Followers of Middle East news are likely aware of the simmering conflict in Yemen. It is now appearing to burst its narrow confines, and draw in a number of regional players. As with most conflicts that involve overlapping sectarian, regional, and internal power dynamics, the Yemen conflict is aggravated by the shifting motivations of the players. We will attempt here to describe the basics of the current war (and it is a war) in a way that imparts a general understanding without bogging us down in minutiae.
As a preliminary matter, we must first identify the Houthis. Originally a theological movement allied with the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, it has now taken on the character of an armed militia fighting group. In the early 1990s the group’s primary focus was the fraternal aspects of religious devotion. It had two opposing internal currents: one part of the group called for more openness, and other voices called for more traditional interpretations of Shia doctrine.
The founder of the group, Hussein Bader Addian al-Houthi, was an advocate of the “openness” faction. The movement became militarized around 2004 in response to a crackdown by the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. When Saleh sent security forces into Houthi territory (Saada province) to arrest Hussein Houthi, armed revolt against the government followed. Hussein Houthi himself was killed in 2004.
Broadly speaking, the political demands of the Houthis now are these: greater autonomy for their northern Yemeni region (Saada province), and a greater role in the federal government in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.
The Houthis are also strongly opposed to Sunni fundamentalist types. They have not hesitated to use force to stop Salafis and other more unsavory types of the Sunni extremist gallery.
Chaos and disorder are also fueled by widespread dissatisfaction with the government, which is rightly seen as either ineffective or as a puppet of the West. The Houthis political rivals, the Islah Party, accuse the group of being tools of their co-religionists in Iran, and of trying to restore the Shia government that ruled Yemen until 1962.
The former Yemeni president, Saleh, was deposed several years ago. His sudden departure after decades of rule left a power vacuum that has contributed to the epidemic of violence. The new president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has been unable to assert control over anything more than the presidential palace.
Complicating matters even more is that fact that former president Saleh has not just departed quietly. He is actively colluding with the Houthis to undermine the current president; without doubt he harbors delusions of returning to power.
What appeared likely to remain a localized conflict has now recently become internationalized. Saudi Arabi has begun conducting airstrikes inside Yemen in an attempt to degrade Houthi military effectiveness. This intervention was prompted by Houthi power demands that were seen as excessive; rather than settle on being part of a coalition government, the Houthis now seem to think that they can impose their will on their opponents by force. Saudi military actions also took place in 2009, but were on a much smaller scale.
Saudi military strikes (which are called Operation Decisive Storm) have destroyed the Yemeni air force and a considerable portion of its missile capability. The Saudis are concerned with casting the Yemen problem in terms of its own “Shia-Sunni” obsession; in Riyadh’s view, the hand of Iran is everywhere, and all Shias are Iranian proxies.
This line has had some resonance in the West. The Saudis are receiving American backing for their invasion, and this support is joined by Turkey, France, and Britain. Other countries are providing more direct military support: Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and the Gulf States. Opposing military action (rhetorically) are Iran, China, and Russia.
Taking advantage of the chaos are some of the more unpleasant groups in the region: Al Qaeda is there of course, as well as various more obscure Sunni and Wahabi extremist groups.
Although the current president claims to be the “legitimate” president of Yemen, he was the sole candidate for the office in 2012, and was “running” at a time when his term in office had expired. It was the current president who invited in foreign powers to bomb his country.
None of this is likely to end well. Completely absent from the media coverage of the crisis is any mention of Yemen’s long history of being a quagmire for foreign powers. The Egyptian army in the 1960s sent over 70,000 men to Yemen for roughly the same reasons as it now supports actions against the northern Yemenis today. In that conflict, often called “Egypt’s Vietnam,” nothing of any substance was achieved, despite a high death toll and the use of chemical weapons.
Yemen is now perched on the edge of civil war, with much the same depressing sectarian overtones that have characterized the warfare in Syria and Iraq. It is difficult not to conclude that the entire Middle East is entering a new period of chaos and violence, which I predict will not end in our lifetime.
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