The biggest battle of Yemen’s most recent civil war is underway, and honestly, there’s good reason not to know much about what’s going on. From Reuters:
Arab coalition troops stormed the airport in Yemen’s main port Hodeidah on Tuesday and captured large areas of the compound in battles with Iran-aligned Houthis, a Yemeni military source, the UAE news agency and local residents said.
Yemen is a tough place to explain, let alone understand. It is a proxy war, a civil war, an anti-terrorist operation, and a politically-driven humanitarian catastrophe all taking place side by side, one on top of the other.
We’re going to try anyway. In 1200 words or less, let’s explain Yemen.
The Yemen war, broken down
I’ve been rewriting this multiple times because Yemen is very, very hard, to explain in simple terms. The best approach I’ve arrived at is thus:
The layers of Yemen’s conflict
- The north v. the south
- The Zaydis v. the Sunnis
- The extremists v. everyone else
- The tribes caught in between
These layers over overlap one another, so that one local group might work with one enemy for temporary advantage. But the core fights in Yemen are those, and their goals are what’s driving the war.
First, the North v. the South. This is geographical, historical, and cultural, and is essentially the story of the fight between San’aa, in the highlands, and Aden, on the coast. Ever since Yemen gained independence from the Ottoman Empire after World War I, San’aa, the country’s biggest city, has sought to take control of Aden, its richest port. But Aden is just far enough from San’aa, and just connected enough to the rest of the world, to have a distinct Southern identity, one that grew during the British occupation from 1839 to 1963. That was long enough that when Britain withdrew, the South’s elites felt their former colony was cohesive enough to take a stab at statehood. They also became Communist, hoping to unlock aid from the Soviet-led world to build up what was still a very poor place.
So the South resists the North, while the North takes hold of the South when it can as long as it can. But when politics go sour in the North, the South takes the opportunity to split away, which is exactly what some Southerners in the Southern Transitional Council did earlier this year, when they took over most of Aden.
There there is the Zaydi v. Sunni conflict. This isn’t all-encompassing; just because one is Zaydi or Sunni doesn’t mean they’re taking part. But key elites on both sides – represented by the Houthis for the Zaydis and the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islah for the Sunnis – are squabbling for control of territories they consider theirs. This is both a fight for security and a fight for conversion – both sides fear the other will try to impose their way of life on them, while both sides have true believers who will try to convert the enemy as well.
Then there’s the Extremists v. Everyone else. This is rather simple, especially for Yemen. They’re al-Qaeda and, increasingly, the Islamic State, who want to exploit the two big conflicts between north and south, Zayid and Sunni, defeat everyone, and turn Yemen into a new caliphate. That’s why America even bothers with Yemen.
Finally, there are the tribes, who are hyperlocalized, and who basically just want to carry on their day to day lives. They are opportunistic and not terribly political, and whenever a faction rolls through with enough power, they typically find a way to work with them. For them, a unified Yemen makes as much sense as a broken one; a central government is just as likely to harry them as a shattered political landscape. What they care about is humanitarian aid, which a central government should, in theory, be able to bring faster. But they are not about to commit to a faction wholesale without seeing proof that they’re on the winning side. That was a key reason Ali Abdullah Saleh got killed last December; he presumed, wrongly as it turns out, that he could rally the tribes of the north to his side as he decided to ditch his former allies, the Houthis. He was wrong; the tribes saw the Houthis as too strong to take on directly, and let him twist in the wind.
So that’s the local stuff. What about the international stuff?
The war will carry on until the North-South, Zaydi-Sunni conflict is resolved (and remember, those conflicts overlap). The extremists will stay in Yemen until a developed central government emerges, too, but that isn’t enough to cause rounds and rounds of civil war, unless the extremists hijack the Sunni community.
So that creates an opportunity for outsiders. For Iran, Yemen is ideal to harass Saudi Arabia’s southern edge; that’s why it keeps supplying the Houthis with arms and missiles to do so. Doing so has even provoked the Saudis into a large invasion that has been both expensive and diplomatically troublesome, as the war has produced much of the misery that dances across TV screens. But Iran is not about to build up a big army to invade Saudi Arabia; instead, it wants to chip away at Riyadh’s legitimacy, especially in the restive Asir region, whose loyalties to the crown are not entirely certain.
The Saudis, in trying to stop Iran, have assembled a large coalition to fight on their behalf. The most prominent is the UAE, which, under the rule of Abu Dhabi, is building out a network of bases from the Horn of Africa to Yemen itself. The UAE is both ground testing its armed forces for the war it truly cares about – one that would involve Iran – and trying to carve out a sphere of influence that makes it an invaluable partner to the great powers (by helping secure the vital Aden/Red Sea trade route). By extension, it can also try to set up its own economic projects in these zones of influence, though honestly the UAE doesn’t need the money.
Other members of the Saudi coalition – specifically the Sudanese, who do much of the dying – demand concessions from rich Saudi Arabia. They are, essentially, mercenaries for Riyadh.
That leaves the United States, looking on haplessly, as it always has in Yemen, hoping the local players sort their own problems so it can get on with the business of killing al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The Americans are unwilling to do very much to bring about a resolution to the conflict; it’s doubtful they could even if they tried. So they hover and strike when they can, focusing on “disruption” rather than an end game of any kind.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world looks on, and simply wishes the problem away.
The war will end when the core conflict is resolved. The battle for Hodeidah goes a step in that direction. But once the port falls, the next campaign must to be to advance to San’aa. It took the coalition six months to move along the relatively open coastline to Hodeidah. How long it’ll take to take the much harder road to the capital is anyone’s guess.