The turning point was when the Houthis took control of Sanaa, the capital in 2014 and from there they started to expand to the west and east of Yemen.
In order to fully understand the current state of Yemen, it is important that we zoom into history and try analyzing what went wrong and where. For much of the past century, the country has been divided into The Yemen Arab Republic in the north and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. Ottoman and British rule managed to keep the two separated but in 1990 these were unified under one flag and this was the beginning of crisis. If we look at the cultural and political divisions, these two parts are way different in two aspects. For almost a thousand years, the north had been under the theocratic rule of the Zaidi Shiites (the Zaidi sect of Islam is almost wholly present in Yemen and they believe that Muslims should only be ruled by the Imams – those who are the descendants to the Prophet), as opposed to this, the south was transformed from a scratch by the British during their rule. These differences took a conflicting turn after the two were united in 1990.
Looking at the religious division more closely the Zaidi Shiites predominate the north, with a minority Ismaili sect, whereas, the Sunni sect of Islam dominates elsewhere. Sectarianism was not really a problem until recently. Previously, a more tolerant society prevailed. Indeed, various exchanges between the two communities had been observed and inter-community marriages were normal and considered a routine in Yemen. However, the rise of political Islam led to an upsurge of tensions and with the emergence of radicalism, groups like Muslim Brotherhood and Zaidi Houthis emerged and expanded. With the spread of Salafi ideology in the predominant Zaidi areas, the expansion of Houthis was needed. Initially Houthis emerged as a theological revivalist movement in 2004 fearing the spread of Salafi ideology in the dominant Shiite areas.
When the Arab Spring hit Yemen, it inspired Houthis who took advantage of the chaos and gained control of the province of Saada in 2011. The turning point was when they took control of Sanaa, the capital in 2014 and from there they started to expand to the west and east of Yemen. This is when the civil war began. The Houthis demanded a new government and when their demands were not fulfilled, they seized the presidential palace and the then President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi had to resign. In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States launched airstrikes against Houthis and Yemen had to face severe economic isolation. It has been four years to the conflict and is considered as the worst humanitarian crisis. According to United Nations, 22.2 million Yemenis are not provided with any sort of assistance, whereas according to an estimated number some 91,600 people have been killed since 2015 with approximately two million people displaced.
According to recent developments, the Saudi-led coalition forces have continued to wage its campaign against the Houthis (backed by Iran). The airstrikes have so far targeted civilian buildings such as houses, hospitals and schools resulting in a high rate of casualties. The Houthis have responded to this campaign by missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and international airports.
The big question here is what to do next? How to end the unrest?
The United States of America, Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States and above all the people in Yemen have suffered enough from the unrest. Four years and now Houthis have become more sophisticated military wise as they have the ability to strike outside of Yemen, the influence of Iran has expanded further and it has been able to give birth to a strong relationship between the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah and the Houthis and the threat of Salafi terrorism still remains.
The entry of Saudi-led coalition has only worsened the situation. Saudi Arabia and other countries involved should come forward for peace talks and sit at the negotiating table with the Houthis and only then there can be a possible outcome to this issue. After years of fighting the Taliban the world recently saw United States getting involved in peace talks with its once upon a time staunch enemy. So unless, the Saudi led coalition does not find a way to conduct peace talks with the Yemen based Houthis, the problem will remain as it is. Unless the boots on ground are not taken away from the Yemeni land, to tackle this issue will remain a problem. The only way out is to negotiate peacefully.
For the United Nations, the crisis in Yemen is one of the largest disasters and humanitarian crisis which the world faces today, with fourteen million people at high threat of fatal diseases and famine. Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held voting on Resolution of human rights violations in Yemen where 22 countries voted in favor, 11 Abstained from voting and 12 voted against the resolution.
On September 26, UNHRC voted to prolong the mandate of the group of investigators who during their investigations found proof of war crimes in Yemen. It renewed their mandate for another year which faced a baggage of criticism from some states, particularly Saudi Arabia, whereas states like the United Kingdom found the decision nondiscriminatory and unbiased.
Hundreds of airstrikes from the side of this coalition has killed civilians and damaged civilian properties. This step from the side of United Nations encourages the beginning little steps towards starting a peace process in Yemen. Peace talks have become a necessity now, because even after four years Houthis have only grown tough and the coalition against them has not been able to do much but add up to humanitarian violations.
Insiya Hassan is a Research Intern at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA) and a student of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST).