Why is there a Civil War in Yemen? Houthis control of North Yemen??

The Civil war in Yemen

The civil war in Yemen has been termed the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe. Now entering its sixth year, it's estimated that 24 million people in the country are now dependent on aid. And yet efforts to find peace are hampered by the sheer complexity of the conflict. So, what is the Yemeni civil war all about?

By their very nature, civil wars are often complex and messy situations. While it may be tempting to see them in binary terms - a state fighting against a single unified insurgent group - in many instances the picture is far more confusing. Groups and even governments can fragment. 

Differing forces that were once at odds with each other can form alliances - and then break apart again. In addition, conflicts taking place within a state can often be heavily influenced by outside actors. 

Sometimes, third countries can provide funding, equipment, intelligence, or other resources to parties to the conflict. At other times, they can even intervene directly to support one side or another. In the most extreme cases, civil wars can even end up becoming a proxy conflict for states locked in a wider external confrontation. 

One of the best examples of an extremely complex civil war that involves numerous factions with very different ideologies and goals, and which is overlaid with a strong regional and international involvement, is the civil war in Yemen. 

Now entering its sixth year, the conflict has left the country devastated to the point that many now regarded as the most pressing humanitarian crisis in the world. But the particularly complicated nature of the conflict also means that there's little sign that the war will end soon. So, what is the Yemeni civil war and why is it so complex? 

Reasons for civil war in Yemen

The Republic of Yemen lies in the south of Arabia. Sitting at the point where the Red Sea meets the Arabian Sea and the wider Indian Ocean,   it's long been regarded as a strategically important location. 

To its north lies Saudi Arabia and to its east is Oman. At approximately 530,000 square kilometers or 200,000 square miles,   it's a little larger than Thailand or Spain and is the 50th largest of the 193 members of the UN.

At present, its population is estimated to be around 30 million people. While the vast majority are Arab, and Arabic is universally spoken,   there are distinct tribal and religious differences. 

While 99 percent of the population is Muslim, they are divided between Shia Muslims, representing anywhere between 30 to 40 percent of the population and located mainly in the northwest of the country, and Sunni Muslims across the south and sparsely populated east. 

The present conflict has complex roots, but for our purposes, the story really starts with the unification of North and South Yemen - more properly the Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen - in May 1990. 

But suffice to say, the union soon came under strain. Despite the affinities of language and elements of culture,   the two parts had vastly different histories. While the North had been an independent state since 1918,   the South, a former British protectorate, had only become independent in December 1967. More to the point, following unification, the more populous and more prosperous North came to dominate the union politically under the unified country's first president,   Ali Abdullah Saleh; the leader of North Yemen since 1978. 

Just three years after unification,   the South rose up against the North in the country's first post-unification civil war. On 21 May 1994, southern leaders unilaterally declared independence - announcing the formation of the Democratic Republic of Yemen

In the end, the rebellion proved to be short-lived and was put down within about two months. Nevertheless, the roots of a movement dedicated to the re-establishment of the South's independence had now been put in place. 

In 2007, a new body, the Southern Movement,   emerged with the aim of reclaiming South Yemen's status as an independent sovereign state. Meanwhile, in the years that followed, Saleh continued his autocratic rule over Yemen. However, this all changed in 2011 against the backdrop of widespread uprisings in the Middle East - the so-called Arab Spring that started in Tunisia and then spread to various other countries - popular protests erupted in Yemen against the Saleh regime. 

Despite promising to step down, he then tried to stay in power. And following an assassination attempt that he survived, although badly injured,   he was eventually forced from power - ceding control to the country's Vice-President,   Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, in February 2012. 

While there were hopes that the new government could lead Yemen in a fresh direction,   the administration soon found itself dealing with a myriad of internal problems engulfing the state. For a start, there were severe economic problems. 

Unemployment and food shortages were a major issue in what was already the poorest state in the Middle East. On top of this, and as elsewhere in the Arab world,   Yemen faced a challenge from jihadist groups, including offshoots of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. 

In addition, the government also faced serious challenges from the two parts of the country. The Southern Movement continued to press for secession;   a call that was accompanied by a growing insurgency movement. 

Houthi Movement and Yemen

At the same time, in the north, a group called Ansar Allah - now better known as the Houthi   Movement - had been engaged in a series of conflicts with the Yemen government since 2004. 

Established to fight for the interests of the country's Shia Muslims,   it was widely suspected that they were being supported by Iran as part of Tehran's wider efforts to destabilize the Gulf states. 

In September 2014, following clashes with the government,   Houthi forces managed to take control of the country's capital, Sanaa

In the months that followed, they began to push south. In doing so, they formed an alliance with forces loyal to former president Saleh. 

In March 2015, as Houthi forces moved towards the port city of Aden, the most important city in the south, and the new home of the national government, President Hadi fled the country. It was at this point that the conflict escalated dramatically and the war really started. 

Fearing that Yemen could be about to fall to forces allied with Iran, Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab states - including Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the   United Arab Emirates - decided to intervene to end the Houthi threat and reinstate Hadi. 

On 26 March 2015, they launched airstrikes against Houthi positions. Importantly, this Arab coalition received political, logistic, and intelligence support from a number of key international actors, including Britain, France, and the United States. 

UN Security Council  Resolution for Yemen

And a few weeks later, on 15 April, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2216. Calling on parties to respect the unity, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Yemen, and the legitimacy of the president of Yemen,   the Council expressed its alarm at the escalation of Houthi activity. 

At the time, the widespread expectation was the Saudi-led coalition would soon overcome Houthi forces; and indeed they did make early progress,  retaking much of the south in the months that followed. This in turn saw the government form an alliance with the Southern Movement,   which was also concentrated on fighting off the Houthi threat. 

However, this partnership came to an end in May 2017, following a political disagreement between the sides. As a result, the Southern Movement announced the establishment of the Southern Transitional Council. Formed with the explicit intention of paving the way to reclaim statehood for the South,   this led to fighting between the Southern Movement and government forces. 

In 2018, Southern forces took control of Aden,   thus establishing a politically and symbolically important foothold. On top of this, matters were also complicated by the United Arab Emirates' decision to pull its forces out of the Saudi-led coalition. 

While the Saudi government continued to support Hadi, following a falling out with the Yemeni president the United Arab Emirates shifted their support to the Southern Transitional Council. 

In the meantime, as the Houthi attempted to consolidate their control over much of the north,   their somewhat uneasy relationship with Saleh broke down after the former president pressed the case for talks with Saudi Arabia. 

On 4 December 2017, Yemen's former leader was assassinated by Houthi forces as he attempted to flee Sanaa. 

By 2018, the country had been at war for three years and the situation on the ground was becoming increasingly dire. In an attempt to weaken the Houthi Movement, which had by now launch missile attacks against   Saudi Arabia, the Coalition had imposed a naval and air blockade on the heavily populated north. 

Stockholm Agreement

As a result, millions of people were in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. In December that year, following talks in Sweden, the parties signed the Stockholm Agreement. 

This envisaged a ceasefire in a number of key locations, including several important ports,   with a view to allowing humanitarian aid to be sent into the country. 

While many saw the Stockholm Agreement as an important step towards peace,   the situation has continued to deteriorate dramatically. 

As a result, the Yemeni Civil War is now widely hailed as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. According to UNICEF - the United Nations International Children's   Emergency Fund - almost 80 percent of Yemen's population are now in need of assistance. This amounts to 24 million people. Of this, 12 million are children. Indeed, the situation is now so dire there's a real worry that the country stands on the brink of famine. 

On top of this - and in the country hit by poverty, war, and a general breakdown of government services - the country has also been hit hard by Covid,   as well as outbreaks of other diseases, including cholera. 

Meanwhile, and despite an ongoing UN effort to try to broker a peace agreement in Yemen,   there's little immediate sign that the civil war will end anytime soon. As well as the ongoing conflict with the Houthi,   the Southern Transitional Council and the Hadi Government swing between cooperation and conflict. 

On top of this, the continued fighting in the country has also seen militant Islamic groups seize some territory. For all these reasons, many now regard Yemen as a quagmire. Civil wars are rarely as straightforward as many might imagine. The idea of a unified national government fighting a single insurgent movement is often far from the reality on the ground. In truth, many civil wars are exceedingly complex; involving a multitude of different groups with vastly different aims, shifting alliances, and wider regional and international involvement. The conflict in Yemen is an important example of such a complex civil war. 

Emerging from the complicated set of internal circumstances that saw sectarian factors interplay with economic deprivation and the political fallout from the country's unification, the civil war in Yemen is particularly multi-dimensional. Then there are the wider outside actors. Although Iran has denied that it's supporting the Houthi, this is widely challenged. More to the point, the perception of Iranian involvement saw Saudi Arabia and many other Arab states were drawn into the conflict. 

All this helps to explain why it's become so intractable. However, given the enormous humanitarian crisis that's emerged, a crisis that affects tens of millions of people, the need for a settlement to Yemen's civil war could not be more urgent. 

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