Yemen's war is deepening, even as the greater horrors in Syria and Iraq push it off the front pages. But while at least Syria and Iraq are getting US attention, the word "Yemen" never crossed the lips of President Obama during a nearly 20 minute speech yesterday on US efforts to fight the Islamic State.
To be sure, there are good reasons for that. Iraq and Syria's wars with IS are joined at the hip, with fighters and supplies flowing both directions across their borders. Yemen's civil war – of which allies of the Islamic State are as yet a small part – is off on its own and involves a complex array of Saudi proxies, Al Qaeda, a powerful Shiite militia movement, and a growing independence sentiment in Yemen's south that won't be affected by the resolution of the wars further north.
But the human toll only looks small by comparison. In absolute terms it is severe and getting worse by the day. Reuters reports that at least 176 were killed in fighting across the country yesterday, the bloodiest day of the war since a Saudi-led and US-backed air campaign against Houthi rebels, who Saudi Arabia and the US contend are backed by Iran, began three months ago. About 120 of the dead were Houthi fighters and civilians targeted in air strikes.
About 1 million people have been displaced from their homes, and food, water, and medicine shortages now affect about 80 percent of Yemen's 21 million people, according to the UN. And the war looks only likely to get messier. If the simple dichotomy of "Saudi-backed loyalists of deposed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi" versus "Iran-backed Houthi Shiites" ever really held, those days are long gone.
In addition to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – the Al Qaeda affiliate most active in seeking to attack Western targets in recent years – joining the fray, the Islamic State has been seeking to make inroads. Gregory Johnsen reports this week that a local IS leader going by the name Abu Bilal al-Harbi, has been seeking and receiving loyalty oaths from Sunni militants in the name of IS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi.
He is also a talented recruiter, and is making inroads in Yemen’s tribal crescent that stretches from Marib and al-Bayda into Shabwa, an area that AQAP once considered privileged territory. ISIS has only existed in Yemen since November 2014, when al-Baghdadi announced the creation of a local “state,” but already it has proved itself bloodier and more violent than AQAP, which U.S. officials routinely describe as the most dangerous terrorist threat to the US...
Al-Qaeda... has generally shied away from attacking mosques in Yemen, which have historically allowed Sunnis and Shiites to pray alongside one another. But as old wars bleed into new ones that produce ever more radical generations of fighters, this brutal, uncompromising approach seems to be at the heart of ISIS’s appeal in Yemen. “If you were born after 1990 all you’ve seen is war,” said Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “People have lost hope in peace and that helps groups like ISIS.”
IS's first prominent move in Yemen was this March, when it killed 130 worshipers at Shiite-majority mosques with suicide bombers.
Stephen Day, a professor of international affairs who studies Yemen at Rollins College, writes that it's a dangerous oversimplification to see Yemen either as a Saudi-Iran proxy war or a religious one between Sunnis and Shiites.
The war in Yemen is bound to prove difficult to end because of the sharpness and history of divisions in a country with only a short experience of national “unity.” Protracted conflict is likely to worsen the expanding humanitarian crisis – 21 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance – and create a dangerous political vacuum in which militant supporters of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State could flourish...The real reason that war may prove impossible to end while maintaining territorial integrity of the country is: Yemen lacks national cohesion.
Yemen has lacked cohesion from the start of its historic unification in 1990. Within two years, a string of political assassinations poisoned the atmosphere leading to civil war in 1994. Thereafter, unity was only maintained by military force as then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh consolidated gains on the battlefield, while strangling the population’s political and civil rights. Yemen has a long history of warfare and assassination, and it has never enjoyed long periods of stable government under one national ruling authority. Instead, its past is characterized by multiple authorities and regional fragmentation.
He points to republican sentiments among many Yemenis in the south, against the Houthis who are interested in maximum autonomy and control for their own group, the power-base for a now defunct Shiite monarchy in northern Yemen. Professor Day writes that the precipitating event for the current war was the new constitution, because Houthis felt it would limit both the national influence and economic power. "Today, it is difficult to imagine Yemen being restored as a single nation-state. There is no center of gravity, and among multiple local authorities, no one firmly controls more than a quarter of the country."
The solution? In his opinion some kind of negotiated arrangement that prevents "Saleh, Houthi, and other elites in Sanaa" from ever monopolizing "economic and political control of the country again." President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a longtime enemy of the Houthis, was pushed from power amid popular protests in 2011 and has since allied himself and his loyalists with the Houthis against President Hadi, who now lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Iona Craig reports from Aden in the south on the challenges for civilian Yemenis in simply getting enough food.
In peacetime, Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food. Now, families of more than ten in Aden claim free food rations (while they last) – and if they can get their hands on a “golden ticket”, which may be exchanged for enough rice, pasta, oil and sugar to last a few days. Commercial ships have stopped docking after a sea blockade imposed by a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, the Sunni kingdom that also launched a bombing campaign in March and shut down Yemen’s airspace to commercial traffic.
Fuel imports have been stopped, too, affecting more than just transport. In the nation’s capital, Sana’a, 60 per cent of the water supply had previously been trucked in and delivered to people’s homes. Before it can be transported, water needs to be pumped from the country’s depleted water table. Fuel shortages have resulted in both water scarcity and soaring delivery costs.