Yemen's war: A story of internal power struggles and foreign intervention

Yemen's war: A story of internal power struggles and foreign intervention
Analysis: Since the 2011 uprising, Yemen has become a battleground for internal and external warring factions, and escalating foreign intervention, writes Bilal Ahmed.
7 min read
29 June, 2017
The Yemeni civil war grew out of decades old unresolved tensions between existing elites [AFP]

"The first duty in this joint effort," President Trump said on 21 May, "is for your nations to deny all territory to the foot soldiers of evil".

Trump went on to emphasise American resolve against the Taliban and Islamic State, while also supporting "strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen".

He also accused Iran of supporting "terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups" in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, raising the possibility of conflict with these countries.

Yemen is likely to see greater foreign involvement in its civil war, especially in light of a record breaking - though recently in doubt - arms deal with Saudi Arabia. As events continue to escalate, it is critical to understand the failed Yemeni Uprising of 2011, which helped lay the foundations for the current unrest.

The Yemeni Civil War, which now includes US-Saudi involvement, has grown out of unresolved tensions between existing elites over the course of decades, that exploded shortly after Arab Spring protests came to Yemen in 2011.

By the end of June 2011, protesters had succeeded in cracking Saleh's authority and provided an opening for serious political change, but lacked the experience and resources necessary to fill the power vacuum by themselves.

As a result, existing political factions were able to capitalise on Saleh's weakness, and a mixture of armed violence by actors such as the Houthis and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and conventional politics from existing factions and parties like Al-Islah, ended up transforming what was a popular revolt into an elite power struggle.

By the end of June 2011, protesters had succeeded in cracking Saleh's authority

The Yemeni uprising began on January 27, when thousands of protesters gathered in the central squares of major cities like Sanaa, Taiz, and Aden.

More rallies took place on February 3, and February 18, with protests largely being driven by a nascent youth movement that was inspired by the Arab Spring, and included established activists like the future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman.

Protests developed into a more general uprising following the "Friday of Dignity" on March 18, when gunmen opened fire on protesters gathered in Change Square in Sanaa, killing 50 and wounding over 200. Saleh's support evaporated overnight, due to obvious links between the gunmen and government officials, and the fact that a paramilitary unit commanded by Saleh's nephew Yahya, did not intervene.

Yemeni supporters of the Houthi movement deploy a giant national flag
during a demonstration to mark the fourth anniversary of the 'Friday of
Dignity' attack on March 18, 2015 in the Yemeni capital [AFP]

Despite his resignation being inevitable, Saleh skilfully evaded a GCC-mediated solution for months, as established political elites asserted themselves against enthusiastic protesters that lacked the resources and infrastructure to maintain a popular revolt.

By June 2011, when Saleh was injured in a rocket attack and a temporary ceasefire was called in Sanaa, established parties such as Al-Islah began to take control of the "change squares". Al-Islah and other elites, such as those from oppositional tribal networks, pushed out grassroots activists with superior organising, funding, experience, divisive religious rhetoric (especially when it came to gender segregation), and more straightforward physical intimidation. 

At the same time, armed groups including the Houthis, and tribes in the provinces of Arhab and Nihm, began to take territories across the country. They feared that a rapidly changing political order would mean that they would be sidelined in favour of military elites such as Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, and highly influential tribal leaders like Sadiq al-Ahmar of the Hashid Tribal Confederation.

Further south, Islamist militias linked to AQAP took the provincial capital of Zinjibar, several months after Saleh recalled military units to crack down on protests in Sanaa and Taiz. The US responded with intensified drone strikes and covert operations.

Yemen is likely to see greater foreign involvement in its civil war

Saleh finally signed a GCC initiative in November 2011 that transferred powers to his former Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi. Saleh was promised immunity, and Hadi would be president during a transitional period.

In December 2011, the remaining youth movement, the Houthis, and Hirak, a movement of southern nationalists that grew out of pension protests half a decade earlier, staged a Life March from Taiz to Sanaa in opposition to the deal, but it was simply beyond their control.

In February 2012, Hadi was confirmed as president in an election where he was the only candidate, with the Houthis, Hirak, and many independents boycotting. Attacks took place on several polling stations, which foreshadowed the impending violence.

  Read more: Thousands of 'disappeared' under Yemen's reign of terror

Hadi moved against Saleh loyalists in the military and over a dozen institutions, and also led the National Dialogue Conference from March 2013 to January 2014. Tellingly, the youth and grassroots movements that drove the original protests weren't invited.

Following the NDC, Hadi stoked existing antagonisms even further by extending his mandate for another year, and being unclear on how he would implement the NDC frameworks. 

Hadi's decision to lift fuel subsidies in July 2014, following pressure from the International Monetary Fund, was likely the point of no return. The Houthis took advantage of public outrage to organise protests with demands for fresh subsidies, criticised the NDC process, and demanded a new government.

By September, an agreement was reached, but several weeks later, the Houthis saw an opening, took control of Sanaa, and dissolved parliament by January 2015. Meanwhile, the United States continued its "counterterrorist" operations regardless of the developments.

After Hadi fled to Aden, the Houthis formed a new Revolutionary Committee, allegedly to carry out the NDC protocols, and rapidly advanced through the country.

Bizarrely, given that they fought multiple wars against each other, Saleh directed his loyalists to assist the Houthis, as an attempt to regain his lost power, and a cycle of "revenge killings" and general crackdowns quickly spread through the country.

Saleh directed his loyalists to assist the Houthis, as an attempt to regain his lost power

The Houthis had taken Taiz by the end of February, where they had to deal with mass protests, and on March 25, had surrounded Aden, with Hadi leaving the country. On 26 March at midnight, Saudi Arabia announced that a coalition of largely GCC nations would intervene to push back the Houthis, through aerial bombardment, ground troops, and eventually, state building initiatives.

Yemen has now largely collapsed, with the Houthis being largely unable to repair the damage of Saudi-led bombings, the state facing total bankruptcy, and further problems such as famine, internal displacement, medical scarcity, growing sectarianism, and a general sense of political hopelessness that is reflected in the fact that Islamic State now maintains a presence in the country.

During the conflict, the Houthis have cracked down on dissent, and coalition forces have struck militants, aid workers (especially those from Medecins Sans Frontieres), and civilians indiscriminately. It is obviously a far cry from the hope and excitement that began the revolt in 2011.

It is unclear how the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen will evolve from here, including for the United States, which seems likely to get more directly involved. It is possible that the Pentagon will respond to the shortcomings of Saudi commanders by handling the war more directly, especially if it means fighting AQAP. 

  Read more: For some in war-torn poverty-stricken Yemen, suicide is the only relief

Further, given that the Trump administration wants to publicly confront Iran to satisfy domestic hardliners, but cannot actually do so in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon - where Iran is either too necessary or too difficult to displace - it could turn to Yemen to score an "easy win".

Trump would simply have to develop Saudi Arabia's already successful arguments that the war is self defence, and exaggerate stories about Iranian support for the Houthis.

Of course, as Saudi Arabia and the GCC-led coalition appear to be learning now, such an approach could easily go the way of the North Yemeni Civil War, and Aden Emergency, when hopes of a swift and decisive victory were quickly swept away by unexpected developments in the country.

Ahmed is a freelance journalist who is currently writing an MPhil/PhD in Religions and Philosophies at SOAS, University of London, specialising in bodily violence and Islamist politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @pakistanarchy