Analysis |

The Forgotten, Endless War in Yemen

Some 2.8 million Yemenis are at high risk, including 500,000-plus children in danger of starvation. They have nowhere to go.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Shi'ite fighters, known as Houthis, perform a traditional dance during a tribal gathering showing support to the Houthi movement in Sana'a, Yemen, Dec. 10, 2015.
Shi'ite fighters, known as Houthis, perform a traditional dance during a tribal gathering showing support to the Houthi movement in Sana'a, Yemen, Dec. 10, 2015.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Unlike the war in Syria, the war in Yemen is not a focus of international attention. While hundreds of thousands of children are in distress, the UN remains silent, mainly for fear of a Saudi economic boycott. When was the last time you saw any videos or television reports from the war in Yemen? Who’s fighting whom there? Who is trying to resolve the crisis that had been simmering for decades and erupted into all-out war about two years ago? The civil war in Yemen gets just the most cursory, obligatory coverage and barely engages the world’s decision-makers.

Compared to the war in Syria, it is also less dramatic. About 6,500 people have been killed in the war, about half of them civilians – a figure dwarfed by the more than quarter-million people who have been killed in Syria. Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, even in normal times – if any such times existed during the past decade – has never interested the world very much, aside from the United States, which operated freely within Yemeni territory when bombarding Al-Qaida targets in return for cash compensation to the Yemeni government. The Mandeb Strait, where the city of Aden is located, does hold the world’s interest, especially the Arab countries close to the eastern arm of the Red Sea such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. The strait is ranked as the world’s fourth most important passage for the oil trade.

But Yemen itself is a very small-scale oil producer. Before the war, it produced less than a half-million barrels a day, and now its output is just 130,000 barrels per day at best. Yes, and it is also the producer of the world’s most expensive honey. The honey produced from plum trees that grow in several Yemeni regions can sell for as much as $450 a kilo. But no one goes to war over honey.

Between Sana’a and Damascus

As in most wars, a struggle for power and control is the main reason behind the war in Yemen. As in Syria, the war in Yemen was not planned, and as in Syria, the war in Yemen grew from a local, tribal clash into a focus of international interest not because of the country’s strategic value but because it became a battlefield for two rival powers – Iran and Saudi Arabia. Up until March 2015, the war in Yemen could still be described as an internal clash between the Houthis and the regime, between the oppressed and downtrodden versus the wealthy, powerful class, between tribes with political power and the Zaidi sect, to which the Houthis belong, which had been pushed into a corner – but once Saudi Arabia began carrying out strikes in Yemen, the story changed completely. It developed into a clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and that makes things a lot more complicated.

But unlike Syria, it hasn’t yet dragged in powers like the United States, Russia or European countries. And there are some other differences as well. At least the Syrian refugees have somewhere to escape to. They have found refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and later on in many European countries. The millions of uprooted Yemenis – the UN’s refugee relief agency puts at 2.8 million the number of Yemeni refugees, asylum seekers and people at high risk, including more than half a million children in danger of starvation, since 2015. And these people truly have nowhere to go. Some have fled to Djibouti and Somaliland, a small number have found refuge in Oman, where they live in tent encampments, and a few thousand managed to flee to Saudi Arabia. These are not welcoming countries that can aid refugees or sustain them for an indefinite transition period. And the vast majority who have been unable to flee Yemen find themselves in a country without a functioning water system, and often without any sources of water at all. Clinics and hospitals in the big cities are coping with a dire shortage of medicines, an irregular electricity supply and intermittent air strikes by the Saudi air force or coalition forces.

The Saudi outcry

A few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia raised a great outcry that reverberated throughout the UN headquarters, in the wake of a UN report published in May that ascribed responsibility to the coalition forces, and primarily the Saudi air force, for 60 percent of the child casualties of the war in Yemen. Such a report, which annually assesses the number of child casualties in conflict areas, was the basis for including the Arab coalition on the blacklist of countries responsible for killing children. Saudi Arabia demanded that the report be suspended and the facts “re-examined.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had no choice. He admitted that he was essentially blackmailed “by several countries” (which he did not name) into removing the Arab coalition from the blacklist, lest they freeze their payments to the UN. The secretary general explained that he had to give in for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of children who depend upon UN assistance and who would have suffered if the funding from those countries was halted. Now the UN is threatening anew to include the Arab coalition in the blacklist, following a strike on a school and a hospital in northern Yemen and the killing of at least 10 Yemeni children.

The “sensitivity” that Saudi Arabia has shown towards the report is not only due to fears of tarnishing the kingdom’s good name. There are rising voices in the U.S. Congress against the arms deals that the administration is making with Saudi Arabia in light of its indiscriminate killing of civilians. In Britain, which has purchased 2.8 billion British pounds’ worth of Saudi arms and military equipment since March 2015 when the Saudi military campaign in Yemen began, opposition to such deals has been growing for the same reason. The governments of Britain and America, which recently closed an arms deal with the Saudis worth more than $1.1 billion, also need to be able to assuage UN criticism of Saudi Arabia.

A recent New York Times editorial warned, “Given the civilian casualties, further American support for this war is indefensible. There’s an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen.” This is a hard statement for the American administration and Congress to rebut, particularly when it’s unclear just what the American interest is in this war, aside from the need to stand by Saudi Arabia at all costs in the campaign it is waging in Yemen against what it terms the sphere of Iranian influence, and perhaps to compensate Saudi Arabia for signing the nuclear accord with Iran. The problem is that even U.S. intelligence believes that Iran’s involvement in Yemen is limited and that the Saudi fears are overblown. But when America needs Saudi support in other parts of the Middle East, intelligence assessments have to take a back seat to political considerations.

Diplomatic stagnation

With struggles for prestige and influence dictating moves in the Yemen war, it’s no wonder that diplomatic efforts to broker a solution have hit a dead end. The Houthis continue to run the government apparatuses, while their rival, the “legal government,” as defined by Saudi Arabia and its allies, continues to declare victories in the field. Since April, the parties have been negotiating in Kuwait, with the sessions coming to an abrupt and angry halt every few weeks. Ultimately, no agreement was reached and the talks were completely disbanded on August 6.

There are several proposals on the table, including an Omani proposal as well as American, Russian, Iranian and UN proposals. Each includes the demand that the Houthis withdraw from the capital Sana’a, which they seized control of in September 2015, and that they return the weapons that were plundered from the Yemeni army. The Houthis haven’t the slightest intention of complying with this demand, not without firm guarantees of obtaining the political and economic power they’ve been seeking for over a decade, and without an end to Saudi airstrikes.

Saudi Arabia is also incurring losses in this war, and criticism within the kingdom has been growing over the war’s high cost. But for now Saudi Arabia is not about to hold its fire. In the absence of international pressure, and with the world’s television cameras skipping over this battlefield, the bloody war in Yemen looks to go on indefinitely.

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