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Explained: how the Arab Spring led to an increasingly vicious civil war in Yemen

A missile strike on a crowded market in the northern Yemeni province of Hajja has killed dozens of civilians and injured many others. It comes almost a year after a coup by Houthi “nationalists” and the start of a Saudi-led bombing campaign, ostensibly on behalf of the Yemeni government – a devastating war that shows no signs of dissipating.

Since the bombing began in March 2015, there have been at least 3,000 civilian casualties, among them 700 children and a further 26,000 have been injured. Some 3.4m children are out of school, while 7.6m people are a step away from famine. Almost all Yemenis are in need of some form of aid.

In addition to the human casualties, 23 UNESCO heritage sites have been bombed and destroyed along with hospitals, centres for the blind, ambulances, Red Cross offices and a home for the elderly.

The war has been a brutal affair: all sides have allegedly committed war crimes. The Saudi coalition has been using banned cluster munitions manufactured in the US, while the Houthi rebels have been laying landmines. Child soldiers have been used by both the Houthis and government forces.

The world beyond the Middle East has struggled to mount an appropriate and united response to the conflict. The US and the UK have been supporting the Saudi war effort, while the EU parliament has called for an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. All attempts to form a sustainable peace building effort have been met with intransigence by the belligerents and ended in failure.

To understand why this is and to come up with some way of bringing this slaughter, misery and suffering to an end, we must revisit the root causes of the war and the factors that are still getting in the way of any sort of peace process.

Rising up

The war in Yemen is partly the result of the failure to deal with the grievances that fuelled Yemen’s uprisings during the Arab Spring. That uprising itself should be read in the context of the Yemen’s political system, where power was distributed not through formal institutions, but through a web of tribal and regional patronage.

In short, one’s access to political power depended on whether one could either solve or create a problem for the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Marginalised groups such as the Houthis – whose ability to secure their livelihoods was threatened by the finalisation of Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia at the turn of the 21st century – had no peaceful means to address their predicament.

The Arab Spring protests allowed all those who were excluded from access to political power to demand redress. The movement was unique because it allowed those with no access to weapons to protest alongside their heavily armed compatriots. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that women were at the forefront of the uprising since they had always been excluded from public life, despite promises made to them upon the country’s 1990 unification.

When you realise this, it makes the involvement of such a motley array of groups in Sanaa’s Change Square in 2011 less peculiar than it might have initially appeared.

The deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council, which provided for the removal of Saleh from the presidency and led to the establishment of a National Dialogue Conference and the restructuring of the army, was ostensibly intended to address these exclusions. However, the deal was negotiated and agreed among Yemen’s established elites, who were also the only ones with access to political office in Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s interim government. This foretold the deal’s death, which was sealed in 2014 by the fragmentation of the Southern movement and the assassination of Houthi delegates to already fraught reconciliation talks.

A Yemeni woman uses a mobile phone to take pictures of victims of Saudi-led airstrikes. EPA/Yahya Arhab

The growing discontent with the new political process in Yemen was compounded by regular American drone strikes against suspected members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who in turn had taken to bombing military targets in Sanaa and beyond. Capitalising on this, the Houthis were able to march into Sanaa in September 2014. Their subsequent advance toward Aden in March 2015, along with their alleged alliance with Iran, provoked the reaction of Yemen’s most important neighbour, Saudi Arabia, who – along with another nine Arab states and with the backing of the US and UK – launched the coalition bombing campaign, under the banner of Operation Decisive Storm.

Obstacles to peace

Past experience dictates that an effective and sustainable peace-building effort in Yemen should address the grievances which fuelled the Arab Spring. In short, it should give everyone a stake in the political system by allowing them peaceful access to political power. However, doing so has now become even more difficult.

The war is predominately a conflict between two uneasy alliances. One the one hand are the Houthis and Saleh, the former president, who still commands the allegiance of parts of the Yemeni army despite the interim government’s efforts to strip him of his influence. On the other is the side made up of the interim government, the Southern movement and the Saudi-led alliance. This alliance is only sustained by the presence of a common enemy, and is just as liable to dissolve into internal conflict as the Houthi-Saleh alliance.

So it’s hardly surprising that all attempts to get all belligerents to the table have fallen apart, since the individual groups that make up these broad alliances have wildly different goals.

The Houthis and the Southern movement (which is itself split into different factions) will only be satisfied once their exclusion from the political system is effectively redressed. Saleh is only interested in acquiring a position which allows him unchecked access to power; Hadi’s government is vehemently opposed to that, and favours any solution that would offer it access to political power, and thus access to international aid funds.

Saudi-backed fighters celebrating after clashes with Houthi rebels and their allies in the central city of Taiz on March 11. EPA/Stringer

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is principally interested in regaining its power over the Yemeni government, which it previously manipulated with patronage.

All the while, the intensity and violence of the conflict has, as the Yemeni academic and activist Atiaf Alwazir argues, entrenched divisions and made peace- and state-building even more difficult. Peace requires the existence of a political community and, at present, Yemeni politics has become strictly exclusionary, preventing any agreement that would allow everyone a seat on the table.

And the people who first took to the streets to demand change are being drowned out by armed groups bent on each other’s destruction – making the hope of a peace which will address the age-old exclusions that became apparent during the Arab Spring appear a distant fantasy.

Breaking the cycle of conflict

Most commentators within and outside Yemen still view the conflict as a sectarian affair. But before a viable peace can be built, the war must be understood for what it actually is: a political conflict about the terms of political exclusion and inclusion.

Meanwhile, international actors, particularly the UK and US, must stop fuelling the conflict and withdraw their support for Saudi Arabia, pressuring their ally to end its campaign and make serious moves towards a settlement.

Instead of fuelling this conflict, the international community must work with Yemenis to support a real economic recovery – impossible at present given the fragmented Yemeni state’s inability to reach much of its territory.

These challenges are daunting to say the least. But a casual glance at the chaos in Syria should be enough to convince everyone involved of the urgency of effectively dealing with the war in Yemen, today rather than tomorrow.

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