Executive Summary

Yemen no longer has a unified government. The Zaidi Shia Muslim Al Houthi militia controls most of the Zaidi Shia areas, and other important cities in Yemen, totally about half of the population. The rest of the country is held by the official regime of President Hadi, a Sunni Arab Yemeni, and many other, sometimes independent, forces, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Southern Movement militia, and ISIS. The various groups are all fighting (sometimes) each other and the official government to control Yemen. In response to the significant Houthi gains a few years ago, the Arab League Coalition (ALC) led by Saudi Arabia intervened and engaged in Operation Decisive Storm. The goal of this operation is to reinstall Yemeni President Hadi. U.S. involvement thus far has been limited to a supportive role. 

 

Wiki Commons, September 2018

Green is controlled by the Houthis

Pink is controlled by the Hadi-led government

Yellow is controlled by the Southern Movement

White is controlled by AQAP forces

Historical Background

Yemen was originally two separate nations. The Zaidi Kingdom was established in the north after the war, later becoming the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962. South Yemen remained a British protectorate until 1967 when it became a Communist state. North and South were reunited in 1990, although in 1994 the South attempted to secede but was occupied by the North.

Yemen witnessed a revolution in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. It eventually culminated in the resignation of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the election of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2012. However, President Hadi was forced to flee to Aden in late January 2015 after the Houthis took control of the capital of Sana’a. In February, he fled again to Saudi Arabia after the Houthis captured Aden. In September of 2015, Aden was recaptured by the Hadi forces and the ALC, but in 2019, in August, it was captured by the Southern Movement.

Religious Divide

Muslims make up over 99% of the 27 million people in Yemen. It is estimated that roughly 65% of Yemenis are Sunni and 35% are Zaidi Shia. The Shia tend to be concentrated in the North, while the Sunnis dominate in the South.

Bab al-Mandab strait

The Bab al-Mandab strait separates the Arabian Peninsula from east Africa and links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. About 4% of the global oil supply, much of it from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, passes through the strait, which is 29km wide at its narrowest point. In 2013, more than 3.4 million barrels of oil a day passed through the 20-km (12-mile) wide Bab al-Mandab strait, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Houthi rebels and others are a threat to its operation. Also, anything going through the Suez Canal is feeding the Egyptian economy, which is fragile. Further, industries like liquid natural gas, are also affected. 

Yemen’s Military

Yemen had an estimated 66,000 regular army troops before the civil war. There was also elite military groups, numbering 80,000 to 95,000, which were originally sympathetic to Saleh. About 10,000 of the army have refused to fight, and another 10,000 have opposed the Houthis. 

Factions in Yemen

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): Also known as Ansar-al-Sharia, AQAP at one point had secured about half of the Yemen coast and a quarter of the country’s land, controlling more land than the Houthi rebels. AQAP has a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits. Until recently, when the ALC conquered it, AQAP’s capitol was Mukalla, a large city in the south. When it held that city it earned up to $2 million every day in taxes on goods and fuel coming into the port. AQAP remains in the top three threats to the U.S. and numbers 7000 fighters, but the group continues to grow, taking advantage of the chaos and lack of governance. AQAP generally cooperates with other Sunni groups in the conflict with the Houthi tribesmen. Al Qaeda has compromised with the pro-Hadi coalition in the past. Until recently, the ALC invasion did not target AQAP. Katherine Zimmerman, an al Qaeda expert, has written of its threat to the U.S. “[Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] AQAP was behind at least four major attempted attacks on U.S. interests outside of Yemen, and all of those occurred when the group was weaker than it is today. AQAP is also still a key asset for the global al Qaeda network, providing overall leadership guidance, sharing expertise, and coordinating transnational attacks.” U.S. officials have indicated that American actions will remain limited to targeted airstrikes against AQAP until there is a legitimate government. The U.S. launched more than 120 strikes against AQAP and the Islamic State in Yemen in 2017, greater than the totals for 2014, 2015, and 2016 combined. The head of AQAP is Qassim al-Rimi

Al-Houthi: (AKA Ansarollah, or God’s partisans) the Al-Houthi tribesmen of Yemen are a Zaidi Shia group who inhabit the northern mountains. While they do share some basic similarities to traditional Shiism, Zaidis have several distinct beliefs that set them apart. The group was started by the Al-Houthi brothers in 1992, then called the ‘Believing Youth’ party. Initially a group that focused on reinvigorating Zaidism, the group became militant and radicalized in the 2000s and were a major player in the 2011 revolution. It is estimated that the Houthis have a total of 15,000 to 60,000 armed fighters. Iran has been a strong supporter for the Houthis, providing them with arms, training and fighters, both by land and sea. Iran gives the Houthis as much as $30 million per month. Iran has delivered about 5000 Iranian and Iraqi Shiite forces into Yemen, and an unknown number of Hezbollah. Forty-four IRGC and Hezbollah operatives have been killed or captured. Iran has also established a significant naval presence along the coast of Yemen. Additionally, Iranian politicians have also been providing a significant amount of political rhetoric in Tehran denouncing Saudi-led operations in Yemen. However, while the Houthis have expressed support for Iran and gratitude for Iran’s assistance, they remain more ambivalent in their attitudes to Tehran than loyal and obedient proxies such as Hezbollah; although Iran is working to change this. Iran and the Houthis have implemented massive forced recruitment of child soldiers, now some 70% of their forces. The Houthis have been willing to attack U.S. ships and dronespresumably under Iranian orders – though. They are increasingly developing drone technology. The Houthis have also routinely fired ballistic missiles provided by Iran against ships and into Saudi Arabia, and Iran has admitted it ordered some of these attacks. So far, the Houthis have fired 226 ballistic missiles and 710,606 “projectiles” during the war. The Houthis rule over around 70% of Yemen’s people.

Saleh Loyalists: as former President Saleh had used prior U.S. training to cement loyalty to his regime in the armed forces, there was still a significant contingent of the Yemen army and elite forces that stayed loyal to Saleh. Saleh was a Zaidi Muslim. When Saleh aligned himself with the Houthi movement, he was instrumental in the group’s gains in the South; things changed in December of 2017, when their alliance ended and he was killed in the fighting. Many of his fighters were detained by the Houthis. Control of his forces overall may shift to his son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. His political party is called the General Peoples’ Congress.

Southern Movement or Southern Transitional Council: formed in 2007, this group is a hold-over from the 1994 civil war. It aims to promote secession of the South. Although it originally opposed the Hadi government, the 5000 armed men of this Sunni group helped oust the Houthis from Aden. The separatists are organized under a governing body called the Southern Transitional Council. They are demanding greater inclusion in state welfare programs, object to the sale of land to government-linked northerners, and also accuse the north of hogging the profits from southern oil fields. The Southern Movement seized Aden from the Hadi government. The UAE has been supportive to them. Recently, the Southern Movement and the Hadi government signed a deal, which creates a new government with 12 ministers from the north and 12 from the south.

Hadi Loyalists: President Hadi is still considered the rightful leader of Yemen by a majority of the regional powers. He is a Sunni Muslim. He is being backed by Saudi Arabia. The UAE has armed and trained some 90,000 Yemeni troops drawn from southern separatists and coastal plains fighters.

Arab League Coalition: a military coalition made up of the GCC, Egypt and select other Arab league members, which has agreed to the formulation of a military task force to help suppress the Houthis and reinstall President Hadi. The ALC is being supported by U.S. The ALC has committed between 2000 and 10,000 troops. The UAE had provided the most fighters – until they left Yemen– but there are also Saudis, Bahrainis, Egyptians, and Sudanese. The UAE has used American mercenaries for targeted assassinations. Many of the soldiers fighting in the Gulf armies are originally from Yemeni. To fight AQAP in Mukalla, the ALC developed a 10,000-strong force, including around 4,500 Yemeni troops, around 1,500 tribal fighters, and around 4,000 anti-AQAP rebels from Mukalla.

Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS): ISIS has claimed several attacks in Yemen. The group claims to have affiliates operating in the same areas in Yemen where Al Qaeda maintains presence.  They are believed to have hundreds of fighters, many of whom once were part of AQAP. U.S. forces have targeted the Islamic State six times in 2017, the first of which occurred on Oct. 16, 2017. 

Operation Decisive Storm

  • Started on March 25, 2015 as an attempt to repel the Houthis. Includes 9 Arab states, including 4 members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Sudan, Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan.

  • U.S. has provided weapons, vehicles, intelligence, other equipment, and reconnaissance support to the Saudi-led coalition. Some of those weapons and equipment may have gone to the Houthis or jihadist groups.

  • Most operations thus far have consisted of Saudi-led air strikes on Houthi targets. 

  • Coalition forces have engaged in naval bombardments and a blockade of Yemen in an attempt to stop vessels from smuggling Iranian weapons to the Houthis. The U.S. Navy is providing support for this blockade. The Iranian navy has also deployed vessels.

  • The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights office has said that coalition airstrikes remain “the leading cause of civilian casualties.” 

U.S. Operations & Involvement

U.S. involvement focuses on giving foreign aid, drone and air strikes, special force attacks, enforcing the arms blockade, and providing surveillance and intelligence to Saudi efforts. The Pentagon has admitted that a small number of U.S. personnel are on the ground in Yemen to root out AQAP. The U.S. has exerted effort to improve Saudi targeting to minimize civilian casualties, and is providing nearly $131 million in additional food assistance for Yemen, bringing total humanitarian aid to more than $697 million. Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have transferred U.S.-made weapons – guns, anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles, heat-seeking lasers and artillery – to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions. The weapons have also made their way into the hands of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. By handing off this military equipment to third parties, the Saudi-led coalition is breaking the terms of its arms sales with the U.S.

Iranian Operations & Involvement

In 2018, Iran acknowledged being involved in Yemen when Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of its IRGC, said Iran “provided advisory assistances” to its allies in Yemen. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie has testified that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is “the child of Iranian ambitions” to make Yemen a client state. There is considerable evidence that Iran is assisting the Houthis. Iran has provided missiles (and the training to use them) and IED parts and drones to the Houthis. The UN reported that Iran funded the Houthis with illegal oil.

The Civil War

The continuing civil war in Yemen has resulted in more than 91,000 dead and thousands more injured. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes account for around 67% of all reported civilian fatalities. 22 million people in Yemen’s population are now in need of humanitarian assistance. 14 million people are facing “pre-famine conditions”, the UN has warned. More than 1,790 people have died from the cholera countrywide, and another 350,000 are infected. More than 2.5 million have been displaced. The country’s electric grid, sewer system, and public services are no longer operational. The cost from Yemen’s civil war is more than $14 billion. The UN has verified that 2,721 children were recruited to fight for all sides in the conflict, with the large majority of them for the Houthis. A Houthi official has acknowledged that they have inducted 18,000 child soldiers into their rebel army since the beginning of the war in 2014. More than 100,000 children are estimated to have died from preventable disease, and over 2 million are malnourished. All sides have committed human rights abuses. There have been periodic UN talks between the Houthis and GPC and Hadi and his allies, which have led to partial ceasefires. None have lasted. Most of the fighting in the south has ceased, with the Hadi forces officially in control – although often in name only – and the Hadi forces and their allies have begun to move north, including to San’a. The Houthis have fired missiles against U.S. and other ships, as well as Saudi targets, like Mecca. The Houthi government, which controls the capital San’a, has been taking around $100 million a month from the central bank there to pay their fighters’ salaries. Because of the Saudi blockade, the Houthi-run administration is on the verge of running out of money. The Hadi led government has attempted to switch the treasury to Aden’s central bank. In 2015, Yemen’s economy shrank by about 28%. The Saudi-led coalition attempted to oust the Houthis from the port city of Hodeidah, which is where desperately needed aid enters. Currently, however, the two sides seem to have agreed to a cease fire. It seems more and more likely that Yemen will eventually be partitioned into two nations (again).

 

About the Author

Adam Turner
Adam Turner is the general counsel & legislative affairs director for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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