Enemies on All Sides: Yemen's Civil War and Humanitarian Crises

 /  Oct. 11, 2020, 3:16 p.m.

Yemeni Flags

Even prior to the onslaught of COVID-19, the United Nations had named Yemen, a country decimated by famine, disease, and a five-year civil war, the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Following the first recorded case of COVID-19 in the Middle East, the virus has spread through the country virtually undetected and unchecked, worsening the pre-existing crisis.

In 2015, civil war erupted, turning much of Yemen into a battleground. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Yemen Data Project reports that 17,500 civilians have been killed. Twenty million Yemenis experience food insecurity while another ten million are at serious risk of starvation. To put these numbers in perspective, the United Nations estimates that 80 percent of Yemen’s population requires substantial humanitarian assistance.

Famine, malnourishment, and food insecurity color the already precarious lives of Yemenis caught in an increasingly fractured civil war. Furthermore, the lack of consistent access to food and clean water leaves all citizens at risk of contracting a slew of infectious diseases, including dengue fever, malaria, cholera, and COVID-19. However, data from 150 Yemeni households suggests that hunger and the specter of starvation has superseded people’s fear of contracting an illness. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), the organization responsible for the survey, reported that 62 percent of respondents could not afford adequate food and clean drinking water.

It is clear that the mounting crisis in Yemen will require a series of political, social, and humanitarian solutions. COVID-19, which has and will continue to claim the lives of many living in Yemen, will further destabilize the country, especially if followed by a debilitating famine. Yemen, at war with itself, requires both immediate humanitarian aid and a long-term path to peace. 

Yemen’s Civil War 

The modern state of Yemen was established in 1990, unifying the Yemeni Arab Republic, which had been backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia during the Cold War, and the USSR-supported People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Former military officer Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni Arab Republic’s ruler since 1978, was installed as president of the new nation under the terms of the unification process. 

As a part of the War on Terror, the United States supported Saleh throughout the early 2000s. The United States considered Saleh a force for order and, in an effort to maintain stability in the Middle East, provided $5.9 billion in military and police assistance between 2000 and 2020. However, potential corruption in the Saleh government became a growing concern over the past two decades, sowing the seeds of popular discontent among Yemenis.

The 2011 Arab Spring, which saw the proliferation of revolution and tumult across the Middle East, generated major political change in Yemen. During the uprising, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had then ruled for thirty-three years, was ousted and replaced by Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi had previously served as the vice president of Yemen for seventeen years and, as the sole candidate in the 2012 election, swiftly came to power.

The installation of Hadi’s government set the stage for the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). During this conference, Yemen was re-partitioned into regions that failed to accommodate either “socio-economic or regional grievances.” This new federal map gained little public support, particularly from the Houthis, an anti-Saleh political group. 

The Houthis first coalesced into a viable group in the 1980s and championed a revival of traditional religion and culture among the Zaydi Shiites, a religious sect concentrated in northern Yemen. The group became politically active in 2003. Shortly after, the 2004 assasination of Hussain Badr al-Din al-Huthi, the founder of the Houthi movement, sparked six years of war between the Houthis and Saleh’s government, effectively militarizing the group. 

Though Hadi maintained power for a few years after being elected, the Houthis slowly extended the arm of their control across northern Yemen and, in 2014, infiltrated the capital city of Sanaa and the larger Saada province. The Houthis gained the support of not only their fellow Shiites but also much of the Sunni population. This brazen power-grab catalyzed the Yemeni Civil War, prompting the formation of a coalition of states, led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which sought to challenge the Houthis and reinstate Hadi’s government. 

Networks of Power

At its most basic level, the Yemeni Civil War is a conflict between two groups: the Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel group from the north, and Hadi’s UN-recognized government, which is supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia, among other countries.

Though the division between the Houthis and Hadi’s government is stark, there are, in reality, a series of political breaks that have produced a highly complicated network of power across the country. Yemen is crisscrossed by the ever-changing frontlines in its civil war. According to the Crisis Group, which issued a report on peace in Yemen, there are five major “cantons of political and military control.” The Houthis control the northern highlands of the country, populated by Zaydi Shiites; Marib, al-Jawf, northern Hadramawt, al-Mahra, Sheba, Abyan and the city of Taiz all support Hadi’s government; the Southern Transitional Council garners support in Aden and the surrounding territory; Joint Resistance Forces control the areas along the Red Sea coast; and local authorities rule coastal Hadramawt. Yemen is a nation in turmoil.

Yemen’s civil war has devastated the civilian population. Over the past five years, Human Rights Watch documented at least ninety unlawful Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, with an average of twelve airstrikes per day. Furthermore, all parties have used child soldiers at some point during the conflict. There have also been reports that landmines, particularly improvised explosive devices (IED), anti-personnel mines, and anti-vehicle mines, have been used. Torture, sexual abuse, unsubstantiated detention, and disappearances are also not uncommon. 

The United States and other Western nations have provided military and weapons support to Saudi Arabia for the past five years. The deaths of Yemeni civilians, caused by the Saudis’ and Emiratis’ negligent use of bombs and missiles, are directly linked to the United States. 

According to Amnesty International, war crimes have been committed by all active parties, and many Western powers are also vulnerable to potential war crimes charges. The Houthis have shelled Yemeni residential neighborhoods and launched missiles into Saudi Arabia while coalition forces bombed civilian infrastructure and carried out indiscriminate attacks that resulted in civilian deaths. No group is blameless. The bitter antagonism engendered by the civil war, compounded by civilian deaths, a failing economy, and the destruction of orderly government and infrastructure, makes peace an unlikely prospect. 

Ravaged By Disease 

According to a comprehensive report issued by the Brookings Institute, Yemen has experienced community transmission of COVID-19, meaning that transmission is “widespread, unchecked, and uncontrolled.” The first official COVID-19 case in Yemen was reported on April 10. As of early August, the Saudi-backed government recorded 1,738 cases of COVID-19 in Yemen. The Houthis have not released figures since May 16, when four cases were verified and one death was attributed to the virus. However, it is likely that the actual case count is far higher than these official numbers.

Many Yemenis are malnourished and already weakened by indigenous diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, and cholera, making them “uniquely vulnerable to the worst and deadliest impact of COVID-19.” 

Yemenis, in addition to battling COVID-19, are suffering from a cholera outbreak that began in 2016. In April, 110,000 cases of cholera were documented in Yemen, with a total of 1,371,819 cases reported between January 2018 and May 2020. The cholera epidemic in Yemen has been called the worst outbreak in modern times. The cholera case fatality rate is 0.11 percent and children under five years old represent 23 percent of suspected cases. There have been a total of 3,895 cholera-related deaths since October 2016.

Perhaps most concerning is the utter failure of the Yemeni healthcare system. Half of Yemenis do not have access to running water, meaning that they are unable to adhere to sanitation standards that will help to stop the spread of the disease. The country lacks both adequate medical supplies and capable doctors. In the spring, there were only five hundred ventilators and seven hundred intensive care beds in a country of 28.5 million people. Additionally, according to the World Bank, there are only “three doctors and seven hospital beds for every 10,000 people.” UNICEF reports that 500,000 public sector employees, including doctors, have not been paid for three years. The healthcare system has imploded. 

The United Nations estimates that the COVID-19 fatality rate in Yemen could be as high as 30 percent, the highest death rate in the world. Lise Grand, the UN head of humanitarian operations in Yemen, projects that the death toll from COVID-19 could “exceed the combined toll of war, disease, and hunger over the last five years.” According to a UN-commissioned report from the University of Denver, that would put the number of dead at over 230,000. 

Humanitarian Efforts 

Though the Yemeni Civil War is an unprecedented, ever-escalating humanitarian disaster, the United Nations lacks the resources to make a discernible impact on Yemeni civilians. The dearth of funding means that a total of 8.5 million Yemenis will receive half rations this fall, putting an even greater strain on an already hungry population. 

This year the United Nations appealed to its member nations in a bid to raise $3.4 billion in aid for Yemen. The United Nations has received 30 percent of the ask, $1 billion, to support the poorest country in the Arab world. Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief said in a statement that “continuing to hold back money from the humanitarian response now will be a death sentence for many families.” He also chastised the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait for failing to provide aid, particularly in light of their involvement in the conflict. 

In addition to the implementation of half rations in April, an additional five million Yemenis will lose food assistance come November. Furthermore, it is likely that the value of remittances sent to Yemen will decline up to 70 percent as the global economy wrestles with the impact of the coronavirus. Yemenis will struggle to feed themselves and their families more than ever this year. 

It is projected that “almost half of all Yemeni children under five will be malnourished by the end of 2020.” According to the United Nations, aid is absolutely necessary to prevent widespread famine.

Seeking Peace 

In late August, the Southern Transitional Council withdrew from the 2019 Riyadh peace accord. Initially, this accord had been received with optimism, as had the short ceasefire negotiated in June of this past summer. The Riyadh deal was “designed to mend a rift between allies in the war against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels who have seized much of Yemen’s north.” The Riyadh accord was overseen by the Saudis, who view the war in Yemen as a matter of domestic security, in large part because of their concern that the Iran-backed Houthis would “create a Hezbollah-like proxy with access to Yemen’s pre-war arsenal of medium-range missiles.” The fracture between the STC and coalition forces makes the Riyadh accord, a potential avenue toward peace, obsolete. 

Currently, Houthi and coalition representatives are engaged in talks sponsored by the United Nations and co-chaired by the Red Cross. These discussions, which are taking place in Switzerland, concern the potential exchange of 1,400 prisoners. The 2018 exchange of fifteen thousand detainees sets a positive precedent, if not a clear road to peace. 

Yemen’s Uncertain Future

Yemen, war-torn and crippled by hunger and disease, faces even greater disaster. The COVID-19 fatality and case counts, which are chronically underreported if reported at all, represent only a fraction of the virus’ true toll. The deaths of both adults and young children are commonplace across the country. Yemen’s civilians suffer from indiscriminate Houthi and coalition attacks, disease, and grinding hunger. It is nearly impossible for Yemenis to thrive.

Given Yemen’s precarious position, the projected decline in UN aid and general humanitarian support will be catastrophic. Increased malnutrition and hunger, the result of slimmer rations, will further weaken Yemen’s population. Starvation will claim more lives and the fatality rates of both cholera and COVID-19 will climb. 

Peace, or at least a de-escalation of violence, is essential to saving lives in Yemen. In addition to deaths directly linked to the fighting, the civil war has made daily life a struggle for survival. Eighty-five percent of food in Yemen is imported. Thus, when critical civilian infrastructure is destroyed, it is difficult to distribute imported food, including aid. This leads to hunger and starvation. Additionally, the lack of infrastructure means that many civilians do not have access to running water. They are unable to maintain reasonable sanitation standards that help to stymie the spread of infectious diseases including the coronavirus. The destruction wrought by Yemen’s civil war metes out grinding hardship at every turn, making peace, in addition to direct, life-saving aid, the highest priority. 

Though the willingness of both the Houthis and Hadi’s government to engage in a prisoner exchange is encouraging, it is not a maneuver toward peace. The prisoner exchange merely serves as a stop-gap measure, resetting the conflict. An initial ceasefire, which would give both civilians and political actors some respite, is essential to moving forward. 

Peace requires that all parties involved, the so-called five cantons of political and military influence, engage in civil discourse. Yemen is neither ethnically nor religiously homogeneous, and therefore its government must allow for diverse representation. All military and political groups must be given a seat at the bargaining table. 

Furthermore, Yemen’s civil war has been characterized by some as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Other Middle Eastern nations, as well as Western powers, are deeply involved in the conflict, making peace negotiations even more complicated. This proxy war must stop. Extranational influence in the Yemeni Civil War includes the importation of arms and additional military support. As evidenced by years of accidental civilian deaths, such dealings only serve to prolong the violence. The civil war will not end unless Yemen is free to exercise self-determination and begin the arduous process of re-defining itself as a nation. 

However, in reality it is unlikely that all actors in Yemen’s civil war can be truly reconciled, and it is even less likely that either Iran or Saudi Arabia relinquish control of their respective proxies. Barring major commitments of UN aid, most Yemenis will lose access to the most basic necessities in the coming months. The future heralds yet-unseen suffering with no promise of peace.

The image used in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Ibrahem Qasim and can be found here.

Katherine Leahy

Katherine Leahy is a second-year Political Science major who spent the summer working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Rocky Mountains. On campus, she sings in the University Chorus, serves as a Chicago Swing Dance Society board member, and works as a research assistant. In her free time, she enjoys fiction, hiking in places with real elevation, mediocre coffee, and exploring Chicago with her friends.


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