk of violence by 2018, according to the UN. Forced marriage rates, including child marriage, have increased. Yemen has no minimum age of marriage. They cannot marry without the permission of their male guardian and do not have equal rights to divorce, inheritance, or child custody. Lack of legal protection leaves them exposed to domestic and sexual violence.

War merchants

The US has been a party to the conflict and may be complicit in coalition attacks in which it took part. The US has provided in-air refueling and other tactical support to coalition forces. In November 2018, the US said it was ending in-air refueling to the coalition. The UK has provided training and weaponry to members of the coalition. The US, UK, France, and others have continued to sell munitions and other arms to KSA and other coalition states.

Several US and UK lawmakers have challenged their governments’ continuation of these sales. In last October, the European Parliament called on EU member states to suspend weapons sales to KSA due to its conduct in Yemen, decried coalition war crimes, and called for sanctions against those responsible for obstructing humanitarian assistance. Trump has repeatedly vetoed US Congress legislation designed to curb US supply of weapons for the Yemen civil war.

Way Forward

There has been enough of bloodshed and most victims are innocent civilians caught between the crossfire of two antagonists. Conflict has not made KSA or the region any safer. Air war has provided justification to Iran to keep supplying arms to Houthis. One thing is certain. Military victory is not possible and political settlement is the only way out.

While USA must lay its hands off Yemen, JAF should stop the futile air war, and Iran should stop interfering in Yemen and should prevail upon Houthis to lay down arms and opt for negotiations. KSA should be advised to give peace a chance. Like in Hodeida, the UN must step in to broker peace in other major cities, and earnestly work towards a negotiated settlement between the Hadi regime and the Houthis. The international community and aid giving agencies should further intensify their efforts towards rehabilitation of the war affected people and rebuilding of the war-torn country.

The writer is retired Brig, war veteran, defence analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Member CWC and Think Tank PESS. [email protected]