A Yemeni pro-government fighter fires a heavy machine gun as Emirati supported forces take over Houthi bases. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: For more than three years, an excruciating war has been going on in Yemen to curtail the influence of the Iranian-supported Al Houthi militia, which has stubborn ambitions to spread its control over the country.

The Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, which is spearheading the war against Al Houthis, is determined to not let this happen.

It believes that curbing Al Houthis militarily is necessary to pressure them into political negotiations.

Until then, the war will continue to rage, analysts said.

“If the Saudi-led coalition didn’t launch the Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, Al Houthis would have controlled all of Yemen (by now),” said Mohammad Izz Al Arab, an analyst and researcher specialising in Yemen and Arab affairs at Al Ahram Strategic Studies Center.

“The aim of the war (against Al Houthis) is to curtail their influence—not uproot them,” he told Gulf News.

The deterioration of the situation in Yemen goes back to 2011, when Yemenis, encouraged by the “Arab Spring” in other Arab countries, revolted against late president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Before the end of that year, Saleh agreed to hand over power to his deputy then Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The handover of power after 33 years in office to the current president came as part of a deal prepared by the six members of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (AGCC) and hammered out by the former UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Bin Omar.

Hadi was inaugurated as the Yemeni president in February 2012.

Two years later, anti-government protests against rising fuel prices erupted in August 2014, many of whom where Al Houthis.

Deterioration of the situation in Yemen goes back to 2011, when Yemenis, encouraged by the “Arab Spring”, revolted against late president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

By September, Al Houthis took control over most of Sana’a, rejected a draft constitution proposed by the government and placed Hadi under house arrest.

In February 2015, Hadi managed to escape and flee to Aden in Southern Yemen.

Meanwhile, Al Houthis formed a president council in the capital Sana’a.

Shortly afterwards, Al Houthi militias, supported by Iran, began to march towards Aden, where Hadi had set up temporary government headquarters for his ousted yet internationally-recognised government.

Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia and in March 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of Arab countries to intervene in the war in order to restore Hadi’s rule.

Coalition leaders say this was an existential choice as Riyadh could not tolerate an Iran-backed regime in its backyard given its expanded influence throughout the region.

While the intervention helped Yemenis recover nearly 85 per cent of territory lost to the militants, still major population centres are still under Al Houthi control.

“Personally, I did not expect the war to last this long. There are many reasons for the protraction of the conflict—some factors were not thoroughly studied,” said Mahmoud Azani, a UK-based Yemeni politician and academic in an interview with Gulf News.

Al Houthis, who entered into an awkward alliance with Saleh after they helped overthrow him, had access to a well-trained army he left behind along with his massive weapons and ammunition cache, Azani explained.

The shaky alliance lasted for nearly three years before they assassinated him on December 4, 2017 after they suspected he was ready to switch sides and back the coaliton.

Yemeni soldiers on manoeuvres supported by the Saudi-led military coalition in the eastern province of Marib. AFP

The second reason why the conflict has lasted so long, Azani explains, is that Al Houthis had continued access to Iranian-smuggled weapons.

Despite the fact that many ports were secured by Yemeni forces backed by the coalition, weapons continued to arrive through various entry points.

The Arab coalition repeatedly accused Iran of arming Al Houthis in violation of an international arms embargo and UN resolutions.

The latest offensive, aimed at liberating the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, was launched by the coalition on June 13.

The port is crucial to sustain Al Houthi war efforts and the coalition believes that capturing the city will tip the scales of war in their favour.

“The liberation of Hodeida is essential. We are determined to end this war. Our priority is the peaceful withdrawal of Al Houthi ilitias from the city and port,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has said.

The UAE is a major player in the coalition and has been exceptionally involved in the current Hodeida offensive.

“Securing Hodeida is an essential step towards a political conclusion” Gargash added.

Besides from bringing the Yemen war to an end, the coalition also wants to send a message to Iran who has spread its tentacles across Syria, Iraq and Lebanon by backing Shiite proxies there, says Izz Al Arab.


Who are the players in Yemen’s war?

Al Houthis

In the late 1990s, the Al Houthi family in far north Yemen set up a religious revival movement for the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam, which had once ruled Yemen but whose northern heartland had been marginalised.

As friction with the government grew, they fought a series of guerrilla wars with the national army and a brief border conflict with Saudi Arabia. They also built ties with Iran.

Loyalists of Ali Abdullah Saleh

Ali Abdullah Saleh took power in north Yemen in 1978 and after unification with the south in 1990 he stayed on as president.

He joined with tribal power brokers to dominate the country, placing his clansmen in key positions in the army and economy, prompting accusations of massive corruption.

When former allies deserted him during the Arab spring, forcing him from power, Saleh disrupted the political transition and joined with his erstwhile foes, Al Houthis, helping them seize Sana’a.

Despite their differences, they ruled much of Yemen together until last year.

Then Saleh saw a chance to regain power for his family by turning on Al Houthis but was assassinated before that could happen.

When Saleh switched sides, so did some commanders and troops loyal to him. They are now fighting against their former Al Houthi allies under the late president’s son Ahmad, an army general with ties to the UAE.

Yemeni president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi

A general in south Yemen before unification, Hadi sided with Saleh during the brief 1994 civil war. After defeating the separatists, Saleh made Hadi vice president.

When Saleh was forced from power, Hadi was elected to a two-year term in 2012 to oversee a transition to democracy with a new constitution and new elections scheduled for 2014.

Al Houthis rejected the new constitution and elections were shelved.

After Al Houthis took Sana’a, Hadi fled to Riyadh.

Southern Seperatists

After independence from Britain, South Yemen became the only Communist country in the Middle East, but it suffered constant infighting.

Weakened by that and the collapse of the Soviet Union, it unified with Saleh’s North Yemen in 1990.

As it became clear most power was in northern hands, the old southern leadership tried to secede in 1994, but was swiftly beaten by Saleh’s army, which sacked Aden.

Many southerners have complained of increasing economic and political marginalisation.

The southern separatist movement has remained internally divided, but it is a powerful force across the old south Yemen and has provided many of the fighters against Al Houthis. 

The Arab Coalition

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the main participants in the coalition which also includes Sudan who all have boots on the ground. Kuwait, Bahrain, and Egypt are involved in lesser capacities.

The coalition believes that confronting Iranian-meddling in the region—particularly in Yemen—is an existential matter.