Yemen Civil War: A Conflict That Has Never Ended

by Dr. I. Aytac Kadioglu

aytackadioglu@cesran.org


Yemen, a country of the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula in western Asia, has suffered by years of violence. However, the civil war which began in 2015 has been one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The war caused twenty-two millions of people who need urgent help to survive and to trap civilians in a life of starvation, violence and disease. This paper assesses the conflict from the beginning of the protests of the Arab uprising to civil war and peace negotiations. It aims to illustrate the underlying reasons for the country to be a total war-zone.

A Brief History of the ‘Trouble’

The contemporary conflict in Yemen cannot be assessed sufficiently without understanding the history of the trouble in the country. Yemen has been at the centre of violence for two centuries. While it has not been a conflicted territory under the control of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, the British involvement caused the partition of the country in 1839. Whilst North Yemen remained part of the Ottoman Empire, South Yemen has been a dependent state of the British Empire. The violent conflict between and within the two sides maintained after South Yemen became an independent country in 1967.[i] Particularly, Yemen has turned to a war-zone between Soviet Russia-supported South Yemen and the US-supported North Yemen which was a miniature of the bipolar world during the Cold War Era.

North and South Yemen witnessed several coup d’etat and upheaval until the agreement of re-uniting the country in 1990 which was possible only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.[ii] When the Soviet Union’s influence on South Yemen ended, the US loosened its authority on North Yemen and so, both sides came together to discuss ending the long-standing partition.  The clash of interests of the US and Russia is similar with the Syrian civil war for the sake of controlling the region.[iii]

The election of Ali Abdullah Saleh as the first president of the Republic of Yemen did not end the unrest as he aimed to control political power under his authority. The limited political reforms, economic difficulties and human right issues caused turmoil in the country. The Arab uprisings have just pulled the trigger of angry reaction against Saleh. However, his resignation did not prevent a civil war due to political and local grievances.

From the Oppressive Regime to the Civil War

The civil war considering the Arab uprisings is dissimilar with other Arab spring countries. While initial protests aimed to end Saleh’s oppressive rule, it turned to a violent conflict because of the denial of Saleh to resign until November 2011 which deteriorated the conflict.[iv]

The first tension of the civil war began in 2014 when Shiite rebels consisting of Houti insurgents captured Sana’a which is the capital of Yemen.[v] The claims of opposition groups included a democratic election, a new government and lowering fuel prices. After Houthi insurgents to seize the presidential palace in 2015, sectarian violence between the Shia Houthi movement backed by Iran and the Sunni government forces backed by Saudi Arabia has intensified. The Saudi-led coalition’s aggressive bombings caused 17,000 civilian casualties, to displace 2 million people and to prevent 22 out of 28 million to reach food and health services.[vi]

The US administration and Saudi-led coalition (consisting of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain and Kuwait) claimed that Houthi rebels are driven by the Iranian government.[vii] While the Iranian support cannot be deniable, it can be said that Houthis are not dependent on external support because they fight against the government forces since 2004. The Houthi insurgents have also been able to fight against pro-government and loyalist groups simultaneously for years. I argue that Iran’s limited support for Houthis cannot be a reason for justifying Saudi-led coalition’s air strikes and the US administration’s military assistance to Saudi Arabia. Instead, this coalition’s bombings are directly related to their strategy to reinstate the exiled government which could only be possible by destroying rebellion forces in the country. Similarly, Juneau states that major determinants of the civil war are local and political factors, not proxy warfare of Iran or sectarian violence.[viii] Namely, Saleh and his supporters have aimed to retake power, and Houthis have the objective to have political power, or in other words, to be represented in the political arena. While Houthis constitute 45% of all population, they have been under represented in the Parliament which triggered their angry reaction.

Peace Talks

After four years of humanitarian crisis, international community’s call for help resulted in peace talks to be initiated. The UN-led talks have begun in Stockholm on December 6, 2018. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, more than 60,000 people have been killed by the two sides between January 2016 and November 2018.[ix] These talks together with the pressure of the murder of a Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the US Senate had to end air missile aid for the Saudi-led coalition.[x]

There is another facilitator of peace negotiation. It can be said that the announcement of Save the Children, an international aid organisation, that at least 85,000 children under the age of five may have died because of starvation between April 2015 and October 2018 have facilitated to start peace talks. This created great reaction in international society which triggered the UN’s peace initiative. Considering the Saudi-led coalition’s air and land blockade in Yemen for more than three years, it is fair to argue that the coalition forces play a role in difficulties of international organisations to help people in need. This coalition’s blockades and aggressive attacks on civilians are even called ‘genocide’.[xi]

Lastly, the deep-rooted conflict demonstrates that the civil war can only be ended through political changes. International involvement including the Saudi-led coalition of eight countries, the US and Iran’s support only deteriorated the conflict. I believe that Saudi Arabia and the USA’s involvement was not because of ending Iran’s support, but have a strategic purpose, to reinstate the exiled government in charge. It will be too optimistic to expect the Stockholm meetings to bring peace in Yemen. Instead, they can be seen first steps of a series of negotiations which will close the gap between the main armed protagonists. If the international support for conflicting parties is ended, it is more likely to establish a peace agreement in Yemen. This will make it possible for civilians to survive in the short-term, and reconstruction of the country in the long-term.After several days of negotiations, the main armed protagonists; the Houthi insurgents and Aden-based government reached a deal for a ceasefire in the key port of Hodeidah on December 16, December.[xii] The two sides have agreed on three points in Stockholm: the first two points are related to As Salif and Ras Isa regions, Taiz, Hodeidah city and port. According to the agreement, both sides will demilitarise these regions and never be militarised again. The third point is related to exchange of captives simultaneously which stipulates to establish an executive mechanism for the exchange.[xiii] This means that it will be possible to establish a humanitarian corridor for people who need urgent help to survive from starvation and diseases. Although this is a small step towards making peace, it is a big help for civilians who need humanitarian aid most.


[i] Arı, T. (2012). Geçmişten Günümüze Orta Doğu: Siyaset, Savaş ve Diplomasi. Final: İstanbul.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Kadıoğlu, İ. A. (2018). ‘The Proxy Warfare in Syria’. Political Reflection, 4 (4), pp.10-15.

[iv] BBC (2018). Yemen Crisis: Why Is There A War? URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423 accessed on 22 November 2018.

[v] CFR (2018). War in Yemen. URL: https://www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker#!/conflict/war-in-yemen accessed on: 2 December 2018.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Washington Post (2016). No, Yemen’s Houthis Actually Aren’t Iranian Puppets. URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/16/contrary-to-popular-belief-houthis-arent-iranian-proxies/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a1422baecfa1 accessed on: 8 October 2018.

[viii] Juneau, T. (2016). ‘Iran’s Policy towards The Houthis in Yemen: A Limited Return on A Modest İnvestment’. International Affairs92(3), 647-663.

[ix] ACLED (2018). Press Release: Yemen War Death Toll Now Exceeds 60,000. URL: https://www.acleddata.com/2018/12/11/press-release-yemen-war-death-toll-now-exceeds-60000-according-to-latest-acled-data/ accessed on: 12 December 2018.

[x] New York Times (2018). Senate Votes to End Aid for Yemen Fight Over Khashoggi Killing and Saudis’ War Aims. URL: https://www.acleddata.com/2018/12/11/press-release-yemen-war-death-toll-now-exceeds-60000-according-to-latest-acled-data/ accessed on: 14 December 2018.

[xi] Bachman, J. (2018). US Complicity in the Saudi-led Genocide in Yemen Spans Obama, Trump Administrations. URL: https://theconversation.com/us-complicity-in-the-saudi-led-genocide-in-yemen-spans-obama-trump-administrations-106896 accessed on: 15 December 2018.

[xii] Dawn (2018). Yemen Peace Talks. URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1451528 accessed on: 16 December 2018.

[xiii] Hurriyet (2018). BM’den Yemenli Taraflara ‘Anlaşmayı Derhal Uygulayın’ Çağrısı [UN Calls Both Sides to Accomplish the Agreement Immediately in Yemen]. URL: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/dunya/bmden-yemenli-taraflara-anlasmayi-derhal-uygulayin-cagrisi-41054142 accessed on: 17 December 2018.


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