The War in Yemen: Sanaa’s Crisis and Washington’s Apathy


Olivia Smathers ‘21, Staff Writer

Since 2014, an ongoing conflict of devastating proportions has wracked the Yemeni people. With estimates for civilian deaths ranging from 7,000 to 67,000 depending on the source, the war in Yemen certainly has earned its title as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Approximately eighty percent of the country’s population needs some form of aid: 3 million are displaced, 240,000 are at risk of famine, and 85,000 children are severely malnourished. While disease runs rampant, clean water runs dry. Millions cannot get access to medical care because half of the medical facilities in the country have fallen out of order. Human rights organizations mourn the situation every day, yet an end to the suffering still seems far away.

On a surface level, the conflict resembles a classic civil war story: the rebels—the Houthis—versus the government—President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Both the Houthis and the government adhere to the premises of their religion, Islam, but the Houthis represent the Shiites, an Islamic minority, while the government consists largely of Sunnis. The division between the two religious subsectors dates back centuries and continues to play a role in the war everyday: Iran, a Shia nation, lends support to the Houthis, while Saudi Arabia, mostly Sunni, militarily backs the government. Saudi Arabia leads a coalition of Gulf States, including the United Arab Emirates, that helps to further their agenda while also broadening the gap between the Shiites and the Sunnis.

Besides the Houthis, several other groups, mostly extremists, have seen the opportunity for power amidst the chaos. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State currently control parts of southern Yemen, making movements to deter terrorism in the Middle East more difficult.

The seeds of the war were planted following the failed political transition after the Arab Spring Uprising in 2011. That rebellion forced former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to transfer his power to his deputy, Hadi. A variety of issues, from corruption to separatists movements, ensued. The Houthis picked up their pace once Saleh lost his place in office, exploiting the period of transition to take control over territory in northern Yemen. However, it was not until 2014, the year the Houthis commandeered the capital, Sanaa, that the bulk of the conflict began. The Saudi-led Coalition began taking countermeasures against the rebels via airstrikes and economic sanctions about a year later. Since then, they have managed to exile Hadi, who now resides in Saudi Arabia, and defeat Saleh in a brutal two-day battle after he and his forces took up arms. The Saudis have put a blockade into place to curb weapons coming in from Iran, but unfortunately for the Yemenis, it also makes the price of necessities like food and fuel even higher. In 2018, conditions worsened when the Coalition launched their offensive against Yemen’s main port and access point for trade, Hodeida. Today, ensuring stable resources remains Yemenis’  most difficult task and with only a temporary government structure set up in Aden, another port city, structures to help do so have become more and more scarce.

In recent developments, the international world has been owning up to their own culpability in the conflict. Many nations, like Germany and Denmark, have stopped selling weapons to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to lessen the violence. The same cannot be said for the United States. Controversy surrounding Trump’s military packages to Saudi Arabia has roused Congress enough for them to exercise the War Powers Resolution—a resolution that allows them to contest a proposed arms sale by the president—for the first time. Unluckily for the Yemenis, Trump vetoed their decision and the US continues to essentially sponsor the Saudis fight against the Houthis. Trump claims the arms are for deterrence against Iran and for support of the 80,000 American citizens living in Saudi Arabia, but the validity of his claims are disputed. This month, an attack on Saudi’s Aramco oil facilities by 10 drones fueled Trump’s anti-Iran attitude: US intelligence shows the assault came from the north of Middle East, despite being claimed by the Houthis in the south, and Trump blames Iran. No matter what the reasons for enabling Saudi Arabia are, the consequences are deplorable. According to Trevor Thrall, “by supporting Saudi Arabia’s military action, we are a party to serious war crimes and are indirectly at fault for the devastating humanitarian crisis the people of Yemen now face.”