While the world’s attention remains focused on Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the rise and fall of ISIS (Daesh), the tragedy in Yemen has become a footnote in the wrangling geopolitics of the region. The current conflict in Yemen dates to 2011 when the Arab Spring forced the country’s long-time authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Fighting began in 2014 when the Houthis took advantage of Hadi’s weakness, seized control of the northern province Sadaa and later the capital Sanaa; forcing President Hadi in exile.
In 2015 the Saudi and GCC lead coalition started bombing Yemen to deter and defeat the Houthis whom they consider an Iranian proxy at the Saudi border in Yemen. The conflict in Yemen is one of the most brutal in the modern era that has claimed 13,500 to 80,000 lives. Yemen is also facing a grave humanitarian crisis with nearly 16 million people starved of basic food, water and essential medical healthcare due to the naval blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia on Yemeni ports. Approximately, 1 million Yemenis have already suffered from a Cholera outbreak while, the flow of arms and ammunition continue to worsen the tragedy with the country now being virtually torn apart by rival groups, militias and terror groups like ISIS/Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Though the current chaos in Yemen is the outcome of 2011 Arab Spring, its seeds were sown far back in history. South Yemen, near Aden was a British Colony until 1968 later leading to the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in South with Aden as the capital; and the Arab Republic of Yemen, an Islamic state with Sanna as its capital in the north. During the Cold War South Yemen aligned with the Soviet Union and was the only communist country in the Arab world. The British Navy was replaced by the Soviet navy in Aden and the Soviets subsidized South Yemen’s economy abetting Marxist movements across Oman, Saudi Arabia and North Yemen. However, post the collapse of the Soviet Union, the People Democratic Republic of Yemen was bankrupt and hence merged with North Yemen under the leadership of strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is known as the man for Yemeni unity and the formation of the Unified Arab Republic of Yemen.
The geopolitical tug of war heightened when Yemen took a stand against the US lead coalition intervention in Gulf War 1 in 1991 and backed Saddam Hussein in Iraq. This badly miffed the Saudis and the western coalition who cut off financial aid to Yemen paving way for a fresh insurrection lead by Vice President Al Bedih to gain independence for South Yemen. However, United Yemen under Saleh prevailed and the revolt was crushed and Bedih replaced by the then defence minister Mansoor Hadi in 1994. In the mid-90s, Yemen faced another threat from terrorist organization Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP) which carried out the USS Cole bombing of the port of Aden in 2000. The Yemeni government launched the operation to hunt down and close the terror sanctuaries of AQAP which had direct backing from Osama Bin Laden. Since then, Al Qaeda in Yemen grew leaps and bounds controlling vast swathes of desert in South Yemen facing off the newly formed ISIS which made inroads into lawless Yemen in recent years in a deadly gruesome battle.
The Arab Spring in 2010-11 furthered chaos and internal strife in Yemen as the Yemenis government lead by Saleh faced rising protests from Ziadi Shiites (Houthis) in Northern Yemen that were simmering since 2004 in a fresh insurrection in Aden via protests against vast corruption, failing economy and representation. In the aftermath of Arab Spring, Saleh was deposed and replaced by his deputy Hadi which meant that Saudi Arabia finally got its revenge on Saleh for backing Iraq in Gulf War 1 by deposing him and having their man Hadi in power. However, the Houthis backed by Iran were not going to sit idle and thus rejected Hadi’s democratic reforms and launched a movement in Northern Yemen against the government accusing it of neglecting Shias in the region.
The movement of Houthis was backed by Saleh in Sanaa who was aiming to ride back to power with funding and arms supplies from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard through Yemeni coastlines. Iran was regularly flouting international UN embargos exporting illegal arms, ammunition and even oil into the Houthi controlled Northern Yemen. Iran from 2014-2017 hugely benefited from the Nuclear Deal that gave it access to international markets and finance to fund insurgencies across the region from Syria to Yemen in a proxy war against its arch-rival Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis pushed towards the southern port of Aden making Hadi flee from Sanaa to Aden and finally into Riyadh where he currently represents the Yemeni government in exile. The Houthi charge towards the South Yemen led to Saudi-lead GCC coalition launching the conflict in Yemen in 2015 with Saudi Airforce bombing Sanaa along with the Emiratis. The Saudi coalition is also backed by Egyptian president Sisi, Chad and other North Africa Islamic countries that have sent troops to fight the Houthis in Yemen. In 2017, Saleh, the man who unified Yemen and was later deposed by Saudi Arabia; who was once backed by the Houthis against Hadi was assassinated by Houthis when he tried to shift his allegiance to Saudi Arabia and UAE in a bid to unify Yemen.
After years of conflict, the war in Yemen has become a festering wound in the Arabian Peninsula that has started to sap the Saudi Arabian defence with regular border fights, firing of Scud missiles and anti-aircraft fire against coalition jets. While Iran continues to fund and arm the Houthis against Saudi coalition, recent reports from France, UK and US reveal how these European countries along with the US are also providing lethal weapons that are being indiscriminately used against the civilian population in Yemen. The recent French Directorate of Military Intelligence report shows that Saudi coalition primarily relies on US and NATO countries arms, weapon systems like American F-15s, British EF-2000 Typhoons and European Tornado fighters. The Saudis also fly American Apache and Black Hawk helicopters in its Airforce along with French AS-532 Cougar. The coalition troops have fortified the boundaries with American Abrams, French AMX 30 Tanks, using Western artillery guns, SAM system and American, French warships, naval choppers to enforce a naval blockade on Yemen which has converted Yemen into a humanitarian disaster zone.
Like Iran, the western powers have turned a blind eye to support the brutal war in Yemen. While UK offered a sympathetic view to look into the arms supply to Saudi Arabia, American President Donald Trump vetoed a resolution passed by US Congress to end American support for Saudi War in Yemen. He categorically stated that he cannot let go of business worth $110 billion in arms deals with Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen against Houthis backed by Iran. With the war in Yemen starting to take a toll on the Saudi economy amid falling oil profits, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman took charge of Saudi foreign policy and mended ties with Emirati prince Mohammed bin Zayed who was also eager to find a solution as Hadi’s frail leadership claims sitting in Riyadh don’t offer a credible alternative in Yemen. This is when the Emiratis backed the rise of Southern Transitional Council (STC) in May 2017 from Aden demanding a separate state of South Yemen similar to what Saudi Arabia had desired after Gulf War 1.
The Emiratis, unsure of Hadi’s role in Yemen’s future; and his dangerous flirtations with the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood backed STC which took over Aden and areas around it after a heavy battle. The Emiratis have also deployed a large no of Private Military Contractors and nearly 450 mercenaries from Chile, Salvador, Panama and Columbia in Yemen. Salvadorian sources confirmed that nearly 100 mercenaries from Salvador were deployed in Yemen along with many Mexicans as part of the drug-funded wars interlinking Latin America with the Middle East. UAE has also signed a contract with Blackwater’s Erik Prince to train and operate private military contractors at secret bases in UAE many of whom belong to South American countries. The UAE is not alone in Yemen when it comes to PMCs, even Russian sponsored PMCs are operating in Yemen after similar operations in Ukraine and Syria. Russian PMC Wagner Group is highly active in providing security/mercenary services for the Russian state as its extended invisible arm in regions across the world especially North Africa.
Russia’s return in Yemen brings new dynamics. Russia recently invited Aidarus al-Zoubaidi the President of STC to visit Moscow on the invitation of Russian Foreign Ministry. It has established full contact with the STC in Aden and is soon to reopen its consulate in the port city of Aden which is in STC’s control. Russia has realized that Hadi and Salafi groups don’t offer stability in Yemen and thus backed STC in South Yemen which has also been successful in pushing Houthis back to the port city of Hodeidah forcing them to sign the Stockholm agreement in December 2018. Russia’s return to Yemen is strategic; it is also collaborating with Emiratis in Syria where UAE is willing to open a diplomatic mission in Damascus cooperating with the Russians; much like the synergy between the two in Libya in backing Khalifa Haftar against Libyan national government. The Russian-UAE bonhomie and coziness from Syria, Yemen to Libya stems from the rise of Muslim Brotherhood and President Erdogan in Turkey who has formed an axis with Iran and Qatar in the region which threatens the Gulf Arab monarchies.
Russia’s aim is also to regain the lost leverage of the Soviet era of South Yemen and possibly reviving its dream of a military base at Socotra Island where it can dominate the international shipping routes through the Red Sea, Bab Al Mandeb Strait. Russia’s return to the Arabian Peninsula is critical to the geopolitical matrix in the region as China, America and France are expanding their military presence in the North African region including hosting bases at Djibouti. Having lost the opportunity in Sudan, the Russians have swiftly made countermoves in Libya and now Yemen where they hope to have a significant military presence in future. The conflict in Yemen thus has many suitors from UAE, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran to USA whose military industrial complexes continue making a killing as common Yemenis suffer. The tragedy in Yemen has just begun to unfold and as terror groups take center stage in the war-torn country, chaos and conflict are bound to get bloodier in months and years ahead. In the end, new borders will be drawn, new seeds of conflict sown and peace will continue to remain a mirage.
- Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe, in one chart https://www.vox.com/2019/1/30/18203857/yemen-war-deaths-injured-chart-intelligence
- UAE arming Yemen militias with Western weapons – Amnesty https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47143068
- With the ISIS caliphate defeated in Syria, an Islamist militant rivalry takes root in Yemen https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/with-the-once-declared-caliphate-of-isis-defeated-in-syria-an-islamist-militant-rivalry-takes-root-in-yemen/2019/04/13/d54148a6-34d3-4a67-a40a-9dc4f783338e_story.html?utm_term=.3115c9ae045a
- Advancing separatists could restore South Yemen https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/01/south-yemen-separatists-advances-aden-uae.html
- Does Russia seek return of independent South Yemen? https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/04/russia-south-yemen-uae-prospects.html#ixzz5maVMy4Zy
- Secret Report Reveals Saudi Incompetence and Widespread use of U.S. Weapons in Yemen https://theintercept.com/2019/04/15/saudi-weapons-yemen-us-france/
- Mercenaries in Yemen: the US Connection http://nena-news.it/mercenaries-in-yemen-the-us-connection/
- Russian PMCs in Yemen: Kremlin-Style ‘Security Export’ in Action? https://jamestown.org/program/russian-pmcs-in-yemen-kremlin-style-security-export-in-action/
- Saudi Arabia Increases Reliance on African and Latin Mercenaries for Yemen War Effort Following Arab Allies’ Withdrawal https://militarywatchmagazine.com/article/saudi-arabia-increases-reliance-on-african-and-latin-mercenaries-for-yemen-war-effort-following-arab-allies-withdrawal