Once again a target

Concerted diplomatic efforts are needed to bring peace to the volatile Yemen

On January 20, hundreds of people were hit by yet another deadly missile attack in Yemen. The attack took place at a military centre where forces loyal to embattled President Mansur Hadi were being trained. He has blamed the Houthi forces for this attack.

Hadi was field marshal of Yemeni army established after the reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990.

North Yemen consisted mostly of the western part of the country with its capital in Sanaa. It had been an independent country for 28 years from 1962 to 1990. Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire, North Yemen came into being as a Mutawakkilite Kingdom that lasted for 44 years (from 1918 to 1962.)

Its capital was Sanaa till 1948 when Taiz became its seat of government. It is worth mentioning that the southwestern part of the Arabian peninsula was once called Greater Yemen. It contained Aseer, Najran, and Jizan, now part of Saudi Arabia. The western coast of the Arabian Peninsula, stretching from the Gulf of Aqaba to Babul Mandab was called Tihama. So the Greater Yemen stretched from the eastern region of Dhofar —now in Oman — to the southern corner of Tihama in the west.

The region was a home to a lot of diversity, sometimes blamed for today’s civil war. The latest attack took place in the central province of Yemen, called Marib, which is to the east of Sanaa. It also damaged a mosque where people were gathering for prayer. While the government has accused the Houthis for this attack, they have not claimed responsibility for it. To date, the number of casualties in the civil war has reached over 50, 000. Most of the deaths have been in attacks from the Saudi-allied forces.

In addition, millions of people have become homeless and are facing an acute shortage of food and medicines. The current civil war started in 2014 when the Houthi tribes and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh occupied Sanaa. In 2015, Saudi allied forces attacked Houthi-Saleh forces to help Mansur Hadi; the USA also started supporting them. The Houthis killed Saleh in 2017. In 2018, the official forces of Yemen, and the UAE-supported Yemeni militants based in Aden, joined the fight. Since then over 15 million people have faced starvation and many are on the brink of death.

Around three million children and women are estimated to have been victims of the violence. During the past five years the allied forces have conducted hundreds of air raids targeting homes, hospitals, and schools. In 2018, a wedding party was also attacked, resulting in dozens of deaths. Human-rights organisations say that most of the arms and ammunition used in these raids come from the US. From the other side, Houthi forces have also repeatedly pounded Yemeni cities in areas that are not under their control. They have also mounted ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and committed other war crimes.

One of the cities targeted by the Houthis is Taiz, the third largest city in Yemen. In August 2017, Houthi-Saleh forces pounded Taiz frequently. Before that in May 2017 too, dozens of people were killed in such attacks. Mansur Hadi’s forces then launched a counter attack. The city of Taiz was taken by by the Houthi-Saleh forces in March 2016, that’s why the forces wanted to expel them from there. In addition, landmines have been laid all over the place killing countless civilians. The warring factions are accused of abducting civilians and torturing them.

In December 2019, Houthi rebels had agreed to a ceasefire under the UN auspices to vacate the three ports on the Red Sea so that humanitarian aid could be offloaded there. Before that in September 2019 too, the Houthis had offered to stop attacking Saudi Arabia.

In August 2019, Houthi forces attacked the southern city of Mansur Hadi and targeted a military parade, killing dozens. In March 2015, when the Houthis had occupied most of the western regions of Yemen, Mansur Hadi had to flee for his life. Saudi Arabia and eight other Sunni majority countries intervened to support Hadi. Another aspect of this civil war is that the supporters of Hadi accuse Iran of helping the Houthis. That is one reason the US, Britain, France, and others have been providing arms and ammunitions to the Saudi-allied forces.

In December 2019, Houthi rebels had agreed to a ceasefire under the UN auspices to vacate three ports on the Red Sea so that humanitarian aid could be offloaded there. Before that in September 2019 too, the Houthis had offered to stop attacking Saudi Arabia. There are certain similarities between the Houthis and the Afghan Taliban. For example, both claim to be eager for talks but, at the same time, keep attacking their opponents. Both Houthis and the Taliban occupy large tracts of their countries and both are fighting against US allies.

Perhaps the only difference is that Ashraf Ghani is based in the Afghan capital whereas Mansur Hadi has had to flee from Sanaa and make Aden his capital. Right now, the head of the Houthi Supreme Council is Mahdi al-Mashahat. He has been promising that he would stop all attacks on Saudi Arabia and its allies provided they reciprocate. Then, in September bombing over a 100 people were killed in Saudi Arabia. That development smothered all chances for an early peace. In 2019, a British court ruled that the sale of British arms to Saudi Arabia was unlawful.

An organisation working against arms sales, Campaign against Arms Trade, had lodged a complaint in the court so that arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted. After this verdict, British minister for international trade, William Fox announced no new licence would be issued for sale of British weapons to Saudi Arabia and its allies. At one point, the UAE too deployed over 7,000 soldiers to fight in Yemen. The number has now dwindled to just a few hundred.

Now it is mostly the Saudi and Yemeni forces that are fighting against the Houthis. The UAE had reckoned to achieve a couple of objectives from this adventure. It wanted to forestall a total Houthi occupation of Yemen to prevent Babul Mandab falling into the Iranian influence. Overall, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been unable to achieve much from this war. The Houthis are still in control of Sanaa and other large regions of the country. For the time being, the USA also appears to be more interested in selling its weapons.

Mansur Hadi was president of Yemen for three years, from 2012 to 2015. Before that for 18 years he was vice-president of Yemen from 1994 to 2012 serving under President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh, who was killed at the age of 70 by the Houthis in 2017 had become president of a unified Yemen in 1990 and retained that position for 22 years. Before that Saleh was president of North Yemen for 12 years (from 1978 to 1990).

As mentioned earlier, North Yemen was known as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom from 1918 to 1962. When the Zaydis expelled the Ottoman rulers from Yemen, it was difficult to keep the country united because of the mountainous terrain. In 1850, the Ottomans had occupied the coastal regions of Tihama forcing the Zaydi imams to accept the dominance of the Ottomans and allow a small contingent of their army in Sanaa. During World War I the Zaydis occupied the mountain regions. The state of North Yemen survived from 1918 to 1990 when it was reunited with South Yemen.

Now that unity is shattered and there is no hope for its early restoration.


The writer is an analyst and development professional holding a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He can be reached at [email protected]

Once again a target: Volatile Yemen in need of concerted diplomatic efforts