How does a war that nobody wants drag on for years?
In 1990, North and South Yemen merged to become a single nation. Right from the start there were problems, separatist movements came up in the North and South. For the next two decades, Yemen limped along under the dictatorship of President Ali Abdulah Saleh who had already ruled North Yemen since 1978 even as food riots erupted in 1992 and a brief civil war in 1994.
Ali Abdulah Saleh, former Yemeni dictator ousted during Arab Spring
In 2004, the minority Zaidi Shia sect revolted under the leadership of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi citing discrimination and government aggression. The government crushed the rebellion and killed al-Houthi whose followers took to calling themselves Houthis. But after the conflict, there was little effort made at reconciliation. The Houthis regrouped, re-armed and bided their time.
In 2011, tired of getting water only once a week and power cuts every day, Yemenis joint the Arab Spring. Protests grew and finally forced President Saleh to reign. What followed was effectively a one man election in which the only candidate was the deputy President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. People still turned out to vote in an endorsement of reconciliation and the hope that life could improve.
Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi
Life did not improve. The process of framing new constitution which involved negotiations between the government and some protest leaders dragged on for months. Meanwhile news surfaced of arbitrary arrests and illegal detention of some of the regime’s critics. Infrastructure actually degraded and power cuts grew to days and water shortages up to a month.
The Houthis chose this moment to attack. They were bolstered by loyalists of the deposed President Hadi. Many army men loyal to the former President simply shed their uniforms and put on the Houthi garb. The militia made a stunning advance capturing city after city till one day the people of the capital Sanaá, woke to find militia checkpoints dotting their city and the government doing nothing to stop them.
All around the country, in the absence of strong central authority, a number of local conflicts grew up over local grievances.
Where was President Hadi? Well, nobody knew till he surfaced in Oman later. He ducked out of sight again and for a long time nobody knew where he was. Finally he re-appeared in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Any political problem in the Middle East soon draws in the two biggest regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this case, there were also some reports of Iran supporting the Houthis by providing some arms. In Saudi Arabia, a power change had taken place. The old king Abdullah had died and in his place his brother Crown Prince Salman came to the throne. In the subsequent cabinet reshuffle, the Defence Ministry went to King Salman’s son, the 29 year old Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (left), Prince Mohammad bin Salman (right)
Prince Salman saw a quick and decisive military victory as the best way to enhance Saudi Arabia’s power and prestige in the region and his own grip in office. If the power of the Saudi military was unleashed, the Houthis could be crushed in a couple of months. A Saudi led coalition began air-strikes in Yemen using its American and British built F15s, F16s and Typhoons.
Eurofighter Typhoon operated by the Saudi Air Force
The US and UK helped, not just by providing munitions, but also by performing mid-air refueling of Saudi bombers and strengthening the naval blockade which was a part of the Saudi war plan. Iran also upped its support for the rebels. The fighting intensified and reports of war crimes from both sides emerged.
Under Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the UN tried to put the countries in the Saudi led coalition on a blacklist of countries violating children’s rights for their indiscriminate bombing. But it was forced to back down when a number of countries threatened to stop funding various UN programs. The UN caved in and took the countries off the blacklist. Many national leaders believe that it is in their own political and economic best interests to support Saudi Arabia regardless of whether it is right or wrong.
The Saudi border itself has seen repeated shelling and missile attacks on Saudi cities from Yemeni rebels. But for the Saudis, this is a matter of national prestige and they refuse to end the conflict without a victory. From the Houthi side, it is seen as a fight to the death.
In between this crisis a mankind’s ancient enemy is raising its head. More than a million Yemeni people now face the threat of famine.