Beyond the Sunni-Shia Conflict: A Renewed Look at the Chaos in Yemen

Villagers scour rubble for belongings scattered during the bombing of Hajar Aukaish, Yemen, in April 2015. Picture: PD, A. Mojalli/VOA.

A Nation on the Brink

The world’s deadliest and direst humanitarian crisis in recent history has not been unfolding in Syria, but in the Middle East’s poorest country now caught in the crosshairs of a brutal civil war: Yemen. As recently reported by the UN, 22 million Yemenis are in desperate need for international humanitarian assistance, as the result of mass displacement, food and water shortages, and a country-wide cholera outbreak, and a very high number of civilian casulaties. Whilst the civilian population pays the price on the ground, the civil war ravages on as the region’s most powerful actors fuel hostilities and transform what was essentially a civi war into a proxy war. The conflict in Yemen is messy and complicated, as most Middle Eastern conflicts are, but it is vital to understand the origins of Yemen’s forgotten war in order for the suffering of its people to stop before the nation descends utterly and completely into chaos.

Caught in the Crossfire

The roots of the present conflict lie 2004, when the Yemeni government attempted the arrest of Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, a prominent religious and political leader of the Zaydi minority (a Shi’a sect). Al-Houthi was killed in an attack later that year. As a result, the Shi’a rebel movement took on his name, and his brothers succeeded al-Houthi as leaders of the movement based in Northern Yemen. The conflict reemerged during the Arab Uprisings of 2011, when Yemen’s longterm dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced out of office and ceded power to his vice-president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in 2012. A transition plan, backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Nations, was rejected by the Houthis. The Houthis had legitimate grievances concerning wealth and power distribution in Yemen, particularly for the Shi’a minority. Partnering with former president Saleh, the Houthis seized control oft he capitol Sana’a in 2014. They now held control over most of northern Yemen and sought to extend southward. Saudi Arabia, feeling directly threatened by the possibility of another Middle Eastern state with a Shi’a led government backed by Iran, supported President Hadi, a SunniWhile it is true that the Houthi insurgents have received financial, political, and sometimes military support from Iran, they are in fact largely autonomous with their own political stronghold in Yemen. To curb Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia and its coalition of Arab nations, supported by the United States and the UK, invaded Yemen and heavily bombed Houthi held territory in 2015, resulting in a large number of civilian casualties.

Except for a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis, little has changed in Yemen since 2015. Since fighting broke out in 2014, 10,000 Yemenis have been killed, 2 million have been internally displaced, and almost the entire nation is on the brink of starvation. This humanitarian disaster, in turn, has exacerbated and contributed to continuing hostilities. Currently, nearly the entire infrastructure of the country has been demolished, making the movement of goods and people almost impossible. A Saudi blockade has made it even harder to distribute humanitarian aid.  The resulting internal chaos was a prime breeding ground for radicals, prompting a surge in support for extremist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Currently, all sides of the conflict are essentially at a stalemate, but the suffering of the Yemeni population will persist until a peaceful solution has been found, adopted, and implemented.

Preventing Catastrophe

There is no easy solution for Yemen. The Houthis, after the death of former president Saleh this past year, seem resolute to solve the conflict militarily in their favor and have rejected previous settlement attempts by the United Nations, maintaining the agreements were biased against them. Saudi Arabia insists that the Houthis demilitarize immediately and hand over the capitol to President Hadi. None of this would, however, ensure the rebuilding of the country and lead the wounded civilian population out of their current misery. For this to occur, a peace agreement between the warring parties must be reached. The following are some concrete policy recommendations that could facilitate the peace-making process:

  • Peace talks must be the first priority. Peace must come before any meaningful humanitarian action can be taken. Aid providers’ services are being exhausted, and this will only worsen if fighting continues.
  • Accept Oman’s offer to broker a deal between the two factions as a neutral arbitrator. International cooperation is absolutely necessary but having a Middle Eastern negotiator offers legitimacy to the peace talks.
  • Pursue a unitary state option. A unitary state solution is still viable in the form of a federation if the economic and political rights of the Shi’a minority are protected and ensured by the ruling government.
  • Establish a basic, functioning government as soon as possible so that basic needs of the population, such as sanitation and education services, are provided. This will also decrease the attractiveness of extremist groups providing these services.

Molly Dunn was born on May 2, 1997, in Minnesota, USA. She is currently a senior undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. She studied abroad at the University of Graz in the spring of 2018. Her policy interests include foreign policy, international development, and domestic social policy.