The Conflict in Yemen: Prospects for Peace

Since the 1990’s, Yemen has struggled to preserve the façade of a unified country. The intense tribal identities within the northern region, as well as fractured Shia beliefs, has led to marginalization and distrust toward the central government. The Houthi insurgency was formed by Zaydi Shias out of the North against President Saleh’s autocratic regime. Saleh has since been overthrown and assassinated by Houthi forces.  Similarly, the southern region has rejected unification with the North, adopting a communist ideology and forming Al-Hirak, or the Southern Resistance Movement, in hopes of creating a ‘South Arabia.’ The conflict, which formally started in 2011 during the Arab Spring and Houthi takeover of the capital city Sana’a,  has been overlooked by many scholars and politicians.

Image courtesy of Nariman El-Mofty via Flickr, © 2018, some rights reserved.

In recent years, the involvement of proxy militias, cell-terrorist organizations, external actors under the Saudi-led coalition, as well as environmental degradation, resource scarcity, and destruction of critical infrastructure has created “the perfect storm” in Yemen. The fractured state is also a major theatre in the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Internal actors are major players in both Syria and Yemen. Particularly in Yemen, because of the historical divide between north and south, one cannot blame the conflict exclusively on external influences. But both Iran and Saudi Arabia have critical interests in the internal Yemeni balance of power, regardless of whether one interprets Iranian or Saudi intentions and objectives as offensive or defensive.

In what U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” almost 75% of the population in Yemen, nearly twenty-five million people, are on the brink of starvation. The collapse of the economy and critical infrastructure has led to a cholera outbreak and lack of medical services for victims of Saudi Arabia’s unrelenting airstrikes. Yemen’s fragile topography and susceptibility to climate change has led to resource scarcity, particularly potable water. Human rights abuses and war crimes have been committed by every actor involved in the war, and until recently, there has been no end to the conflict in sight.

Many scholars have now flagged the conflict in Yemen as a top tier priority for the international community in 2019, as the country is a breeding ground for cell-terrorist groups such as Al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State. AQAP has been classified as one of Al-Qaeda’s most lethal branches and poses an extremely high threat to many countries’ national security. Iranian influence is growing in the northern region, which could potentially result in another Islamic revolution and increase of state-sponsored terrorism in Yemen.  This would directly violate the foreign policy interests of countries throughout the international community, especially now that the Islamic Republic of Iran could be capable of developing a nuclear arsenal.

This past December, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States, met with Houthi leaders in part of the peace process known as the Stockholm agreement. Though the agreement is meant primarily to stop the conflict from worsening, it is a small step in the right direction for Yemen. The UN is creating a demilitarized zone in the Red Sea trade hubs and around Hodeida port, two areas that are vital for providing humanitarian assistance. There have been no significant political breakthroughs, however the U.S. has shifted their role in the conflict by ending the arms-deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While the conflict is ongoing and has had devastating effects, I am hopeful that the beginning of the peace process is the beginning of the end.