What's Really Behind The War In Yemen?

04/11/2015 02:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. To gain insight on the conflict in Yemen, we turned to analyst Dr. April Longley Alley.

Yemen is currently in a state of crisis as fighting between Houthi rebels and forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi devastates the country. In addition to the gun battles and shelling in major cities, there have been weeks of airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, which have leveled buildings and infrastructure.

The continued ground fighting and Saudi air campaign has also threatened to worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, while the death toll from the conflict has risen to over 540.

The current crisis stems from disagreements between groups in Yemen's complex political environment that started even before the ouster of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a 2011 uprising. To better understand the conflict gripping Yemen, The WorldPost spoke with Dr. April Longley Alley, senior analyst on the Arabian Peninsula for the International Crisis Group.

The Houthi insurgency has been going on for years, but in recent months has drastically escalated. What was the catalyst for that escalation?

There are a number of reasons for the escalation. Yemen's transition process started in 2011 and there was a road map to guide the country to reform. While some achievements were made, the process stalled and various political groups failed to come to consensus on two core issues that became real sticking points. The first was the details of pre-election power-sharing agreements, and how exactly to integrate groups like the Houthis into decision-making structures. Then there was also the issue of the the state, particularly the boundaries of federal regions.

When dialogue ended in early 2014, these two unresolved issues continued to fester, corruption continued and the old power structures were left in place. Throughout the three year transition, the Houthis began to take advantage of state weakness and expanded militarily in the absence of political reform.

The government's removal of the fuel subsidy last summer was a tipping point. The Houthis and their supporters mobilized in and around the capital of Sanaa and eventually began to take over.

This has been described as a sectarian conflict between the Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunni tribes. How accurate is that framing?

At its core this is not a sectarian conflict, this is a political power struggle between various Yemeni actors.

Yemen has a Zaidi community, which practices a version of Shiite Islam. They are the majority in the far north but the minority in the country. Then there is a majority Shafi’i population, who follow a version of Sunni Islam. These communities have intermarried and they pray in each other’s mosques. While some regional divides and divisions in the political economy sometimes overlap with the Zaidi-Shafi’i divides, there's no history of sectarian conflict in Yemen. To frame it in terms of sectarian conflict is therefore misleading.

At its core this is not a sectarian conflict, this is a political power struggle between various Yemeni actors.

At the same time, however, we’re seeing a dangerous development inside of Yemen where increasingly sectarian language is being used to describe the conflict both by regional actors and by Yemenis.

The war is also sometimes described as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. How legitimate is that description?

The Houthis do have connections with Iran, and there is some degree of assistance, although the degree is not clear in terms of financial and military assistance.

The more important point is that in particular Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are increasingly viewing Yemen and the Houthis through the lens of a war between Saudis and Iran. When they look at the Houthis they see an Iranian threat, and that is shaping the conflict dynamics inside of Yemen.

When they look at the Houthis they see an Iranian threat.

The Houthis, to be fair, have given their neighbors good reason for concern by their rhetoric and by their actions. For instance, the Houthis have taken a symbolic step of opening flights with Tehran and they also sent a high-level delegation to Iran to ask for assistance and economic development. In some ways it seems to be becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How does former President Ali Abdullah Saleh factor into the crisis?

Ali Abdullah Saleh is still a critical player in Yemen’s local power struggle. For example, he tacitly aligned with the Houthis as they advanced in the north in 2014. This alliance was not because of ideological affiliation or because this has an enduring shelf life politically, but at that point they were struggling against common enemies.

Saleh doesn’t have an army, but this is someone who after 33 years of power has tremendous influence and deep networks within the army, the air force, security services and the tribal confederations in the north. As the Houthis have expanded south, their support base has become more diluted and they’ve relied more on the supporters of Saleh.

What is the endgame for Saleh?

Saleh is probably driven by a number of factors and we know that he never had intentions of giving up politics. Certainly it’s fair to say he would like his son to have a prominent role in politics moving forward, possibly as president through elections.

What kind of humanitarian crisis can we expect the fighting will leave behind beyond what we’ve already seen?

Yemen is a country that even before this current conflict was moving towards a humanitarian crisis.
It’s a country that is 90 percent dependent on imports for its food and it’s already running out of water in critical cities.

Yemen is a country that even before this current conflict was moving towards a humanitarian crisis.

It’s already facing a hunger and malnutrition crisis throughout the country, and this fighting is obviously only accelerating the crisis in an acute and alarming way. The airstrikes have targeted critical infrastructure for the movement of goods and have also targeted electrical plants.

What possible outcomes do you see for the conflict?

A crucial question is what the political endgame is from the Saudi side. At this point, there isn’t a clear and viable exit strategy and it could drag on for quite a long time. This could be the beginning of a long and bloody conflict in Yemen that continues to draw in regional actors and exacerbate human suffering.

There is no military solution to the problem inside of Yemen. There's no single group that stands out as a clear winner. The country is deeply divided politically, so no group can solidify their writ over the entire country at this point.

The Saudi intervention, unless there is real thought to a clear political end-state, is likely to lead to prolonged violence and instability.

This interview took place on Apr. 7, 2015. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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