Yemen and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse

War, famine, and sickness are ravaging through Yemen, as the country faces one of its worst humanitarian crises. But is anyone paying attention?

By Helen Lackner

Tagged FamineForeign PolicyWarYemen

War, famine, pestilence, and death, all clearly and intricately related, are now part of daily routine for Yemenis. You’d hardly know it from the sparse news coverage it receives, but a civil war, dramatically worsened by the intervention of a Saudi-led Coalition, started in March 2015 and is now into its 30th month. Involving mostly air strikes from the coalition bases in Saudi Arabia, it also includes ground troops along the country’s northern border as well as throughout most of the south and the southern end of the Red Sea coast. Despite massive technical and financial superiority, the coalition has failed to win any major victories over the ill-equipped forces of Yemen’s former President Saleh and his Huthi allies.

The coalition is Saudi-led but the United Arab Emirates (UAE) regime makes significant contributions, financially, in decision-making, with air strikes, and with its own ground troops in the southern part of the country; it has also recently been accused of running secret prisons where torture and ill-treatment of detainees held extra-judicially are allegedly said to be comparable to the abuses carried out by U.S. forces in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq a decade ago. The coalition is supported with logistics (including targeting technology and in-flight refuelling) by its major weapons supplier, the United States, while other western states (the UK, France, and others) also benefit from the arms trade and support it politically. So why this coalition and what are its aims?

Officially, the coalition is there to re-instate Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, president of Yemen, former vice president to Saleh, elected unopposed in 2012 as a result of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement of 23 November 2011. This forced the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled autocratically for 33 years with support from the United States and other Western and GCC allies. The Agreement was intended to bring about a transition to better governance and give some concessions to the popular uprisings of 2011. But after three years of a transitional regime which failed to provide the country with the improved governance and the social and economic development called for by the millions who demonstrated against Saleh in 2011, Hadi’s regime finally collapsed in late 2014.

The northern Zaydi revivalist Huthi movement, now allied with its old enemy, Saleh, ousted Hadi after he refused to comply with their instructions, which would have reduced him to being a mere clerk to the Huthi-Saleh alliance. Following a month of house arrest in Sana’a, Hadi escaped to Aden which he set up as a “temporary capital” in late February 2015. He lasted there less than a month before the Saleh-Houthi land and air assaults drove him into exile in Saudi Arabia, and he requested the GCC to intervene militarily to reinstate him, as its leading members strongly opposed both the Huthi movement and former President Saleh.

At the forefront of the international community was the GCC. It lent its name to the Agreement which led to the establishment of the transitional Hadi regime in 2012, a transition which was due to last two years and included the following elements:

  • a fundamental reform of the military/security sector to ensure its loyalty to state institutions,
  • a government of national unity including Saleh’s General People’s Congress and opposition forces, including the official opposition parties as well as youth and women who had been heavily involved in the 2011 uprisings and
  • a National Dialogue Conference whose task was to prepare for a post-transition democratic regime. This was followed by a Constitution Drafting Committee which completed its work by December 2014. The submission of a new federal constitution was the trigger for the ousting of Hadi’s regime as Saleh opposed federalism in principle and the Huthis objected to the distribution of the proposed regions.

Although Hadi failed to address the social and economic crises of the country, he did comply with the requirements of the international community, and in particular the United States, who were, in turn, given carte blanche to attack al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with drones, air strikes, and occasional ground attacks, the latter usually leading to significant losses; drone strikes became far more commonplace during Hadi’s resident presidency. There has also been a surge of drone strikes, as well as two land incursions by U.S. forces in the first three months of the Trump presidency.

After 30 months of war, the political/military situation is broadly one of stalemate. The Huthi-Saleh faction are in control of the central and northern Highlands, with about 30 percent of the country’s area but 70 percent of its population, who are under daily attack from coalition air strikes. In the first two years, coalition air forces flew more than 90,000 sorties mostly of U.S.-made F-15s carrying two bombs of 2,000 pounds each; little wonder the damage they can cause is so considerable. While most targeting appears to be precise, there have been some serious infringements of human rights in attacks on civilian targets, most recently in Sana’a where two families, including many children have been killed. Other cases have involved the targeting of four medical facilities run by Médecins Sans Frontières.                                      

The rest of the country, mainly the north-east and the areas of the South which, prior to the establishment of the Republic of Yemen in 1990, was the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, has been “liberated” according to coalition forces and is nominally under the control of Hadi’s internationally recognised government. The reality is somewhat different: The north-east is the base for Hadi’s Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, ideologically close to the more extreme end of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the South, with low population density is run by local community groups with limited management capacity and no financial means. Jihadi groups like AQAP and Daesh are present and active, while rival groups of Salafis trained and deployed by the UAE military forces are supposedly in charge of security. Aden city itself is the focus of a struggle between Hadi’s personal guard supported by the Saudi forces since August 2017 and separatist forces supported by the UAE and led by Aden’s former governor who established a Southern Transitional Council in May of this year. President Hadi himself has not set foot in the country since February of this year and spent only 167 days in his temporary capital since its “liberation” ended in July 2015 due to the insecurity prevailing in the city. In plain English, there is neither security nor real government in that part of the country.

In fact, nowhere in the country have government staff been paid for a year or thereabouts; this directly affects 1.2 million people, responsible for about 9 million family members, or one third of the country’s population, while the economy, weak as it was, has completely collapsed in recent years with employment opportunities almost totally absent. The main sources of income throughout are smuggling and the supply of goods through the war economy on the one hand, and joining military forces on the other. The reason why many young men are members of the various armed groups on either side: They are the only ones who pay with some regularity. Very few join them for ideological reasons, and that includes the extremist Islamist factions.

So much for the war. How do these events relate to the ongoing famine? Since early this year, Yemen is one of four countries threatened with famine: It has afflicted seven million people while another 17 million do not know where their next meal will come from. Why? The coalition has effectively blockaded the country’s main port at Hodeida, by destroying the cranes used to unload ships, justifying their actions as a means of preventing Iran from smuggling arms to the Huthi-Saleh faction. In addition, a UN Verification Mechanism operates slowly and the coalition’s subsequent approval for ships to unload is even slower, thus preventing the arrival of basic necessities. Fuel has to be brought in as the country’s production and refining facilities are more or less at a standstill, while it imported 90 percent of its basic staples even before the war destroyed the country’s weak economy. The majority of imports come in through the commercial sector (only 10 percent from humanitarian donations). Importers have been effectively prevented from purchasing stocks on the world market by the paralysis induced by the transfer of the Central Bank to Aden, a decision taken by the Hadi government, broadly against the advice of the international community which feared the consequences on the suffering population.

Now for pestilence: Since April this year, Yemenis have been affected by a cholera epidemic which is spreading at a record rapid rate. Medical services were inadequate before the war started: Now only about 45 percent of medical facilities are still partly operational, and subject to military attack from the air and from the ground. The above-mentioned blockade is dramatically slowing down the import of medicines and equipment: With 630,000 cases of infection and the death of more than 2,000 people from a disease which can easily be treated, this is one more problem to be added to malnutrition, malaria, and all the other usual diseases prevalent in the country.

Finally, death: All of these factors have meant that the people of Yemen have, in the past few years, faced thousands of premature deaths, causing unspeakable pain to relatives as well as the loss to humanity of thousands of human beings. All have been deprived of the dreams and hopes which they share with people living in Europe, the United States, or elsewhere, despite how remiss the press and so many in the West have been to acknowledge this basic fact. As Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary General of UN for Humanitarian Affairs put is so succinctly on 18 August this year to the United Nations Security Council: “Today, millions of people in Yemen are facing a triple tragedy: the spectre of famine, the world’s largest ever single-year cholera outbreak, and the daily deprivation and injustice of a brutal conflict that the world is allowing to drag on and on. All totally preventable, avoidable and treatable. This human tragedy is deliberate and wanton – it is political tragedy, but with will and with courage, which are both in short supply, it is stoppable.”

U.S. involvement takes a number of forms: Air (and sometimes ground) attacks in rural areas where 70 percent of the country’s population lives; some of these are accurately targeted and kill AQAP personnel, but many kill innocent civilians. All of them spread fear and hatred against the United States. Support for the coalition takes a number of forms: operations room advice on targeting, and in-air refuelling of aircraft, without which many say the air strikes could not take place. But, of course, the United States’s main involvement is its political support for the coalition, as well as the massive arms sales to coalition members, primarily Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Some members of the U.S. Congress have taken the lead in opposing this support, and have come close to achieving success. Added public pressure, however, may prove extremely important in helping them achieve better results in coming months and could contribute to reducing the ongoing death and suffering of so many in Yemen.

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Helen Lackner is associate researcher at the London Middle East Institute of SOAS, University of London. Her latest book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State is published in the United States in November of this year.

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