According to the Jamie McGoldrick of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 40,000 have been injured and 16,200 people have been killed in Yemen, including 10,000 civilians (primarily children) from March 2015 to January 2017i with 8,000 Yemeni civilians killed from March 2015 to March 2016 alone primarily from indiscriminate airstrikes.ii Jullian Assage of Wikileaks reported that 3.15 million have been internally displaced from the conflict.iii According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) between March and November 2015, the Saudi Arabian dictatorship dropped bombs sold to the regime by the US government on nearly 100 Yemeni hospitals “with the most recent airstrike hitting a clinic on Sunday in the southern city of Taiz—one the country’s most populous regions, which has been under heavy fire for months. The shelling of Al-Thawra hospital in the south came just weeks after a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic was hit in Haydan, in the north.”iv The Al-Thawra hospital was shelled multiple times in one day, making it clear this was targeted, intentional attack.
Deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Yemen, Kedir Awol Omar, said “Health facilities are deliberately attacked and surgical and medical supplies are also being blocked from reaching hospitals in areas under siege.” MSF has been unable to deliver medical supplies to two hospitals in Taiz as a result. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied intentionally targeting hospitals. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, admitted the coalition forces hit an MSF hospital in the Haydan district of Yemen’s northern Saada province but blamed MSF for allegedly supplying the wrong coordinates, which MSF denied, adding that their symbol was painted on the roof before it was hit.v On September 28 2015, a wedding was intentionally targeted by airstrikes, resulting in the deaths of 30-50 women and children.vi Another wedding was hit by an airstrike on October 7 in Sanaban village in the Dhamar governorate. The Saudi Arabian dictatorship has also intentionally targeted schools. Doctors Without Borders in Yemen reported on August 13 2016, 28 were injured and 10 were killed, all between the ages of 8-15 in the Saudi bombing of a school in the village of Haydan in the northwest province of Saada, Yemen. RT reported in February of this year “Britain is tracking 257 alleged breaches of international humanitarian law committed in Yemen by Saudi Arabia, a major UK arms customer, the government has admitted.” vii Saudi airstrikes have also targeted densely populated urban centers, factories, and even the Noor Center for the Blind in the Safiah district. Saudi Arabia has also blocked food and water shipments to Yemen, which was already food and water insecure before the civil war as it is one of the poorest countries in the Mideast with a nominal per capita GDP of a scant $1,075 according to IMF data from 2012. 50% of the country is food insecure and dependent on UN food aid for survival
The US government (USG) has also killed civilians at weddings with drone strikes in Yemen. The UN reported in 2015 that US drone strikes have killed more civilians than Al-Qaeda, making it clear the US is a far greater perpetrator of terrorism.viii US involvement violates the War Powers Act as it has received no approval from Congress. According to data gathered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism since January 2002, 206 drone strikes have been made on Yemen, resulting in 866-1184 deaths, of whom 160-197 were civilians and 46-48 were children. As an example, on January 26, 2015, a CIA drone strike killed Mohammed Toaymen, a sixth grade child reportedly aged between 12 and 15. CIA involvement in Yemen may go beyond drone strikes. Saudi dictator King Abdullah bin Abulaziz Al-Saud has met with the Director of the CIA, Leon Panetta in Riyadhix and its possible the CIA is among the principal architects of the conflict.
The major players in the war are Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, also known as Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, of whom there are 4000 in the state, 300 ISIL members, most of the Yemeni government based in Aden led by Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, a Sunni and former Major General and Minister of Defense during the South Yemeni Civil War of 1994 who “won” the Presidency with 99.80% of the votes in an obviously rigged election, the Revolutionary Committee/Supreme Political Council of Houthis also called Ansar Allah, (or Partisans of God) a Zaidi (liberal and moderate early sect of Islam) Shia-led movement, and a coalition force of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, France, the US, the UK, Somalia, Pakistan, Turkey, and China (noncombatant). Essentially, the coalition that includes the US is primarily targeting the Houthis, the only force in Yemen committed to eliminating Al-Qaeda. Most of the Yemeni military Security Force remains loyal to Hadi but parts are loyal to the Houthis and Former Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Republican Guard of the Yemen army supports the Houthis and the so-called “Popular Resistance” and some tribal fighters support Hadi. AQAP and ISIL operate largely on their own and aren’t allied with either the Yemeni government or the Houthis and attack them both. In fact, in 2011 Saeed Ali Al-Shihri, deputy leader AQAP declared a ‘holy war’ against the Houthis.x The US and UK are supplying Saudi Arabia with the majority of its weapons for the war, including billions of dollars worth of tanks, smart bombs, and cluster bombs, which are banned in more than 100 countries. According to UK’s Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Great Britain has sold £3.2 billion in weapons to Riyadh (capital of Saudi Arabia) since the beginning of the Saudi assault on Yemen and £7 billion of weapons since the beginning of Cameron’s term, “including a contract for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets.”xi The Royal Air Force (RAF) of Britain has also trained Saudi Arabia how to use Paveway IV missiles, according to the Ferret, an investigative news site.
In 2015 Vice News reported “Since October 2010, the US has sold Saudi Arabia more than $90 billion in aircraft, defense systems, bombs, missiles, and other weapons.”xii Looking at a slighter longer timetable, US arms sales to Saudi Arabia from January 2009 to August 2016 totaled $115.3 billion.xiii According to the US Defense Security Cooperation agency, Washington approved the sale of 133 tanks and 20 recovery vehicles for $1.15 billion to Saudi Arabia in August 2016 alone while lauding the Saudi dictatorship as a “leading contributor of political stability and economic progress.” Just last year the US State Department approved another sale of 22,000 “smart bombs” for $1.29 billion to the government of Saudi Arabia. These bombs are being used in both Syria and Yemen on civilians. Obama approved the largest weapons sale in American history to Saudi Arabia and as a token of gratitude, he received $1.3 million in gifts from the Saudi dictatorship last year.xv The USG has also provided training and arms to the Yemeni military since 2008 before the war started. The USG is also aerially refueling Saudi bombers, conducting search-and-rescue operations, and providing logistical support and what the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) calls “targeting assistance” for the Saudis.
Ironically, the Houthis weapons are largely from the USG as well. Former Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh received large weapons shipments from the USG, which were then stolen by the Houthis during transport to Sana’a. Some of Saleh’s US weapons were also given to Houthis by military commanders loyal to the Houthis. A 2015 UN report estimates that Yemen is inundated with 40 to 60 million weapons. Gareth Porter of the Middle East Eye reported in 2015 that “According to Pentagon documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act by Joseph Trevithick, the Defense Department had delivered about $500 million in military hardware to the Yemeni military from 2006 on. The gusher of new US arms included Russian-made helicopters, more than 100 Humvees with the latest armor packages, 100s of pickup trucks, rocket propelled grenades, advanced radios, night vision goggles and millions of rounds of ammunition.”xiv
Washington DC claims Iran is backing the Houthi rebels with little evidence to show for it, aside from the fact that Houthis and most Iranians are Shias. It’s important to note, however, that Twelver Shiism is the predominant branch of Shia Islam in Iran while the Twelvers are a minority in Yemen. Accusations have also been made that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) is training Houthi forces on an island off the Eritrean coast but again it is unclear if there is any truth to these claims. When the Houthis gained control of Sana’a they released several Iranian prisoners but this is hardly definitive evidence of any kind of solid connection. Instead, Washington’s claims are likely part of their larger strategy to demonize Iran to appease Saudi Arabia, maintain Saudi and Israeli hegemony in the region, and keep the oil money flowing. The Yemeni government itself has spread these rumors as well along with rumors that Hezbollah is training the Houthis in order to encourage US assistance in their fight against the Houthis.
In October 2016 Iran sent its Alvand and Bushehr warships to the Gulf of Aden where the US was launching cruise missiles at Houthis but the Iranian government claims this was only done to fight Somali pirates who were targeting major commercial freighters. The warships were deployed as the Saudi dictatorship established a naval blockade in the Red Sea allegedly to intercept Iranian and Eritrean arms shipments to Shia rebels. The Yemeni government claimed its navy stopped an Iranian ship called the Mahan-1 with weapons on board in the Red Sea on Oct. 26 2009. But diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Yemen released by Wikileaks in 2010 show that the ship was actually empty and that the story was concocted by the Yemeni government.xvi Another group of warships was sent in November and the Jihan 1 ship, which was actually carrying weapons was intercepted by the Yemeni military on January 23, 2013. However, despite widely disseminated claims that this was proof of an Iranian connection, the entire crew was Yemeni, the ship was not made in Iran, and the ship was headed to Somalia, not the Houthis in Yemen.xvii Regardless, the allegation that Houthis are mere Iranian proxies is absurd. The Houthis have repeatedly disobeyed Iran’s requests to not take Sana’a and the Houthis have a legitimate cause against the Yemeni government independent of Iran.
The Provenance of the Civil War
The Zaydis have long resisted foreign imperalism and they sucessfully expelled the Ottoman Empire in the 17th Century. The empire occupied Tihamah in 1849 but faced strong Zaydi resistance. With the fall of the empire, the Zaydis were able to create an independent state (however, the king who ruled it was autocratic) in 1918 that lasted until 1962 when the North Yemen Civil War broke out. When in power the king refused to acknoweldge the British Aden Protectorate that was negotiated by the Ottoman empire, resulting in skirmishes with the British. Zaydis have faced increased repression since then. The Zaydi Houthi movement is a more recent devleopment but is committed to expelling foreign powers and imperalists as their Zaydi predecessors were.
The Houthi insurgency on the Yemeni government was catalyzed in 2004 when Saleh ordered the arrest of Houthis peacefully protesting outside of mosques. In June Yemeni police arrested 640 Houthis protesting in front of the Great Mosque of Sana’a and the government offered $55,000 for the capture of Hussein Bader Addian al-Houthi, the founder of the group. The following month, 25 Houthis were killed by the Yemen army, sparking Houthis resistance, in which Al-Houthi was killed. The insurrection briefly ended with a ceasefire on June 16 2007, the conditions of which required Houthis to move to Qatar. However, the insurrection resumed in April 2008 with a rebel ambush on Yemeni soldiers and escalated to the ongoing civil war in March 2015. At the start of the insurrection in 2004, the Yemeni government claimed Houthis were attempting to overthrow the state and implement Zaidi religious law while Houthi leaders denied this and claimed they were merely protecting themselves from government attacks and discrimination. There are many other reasons to resist the Yemeni government. For example, according to Yemen’s Constitution, Sharia is the sole source of legislation and simply criticizing the President is a crime. The Houthis also oppose the ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Sunni Islam branch known as Salafism that some members of the Yemeni government and AQAP identify with.
In 2009 the Yemeni government launched “Operation Scorched Earth” in northern Sa’ada, during which more than 80 IDPs were killed in an air raid at a camp for displaced Yemenis on September 17th. Saudi Arabia began bombing the Houthis in November of 2009 after a series of skirmishes on the border. Starting on December 14 2009, the US launched 28 air raids in Yemen, killing at least 120, including 63 civilians and 28 children in Amran, Hajjah, and Sa’dah in northern Yemen according to Houthi leaders. Obama admitted to authorizing the strikes but claimed the target was an Al-Qaeda training camp and a site where “an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned.”xviii On January 25 2010, the Houthi leader Abdul Malek al-Houthi offered to cease fighting in order to prevent civilian casualties. But the Yemeni and Saudi government kept attacking and the truce was rejected.
Inspired by the revolutions taking place in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring of 2011, 16,000 Yemenis, including many youth, took to the streets to protest Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh who had been in power for 33 years at that time, whose predecessors were assassinated, and who offered the USG access to Yemen under the guise of conducting strikes on Al-Qaeda affiliates according to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. Saleh responded by promising to raise the salaries of civil servants and military personnel by at least $47 dollars a month as a way to maintain military loyalty that he needed to quell dissent in the streets. In late February Abdul Malik al-Houthi came out in support of the protests and large numbers of Houthis began to join him. Houthis captured Sa’ada on March 24 and two days later declared their own administration in the city. On July 28 Houthis attempted to take over government infrastructure in al-Jawf and after four months of fighting and 470 Houthi casualties they succeeded. In November Houthis seized control of the Kuhlan Ash Sharaf District. On November 23, Saleh signed an agreement that would transfer his presidential powers to the VP, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, in 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Many protesters and Houthis rejected the deal. Protests led by Houthis continued in September and October of 2012 and again in August 2014.
After Houthis besieged and took control of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a on September 21, 2014, Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa resigned followed by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and his ministers on January 22, 2015 after Houthi forces took control of the presidential palace, residence, and key military installations. The Houthis dissolved the Parliament and formed a Revolutionary Committee to govern the country in its place led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. On March 25 2015, Houthis gained control of Lahi and reached the edges of Aden. Hadi fled in response and Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in an alleged attempt to bring Hadi back to power. The United States provided intelligence, logistical support, and many missiles. Hadi is opposed by the Houthis as he cut subsidies for fuel, driving up the price. They also objected to the ‘election’ that brought him to power, in which he ran unopposed. Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthis, considers Hadi a part of the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam accused Hadi of arming and funding the terrorist group in January 2015.xix
When rebels toppled Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, a close USG ally, the USG had increasing difficulty acquiring intelligence for its drone program. Since they can’t find targets to drone, they collectively punish the entire country with US bombs. WikiLeaks reported in the Yemen Files that Saudi Arabia’s interest in Yemen lies in Yemen’s control of an area of the Middle East “through which 11 percent of the world’s petroleum passes each day.” This would explain the US and UK interests in Yemen as well as the US has an agreement with Saudi Arabia that assures they only exchange US dollars for their oil, thus increasing the demand for the US dollar while in return providing the Saudis with superior American weaponry. The opposition of the government of Saudi Arabia to Houthi control might also be driven by the fact that Saudi Arabia is over 90% Sunni while the Houthis are devote Shias and it would also explain why the Saudis prefer Hadi, a Sunni, to lead the country.
A month after Hadi resigned, he rescinded his resignation and criticized the Houthi takeover as a coup. Hadi fled to Riyadh on March 26 as Saudi Arabia began its bombardment of Yemen. The Saudi coalition was able to retake Aden in September 2015 and Hadi returned the same month. On August 15, 2016, the Supreme Revolutionary Committee ceded its powers to the Houthi Supreme Political Council. 100,000 Yemenis took to the streets on Sana’a on August 20th 2016 to countenance the Supreme Political Council. On January 29th US special forces raided in Yemen killed 14 suspected Al Qaeda militants, according to the Pentagon, and reportedly as many as 16 civilians, including children—one of whom was an 8-year-old US citizen. During the first week of March of 2017, 45 US airstrikes have targeted AQAP, which killed hundreds of members. On March 25, 2017, a court in Sana’a sentenced Hadi and 6 government officials, including ambassador to the US, Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak, and the former foreign minister, Riyadh Yassin, to death in absentia for high treason.
It is important not to cast the Houthis as strictly righteous freedom fighters. According to the Sanaa-based rights group, Shawthab Foundation for Children, UNICEF, Islamic Relief, and Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection, the Houthis and the Yemeni government have both forced children to become soldiers.xx In fact, the Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection claims half of the Houthi rebels are under 18. In 2007 Yemen ratified both optional protocols in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which “require States to do everything they can to prevent individuals under the age of 18 from taking a direct part in hostilities”. According to Will Yeldham writing for the Organization for World Peace, “In November 2009, over 400 children walked to the UNDP office in Sana’a, to protest against the alleged Houthi abuse of children’s rights.” 36 activists, journalists, professors, and teachers are also being tried in a Houthi court in Sana’a, and some have allegedly been tortured according to a professor during one the trials.xxiYahia Abdulraqeeb al-Jubaihi was the first journalist to be sentenced to death by the Houthis. The Houthis have also been accused of shelling civilians. Human Rights Watch accused Houthis of planting landmines in Taizz, causing civilian casualties and of interfering with human rights organizations. However, the Houthis are arguably more ethical and definitely more tolerant than the Yemeni government, any of the coalition forces, or Al-Qaeda comparatively. Perhaps this is because they lack the same power and technology but their ideologies are also more benign in comparison. Regardless of the coalition’s attempts to paint this is a proxy war between Iran and the coalition forces, this civil war is truly a fight for Houthi autonomy on one side and Saudi hegemony on the other. The Yemeni noncombatant civilians, however, are the biggest victims and they must be given the opportunity to govern their own affairs free from external terror. The coalition forces must withdraw from Yemen, so that justice and peace can finally be brought to Yemen.
(The featured image shows the bodies of Yemeni victims of a Saudi-led air strike in the rebel-held Yemeni port city of Hodeida on Sept. 21, 2016.)