No end in sight to Yemen’s suffering
The crisis in Yemen is getting bloodier. This month, the civil war in Yemen will complete 1,000 days. As of now, more than 10,000 people have lost their lives and around three-fourths of its 28 million population urgently need help. The conflict has brought the worst cholera outbreak to Yemen, recorded as the biggest of such tragedies in the history of the country. Again, this poorest West Asian nation is on the brink of facing the harshest famine the world has ever witnessed for decades. And above all, the UN has declared the war in Yemen as the world’s “worst current humanitarian crisis”. With the killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, on December 4 by the Houthi rebels, they have sent shock waves not only to the common Yemenis, but also to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, till date the bloodletting in Yemen has not received the kind of attention that it should have.
Let’s have a glimpse at the recent political events in Yemen what has led to the present mess. It was in February 2011, when the youth in Yemen demanded a change of guard — a respite from the clutches of Saleh, who had been ruling the country since 1978. Then tensions mounted when some of the important political and military leaders came out in open to support the youth uprising. Seriously concerned about the regime’s collapse, the Gulf countries and the United States pressed for an immediate solution. After months of wrangling and negotiations between Saleh and the opposition groups, a final deal was settled by the Gulf Cooperation Council, known as GCC Initiative. This initiative of Joint Meeting Parties (JMPs) was signed on November 23, 2011. It outlined a two-year political transition process under which Saleh was to leave office and hand over power to his Vice-President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi. Afterwards, a new Government, consisting of Saleh’s ruling party General People’s Congress (GPC) and the JMP, was constituted. By February 12, 2012, Hadi was elected uncontested the President of Yemen. Then, a formal dialogue process, called as the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), was to convene for identifying the main forces behind the uprising of 2011. Its aim was to chart a new political course for Yemen through a new Constitution which was to be subjected to the public opinion via referendum. But then massive discontent broke out when the proposal was set for dividing Yemen into six federally controlled regions. Meanwhile, the Hirak Movement for southern independence and the powerful Houthis outright rejected the new proposal as they felt this would seriously undermine their distinct identities. Gradually, the mounting frustration with the transition process resulted into the taking over of the Capital city of Sanaa by the joint forces of the Houthis and former President Saleh. This led to the resignation of the Hadi Government and escalation of violence across the country. Finally, Hadi had to leave Yemen and took shelter in Saudi Arabia by March 25, 2015. The very next day, a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition backed by America started a war against the joint forces of Saleh and the Houthis. The main objective of this mission was to stop the Houthi-Saleh expansion, recover Aden, reinstate Hadi as the President and counter Iran’s covert influence through the support to the Houthi rebels. This finally turned a civil war into a regional power rivalry in the trouble-torn West Asia and North Africa country. Simply put, the crisis in Yemen was a reflection of the schism between the Shias and the Sunnis that has been prevailing for centuries across the region.
Today what has happened to Yemen is that it has turned out to be the worst battleground of the region. The raging conflict has simply rained devastation on the poverty-stricken country. Besides, the fight is basically rooted in old conflicts and there is definitely no end to it in sight for now. This is because of the fact that no single group is commanding control over the entire country. Each one is grinding their own axe. And the top of these, external powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are intervening in Yemen for settling their own scores: just to show how powerful they have become over the years by simply pounding on the innocent civilians of the country in the name of re-establishing law and order. This makes the Yemeni war far more complex than the way it started in 2011.
What have been creating chaos are the incessant bombing campaigns brought by both the Houthis and the Saudi-led international forces. On record, the American and the British military advisers have helped the Saudi forces carefully select targets and their respective Governments have provided them with precision-guided munitions, known as “smart bombs”. Unfortunately, most of the time, the coalition forces have missed the targets and this has caused more casualties to civilians.
Besides, what is creating major concern is that the coalition forces are mainly targeting factories, food-storage warehouses and the Sana’a airport so as to cripple all the supply lines to the civilians in the rebel-held territories, particularly to the opposition groups. Although the UN is constantly monitoring the humanitarian missions carrying essentials such as food, medicine and fuel to the north of Yemen (the strongholds of the Houthis), yet the Saudi-led forces quite often stops shipments. Last November, they completely cut off the northern port of Hodeida for more than two weeks which resulted into shortage of basic requirements. The motive behind UN monitoring is to prevent the supply of arms and ammunition to the rebel-held zones. In the meantime, the international humanitarian agencies like the Amnesty International has openly accused the international coalition of targeting hospitals, schools, markets, civilian areas and religious sites, creating terror and escalating the crisis. At the same time, it is very disturbing to note that they are also constantly using “cluster bombs”, which are considered highly imprecise weapons and by now categorised as outlawed in many countries.
Now, what the Houthis wanted is to resurrect the imamate that once strongly ruled Yemen. But the sad fact is that these powerful tribal forces lack the support of the common people of the country. Precisely, the Houthis did not have a plan for ruling Yemen, except taking revenge on their enemies and demonstrating their fighting power. It is felt that the Houthi execution of Saleh, once their short-time ally, indicated their pent up grievances against him for killing their founder Hussein Badr al-Dein al-Houthi in 2004 in his cave in Saada in north Yemen. Tension between the Saleh and the Houthis increased when the rebels started controlling most of the Government Ministries and the Army, which were earlier under Saleh’s command. This virtually pushed a man like Saleh, who ruled the country for more than 33 years, and his party GPC into purely a subordinate status in the alliance with the Houthis. What has finally led to the killing of Saleh was that the Houthis became increasingly suspicious of Saleh having an understanding with Riyadh for turning the tide against them.
However, the way Saleh was eliminated by the Houthis has created a massive wave of sympathy for him, including among the young leaders, who rose up against him in 2011. Many international observers have outlined that this kind of macabre killing violates all kinds of Yemeni tribal and cultural norms, which were supposed to be an integral part of the Houthis. At times, their rise to power has been inaccurately described by many analysts as a popular indigenous tribal movement against the misrule of Saleh. Also, the Houthis are being projected as the victims of political and religious oppression, and, hence, it is their time to reclaim their legitimate place in Yemen. But actually it is not the case. In the last three years, the way the Houthis have tried to impose law and order across the country is creating more chaos than anything else. No one is safe under them, even their own brethren. Though the misrule by Hadi was a fact and the division of Yemen into six federal provinces would have been a disadvantage for the Houthis, their craze for power started much before all these events in 2000s. Another narrative states that the Houthis represent the Zaydi religious minority. And they are the victims of six wars that they fought with the Saleh Government from 2004 to 2010 wherein they had lost their dear ones. But then, they had no problem in teaming up with the same Saleh in 2014 just to topple the Hadi Government pushing the entire country into an open battlefield. So, the Houthis are not so innocent as they are projected by many.
Finally, the Saudi involvement with its coalition partners such as Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain under the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is simply dragging all these nations into a quagmire. It is resurfacing more traditional rivalries than bringing home an atmosphere of peace in the region. The Saudi championing of the Sunni cause will surely embolden Iran to go deeper into Yemen and many other conflict zones in West Asia and to the rest of the world. If Saudis are blamed for much of the misery in Yemen, then the forces of Saleh and the Hothis are playing no less in this bloodbath. It is very urgent that the UN and the major powers such as America and Britain, which are actively involved in West Asia, must work out a pragmatic solution to save millions of innocent civilians and safeguard the territorial integrity of Yemen.
(The writer is an expert on international affairs)
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