Warfare in Yemen, 2015

Citation metadata

Date: 2016
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,531 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1290L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

The Arab country of Yemen has been at war since March of 2015 when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition initiated airstrikes against the country, targeting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in a confrontation that has taken a deadly toll and has created a humanitarian crisis.

Key Figures

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (1960-), UN special envoy to Yemen.

Abdul-Malik al-Houthi (1982-), leader of the Houthi rebels.

Khaled Mahafoudh Bahah (1965-), prime minister of Yemen.

Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (1945-), UN-recognized president of Yemen.

Ali Abdullah Saleh (1942-), former president of Yemen (1990-2012).

Summary of Event

In March of 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes in a Saudi-led coalition of thousands of Gulf Arab troops against the neighboring Arab country of Yemen. The campaign, which targeted Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, was still ongoing in November 2015. Saudi Arabia's professed reason for the airstrikes is the need to defend Yemen's legitimate government, and to keep Iran from taking over the country through the Houthi rebels. If that happened, Saudi Arabia would be surrounded by Iranian-backed proxies: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It would also endanger the free passage of oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandab strait, which links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. The conflict has become a regional battle for dominance between Saudi Arabia, with its mainly Sunni Muslim allies, and the mainly Shiite Iran. While the Saudis claim that Iran has been training and arming the Houthis, the Houthis say they rebelled because of widespread government corruption. However, they do not represent the majority of Yemenis.

The Houthi rebels are Shiite Muslims who adhere to a branch of Islam called Zaidism; the Zaidis represent about one-third of the population of Yemen. In 2014, they openly opposed the plans of President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi for Yemen to become a federation of six regions, claiming it would weaken them. They aligned themselves with the ex-president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been ousted from his position in 2012 although the Republican Guard brigades remained loyal to him. His former forces, together with the Houthis, took over most of western Yemen and, in September 2014, they seized Sana'a, the capital city of Yemen. The UN-recognized president of Yemen, Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was placed under house arrest. He escaped to Aden, declaring it the temporary capital of Yemen. He was then smuggled out of the country by the Saudis, who immediately began their airstrikes against Houthi targets. The Saudis and their coalition are allies of the exiled Yemeni government, and their stated goal is to reinstate the internationally recognized President Hadi.

The Saudis believed that a massive air attack would stop the Houthis. They bombed Houthi strongholds, supply lines, and military bases; however, the rebels proved resilient and fought back, attacking coalition forces. Despite coalition gains, the leader of the Houthi rebels, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, vowed not to back down. "Our fighters will not evacuate from the main cities or the government institutions," al-Houthi said. "Anyone who thinks we will surrender is dreaming."

The long war has led to casualties on both sides and a humanitarian crisis in a country already hindered by poverty. The Saudi-led coalition is comprised of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and forces from Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, and Jordan. Oman has remained neutral, a potential ground for future negotiations. The United States has also aided the coalition in their efforts, with logistical support and intelligence. The United States is also a major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia.

In July of 2015, the spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri, was quoted as saying, "We are supporting the legitimate corps in the Yemeni armed forces militarily, logistically, and with humanitarian aid, and we are supplying them with materials and information." The coalition regained control over Aden in July, and some ministers from the government in exile have returned, including the vice president and prime minister, Khaled Bahah. In September, President Hadi arrived in Aden after six months of exile, and was quoted by the Saudi Press Agency as saying that his return to the capital city of Yemen, Sana'a, "will be soon, after liberating all of Yemen's cities and provinces from the coup militia."

Continued coalition airstrikes in September of 2015 killed more than 100 civilians at a wedding party in a Yemeni village. In response to criticism regarding the effectiveness of the airstrikes, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, "We are very careful in picking targets. We have very precise weapons. We work with our allies including the United States on these targets." Regarding the cost to civilian lives, al-Jubeir said, "Can we prevent it 100 percent? I don't think you can. This is warfare."

In late October of 2015, a hospital in a Houthi-controlled region of north Yemen was destroyed by a missile strike. The hospital was run by Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, a medical aid group. The coalition denied bombing the hospital, but according to director Hassan Boucenine, "Our hospital in the Heedan district of Saada governorate was hit several times. Fortunately, the first hit damaged the operations theater while it was empty and the staff were busy with people in the emergency room. They just had time to run off as another missile hit the maternity ward. It could be a mistake, but the fact of the matter is it's a war crime. There's no reason to target a hospital. We provided [the coalition] with all of our GPS coordinates about two weeks ago." According to UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake, "More children in Yemen may well die from a lack of medicines and health care than from bullets and bombs."

Following the attack on the hospital, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the airstrikes and called on all sides to cease military activity. The Saudi foreign minister continues to lay the blame on the Houthis, saying, "We didn't start this war. The Houthis did. We didn't engage in a coup against the legitimate government of Yemen. The Houthis did. We came in response to a request by the legitimate government of Yemen to defend them from a takeover by a radical militia that's allied with Iran. And we responded to that request with 10 other countries in ... the coalition. So the blame is squarely on the Houthis and Saleh forces."

Impact of the Event

In October of 2015, Yemen's government in exile, led by President Hadi, agreed to UN-sponsored peace talks with the Houthi rebels. UN special envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said he would be, "working with all parties to ensure that the negotiations lead to concrete benefits for the Yemeni people and the foundation for sustainable peace." However, analysts are skeptical, as both sides claim to be winning and do not appear willing to make concessions. According to Adam Baron, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, "All of the key players in this conflict continue to assert that the solution ultimately lies at the end of a political rather than military process. The question, however, is whether this can come at a time when both sides--despite the catastrophic consequences this is having on the average Yemeni--still appear to believe that they are winning."

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of casualties by October of 2015 was more than 5,000, half of them civilians, with tens of thousands injured. Meanwhile fighting has escalated from airstrikes to a ground war, with additional troops from Sudan, Egypt, and Morocco.

The continued fighting in Yemen has created a vacuum that has been beneficial to the jihadists, who took the opportunity to move into parts of Yemen that the government troops have abandoned, and to strengthen their positions. Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula took control of the eastern city of Mulkalla, and the Islamic State moved into the region surrounding the Yemen city of Aden. They have targeted the Houthis, as well, sending suicide bombers into Sana'a.

The chaos in Yemen has created a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions for ordinary Yemenis in a country that was already poor and economically dependent on Saudi Arabia, its rich neighbor. A report from Action on Armed Violence, a U.K.-based charity that monitors armed violence, says that as of the end of July of 2015, more people died in Yemen from airstrikes and ground-launched explosives, than in any other country in the world. Circumstances have forced civilians to stay at home and limit their movements because of the airstrikes. Although the bombings are aimed at military targets, many of them are in residential areas, and some neighborhoods, in areas of particularly intense airstrikes, have been completely destroyed.

Saudi Arabia and the coalition it leads have been accused of human rights abuses. According to Amnesty International, many of the airstrikes were, "unlawful--in that they deliberately targeted civilian objects or disproportionately harmed civilians and civilian objects in relation to the expected military gain from the strike, or failed to distinguish between these and military objectives." However, similar charges are levied at the rebels, as well, and Amnesty International goes on to say, "All the parties involved in the conflict raging across the country have committed widespread human rights abuses, including war crimes."

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2359070701