The Islamic State (IS) claimed a major suicide attack on Yemen’s government bastion of Aden, resulting in the death of eight police officers. The attack was followed by a hostage situation where the militant group held an unknown number of police detectives hostage. Such attacks are common in clashes between different interest groups in Yemen’s war-torn territory.
The Yemen civil war was the consequence of a failure of political transition from authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Disillusioned Yemenis supported the Houthi rebel movement led by Yemen’s minority Shia Muslim population, which reinforced the Houthis’ takeover of key areas of state territory.
Increasing military presence of the Shia group, believed to have received support from Iran, was perceived by other regional Sunni powers as a security threat, most notably Saudi Arabia. Analysis of the conflict by Asher Orkaby states that maintaining a weak central government in Sanaa has always been a priority in Saudi foreign policy as an attempt to secure the Saudi-Yemeni border. Orkaby claims that “the true target of the Saudi campaign was not Iran but the Houthis themselves.” A coalition was formed to pursue a military campaign aimed at restoring Hadi’s government. This simultaneous civil war and regional proxy war has continued for more than two years.
Amidst this power vacuum, Jihadist militant groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State have been taking advantage of civil strife and seizing territory in the south. Rising influence of AQAP and IS affiliates in Yemen could further regional instability, and the war in Yemen could exacerbate the ongoing Sunni-Shia regional power struggle.
Also commonly known as the “Silent War” due to the lack of media coverage, the disastrous impact of war on civilian life is often overlooked. Sources from the United Nations confirm at least 4,773 civilian deaths and 8,272 injured people. The war has contributed greatly to the overall humanitarian crisis in Yemen due to the destruction of civilian infrastructure and sanctions on food and fuel imports. The UN states that more than 17 million people in Yemen do not have enough food, with more than half the entire population without access to potable water or sanitation.
It is paramount that amidst various political aims of different actors in the war, we return the spotlight to the humanitarian crises Yemen is facing, from civilian casualties to disease and starvation. Saudi blockades on Yemen’s ports make it incredibly difficult for aid organizations to provide necessary survival goods to civilians. Furthermore, the collapse of Yemen’s economic infrastructure has made buying basic necessities such as food and medicine near impossible. The U.S. and other international organizations should turn their focus away from the Iran-Saudi tension and gather efforts to help local groups find an internal political settlement for the war. According to the UN, the greatest threat to Yemen’s future is a growing water shortage in major cities. Understanding that the main causes of the civil war are internal to Yemen, international forces should primarily focus on improving the health and safety of civilians affected by the conflict instead.