The Yemeni conflict is frequently called a forgotten war, because in terms of media coverage it is always overshadowed by Syria and Iraq. But its tragedy is no less serious, and has no justification; this is the only simple thing about the conflict. Politically and historically it is a complete mess, more so than the public imagines.
The roots of the bloodshed go deep; we must take this into account when analyzing the situation. The current crisis started not in 2014 but in June 2004, and its direct roots are in the 1962 revolution in North Yemen that ended more than 1,000 years of Zaidi rule.
In 2004, the conflict flared when dissident Zaidi cleric Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi launched an uprising against the Yemeni government, following an attempt by the authorities to arrest him. The government accused the Zaidis and other Islamist groups of trying to overthrow it and the republican system. Iran was accused of managing and fueling the uprising with financial support.
The rebels said they were defending themselves, and accused the government of committing an act of aggression. The conflict has since killed thousands of people and caused severe economic losses for the country.
In 2011, the Houthis tried to ride the wave of the 2011 revolution, expressing their full support for democracy. They overthrew the local government in Saada and established their own rule, independent from Sanaa. Following the revolution, Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down after 33 years as president, and was succeeded by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Yemenis had many reasons to be discontent with the government, including enormous corruption, high levels of unemployment, economic decline and the absence of prospects for youths. These formed the core of the uprising, which was part of the Arab Spring. A change of leader could hardly bring significant change to the country; it needed in-depth reforms and a full restructuring of the governmental system.
Since 2011, Ansar Allah, the official name of the Houthi movement, had been sustainably undermining the authorities in Sanaa. It overthrew them in January 2015 after months of clashes and protests, again seizing on popular grievances such as the rising price of oil to gain support from ordinary Yemenis. Pro-Saleh forces joined Ansar Allah, even though the Houthis supported the 2011 revolution against him.
Attempts at constructive dialogue have failed as the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces have violated agreements and cease-fires.Maria Dubovikova
Hadi was forced to leave Sanaa, and the Houthis seized key provinces, though they have been expelled from southern Yemen due to Operation Decisive Storm. The campaign is carried out by a broad international coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by many major global and regional players, including the US. It is accompanied by Operation Restoring Hope, whose aim is to reach a political solution, but so far without concrete results.
Seven million people are on the brink of starvation due to the conflict. The health care system has collapsed. The conflict is worsening and becoming sectarian. The Houthis can no longer deny receiving backing from Iran, which they have been trying to conceal since 2004.
It is difficult to deliver humanitarian aid, especially in areas under Houthi control, not only due to airstrikes, but because of Houthi denial of access to aid convoys, and provocations by local community leaders. A Russian humanitarian convoy recently faced such a provocation while distributing aid in the Darawan camp for internally displaced Yemenis, forcing it to stop its work. Such cases are common and lead to the continuation of people’s suffering.
Attempts at constructive dialogue have failed as the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces have violated agreements and cease-fires. But a cease-fire is urgently needed, at least to allow humanitarian convoys to reach those in need, and at best to launch a political process and implement a UN roadmap.
The insurgents are becoming global troublemakers, recently planting underwater mines in Bab Al-Mandab, thus threatening the security of navigation in one of the most important waterways.
The situation is aggravated by Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Yemen is bombed not only by coalition forces but also by the US, which has been striking terrorist positions in Yemen since the mid-2000s, inflicting civilian casualties. Coalition airstrikes are undoubtedly causing severe civilian losses, as in any similar situation.
Peace must prevail soon, not in the name of politics but for civilians. The coalition and its international supporters, as well as the legitimate President Hadi and forces loyal to him, are eager to work on a political solution and an inclusive government. But the international community does not have sufficient influence over the Houthis, whose actions belie the innocent image they are trying to portray. They are first to be blamed for civilian suffering.
Their slogan “death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory to Islam” hardly correlates with the image of an oppressed people fighting for democracy and equal rights. The slogan is reminiscent of something heard all too often in Iran.
Continuing violence and sectarianism are creating regional instability and a breeding ground for extremist groups and terrorism. A roadmap to settle the conflict exists. The hardest question remains how to make all sides speak with each other. They have to demonstrate a high level of responsibility for the fate of their own compatriots, who have become hostages, and put aside politics to work on building a common fate.
The work of government institutes that are trying to function despite the conflict shows the high potential of Yemenis to overcome the crisis. The international community should take an active part in the peace process.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). She can be reached on Twitter: @politblogme.