In the European corridors of power, the call for more airstrikes to counter the growing threat of ISIS is being sought but it seems that the West has all but forgotten about the other civil war raging in the Middle East. The Yemeni conflict that began on 26 March has now continued for nine months with no possible end in sight. Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and has historically been the site of civil uprisings and regional intervention. This time, however, both sides seem to have reached a stalemate and are both entrenched in their spheres of influence.
Currently, Yemen is divided into three areas of control: the Shia Houthi Rebel movement in the North (including the capital Sanaa), the Hadi Government (supported by a Saudi-led coalition including the UAE and Bahrain) in the South and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the East. AQAP has control of the region close to Oman, but its leadership has been the target of systematic drone strikes by the United States for several years. Groups affiliated with ISIS have also taken control of several provinces and have added another dimension to the instability rocking the country including a series of suicide bomb attacks that killed 15 soldiers in a hotel in Aden on 6 October.
The scale of the conflict is small compared to what is happening in Syria, but the humanitarian cost is enormous. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 21.2 million people or 82% of the Yemeni population require humanitarian assistance. The country is on the edge of massive famine, and there is a lack of adequate infrastructure due to consistent airstrikes. Ports have been sealed off by coalition forces to stop the rearmament of the Houthi Rebels, but humanitarian aid cannot make it through. Systematic aerial bombings have seen the toll of civilian causalities reach the thousands, and both sides have been accused of committing heinous war crimes. People fleeing the conflict do not have many options either. The 1500 km border with Saudi Arabia has been partially fenced off so those fleeing the conflict have been heading to Somalia, or trying to make it to Oman, through the AQAP dominated areas.
Further complications to the conflict make a political resolution hard to achieve. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (and once-loyal ally to Saudi Arabia) has a built tentative alliance with the Houthi movement due to the loyalty he commands within some sections of the military establishment. Saleh’s son is rumoured to be a potential presidential replacement as Saleh tries to reestablish his authority. However, it is unlikely the Houthi’s would install Saleh back to the presidency he lost in 2011.
A lack of support from other members of the Arab League including Egypt and Pakistan has meant that existing ground forces cannot maintain their level of engagement. In the House of Al-Saud, there is much discontent within the royal family about the decision to enter Yemen and with the price of oil dropping many are querying whether Saudi Arabia can continue to fund this incursion. There are even rumours of a possible palace coup to oust King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud.
Nine months after the beginning of the conflict, Saudi Arabia has found itself in a quagmire. What was supposed to be a quick and sharp offensive has now turned into a long protracted war. This war has drained Saudi Arabia politically, militarily and strategically. King Salman risks undermining his domestic legitimacy if there is no solution to the conflict soon. A political settlement is the only way that this conflict can be solved but whether there is enough political will to orchestrate an agreement is yet to be seen. It seems however very unlikely. The possibility of the current partition of Yemen into a permanent de-jure arrangement controlled by multiple players is looking more probable, but this poses a greater risk, as ISIS-affiliated groups and AQAP consolidate more territory in the growing instability.
However, the real winner in all this is Iran. As Saudi Arabia’s remains bogged down in Yemen, Iran has gained the strategic advantage in the ‘Great game’ of influence in the Middle East. Although with recent tensions flaring between the two regional powers, time can only tell how much the Yemeni campaigns will affect Saudi influence in the region.
Iain MacGillivray was the January-June 2016 Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: IRIN Photos (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)