Some background on the Yemeni civil war, Part One

Destroyed buildings and cars near Sana’a in Yemen.

*Note: In this part, I cover the background leading up to the civil war. In the next, I cover the important things that have happened since the war started.*

Several articles this week have been talking about the rising death toll on civilians in the much overlooked Yemeni civil war, so I thought I’d look into the history behind it. The Syrian civil war has been much more well covered by the media, probably mostly because of the Syrian refugee crisis. Now, because the Yemeni civil war has been so under-covered, I am going to have to synthesize pretty much all my info from other sources on the internet, but I will try and make the history behind it more compact and easy to access. So without further ado, here we go!

The best place to start in this conflict is with the Houthis. The Houthis, also known by the name Ansar Allah or ‘Supporters of God’, are an extreme Shi’a movement (a branch of Islam) founded by a man named Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (hence the name Houthis), which currently occupies territory in westernmost Yemen. It has been around since at least the 1990’s.

The Houthi logo. Written in Arabic is “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.” Very to the point.

In 2004, the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was disturbed by the Houthis’ violent rhetoric and influence, so he sent forces to arrest Hussein al-Houthi. After the attempt failed, al-Houthi started an uprising with his followers. Although Hussein al-Houthi was killed later in 2004, the uprising continued until a cease-fire in was agreed upon between both parties in 2010.

Shi'ite Houthi rebels watch a televised speech by their leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi in Sanaa
Shi’ite Houthi rebels watch a speech by Abdul Malik al-Houthi in Sana’a. Photo taken in 2014.

The brother of Hussein al-Houthi, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, took charge of the movement after Hussein’s death. In 2014, after protests by the Houthis against cut fuel subsidies, the Houthis started battling with the Yemen army and ended up capturing the capital of Yemen, Sana’a. In order to end the violence, the new president of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was forced to negotiate with the Houthis and give them an unprecedented amount of control in the Yemeni government.

Abd Hadi, president of Yemen. Picture courtesy of Al Jazeera.

Apparently that control wasn’t enough, however. In 2015, after learning of a proposal to divide Yemen into six regions, Houthi rebels captured the presidential palace of Hadi, and forced Hadi to resign. They then dissolved the parliament, and kept Hadi under house arrest.

But then, a month later, Hadi managed to escape his house arrest, and gave a speech in his hometown of Aden, declaring the new Houthi government illegitimate. Troops loyal to Hadi and those in favor of the Houthis fought at the Aden International Airport on March 19th, and with that battle, the war for unity of Yemen had begun.

The territory captured by each side, January 2016. Note that the capital, Sana’a, is still under Houthi control.

So who’s on what side?

The US and Saudi Arabia both support the Hadi government, although Saudi Arabia has a much more involved role, using its army to help the Hadi loyalists capture new territory. The US is mainly just helping with planning and intelligence. The UAE and Jordan are also involved in the coalition to help Hadi regain control.

The big white splotch in the center of Yemen (AQAP) is known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It is one of the largest splinter groups of Al-Qaeda, and has gained a significant foothold in Yemen.

The Houthi side is supported by Iran and Hezbollah, although the exact extent of their involvement is not well known. It is likely that they are providing arms and help to the Houthi rebels. This proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is another huge factor that is exacerbating the current war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Oh yeah, and the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who we mentioned earlier tried to arrest the leader of the Houthi movement, has now openly allied with the Houthis! Does this sound like a political thriller or what?

Watch out for part two, in which I will go into detail about the conquests and fighting since the civil war began in 2015!


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