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Reflecting on Yemen

By Ondrej Novak - In September 2014, Houthi rebels took the capital of Yemen, Sana’a, from the forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi´s government, igniting a new and much more tragic phase in the country’s civil war. Houthis belong to Yemen´s Zaydi minority, part of the Shi’a theology, and aligned to Iran. Perceiving Iranian encroachment from the south, in March 2015 an Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, entered the conflict to support Hadi´s government (UN Recognised) against the rebels. After four years of fighting, the conflict has no clear winner. The United Nations (UN) describes the situation in Yemen as ‘one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world’ as thousands of people have limited or no access to water and basic food supplies. As a result, many Yemenis are facing famine. Despite the war’s impact on humanitarian conditions in Yemen, this conflict has been, for the most part, overshadowed in the media by the conflict in Syria and against the Islamic State.


So, what is at stake in Yemen?


The manner in which Yemen´s civil war ends will generate both regional and global impacts. Consider that:


First, who is going to govern—is a vital question for the country’s national future and the well-being of all Yemen´s people. In this, demography matters as does the distribution of power.


Second, who garnishes the most influence over the Bab al-Mandeb Strait matters—since, together with the Strait of Hormuz (separating Oman/UAE from Iran) some 24% of all oil supplies traverse those two bottlenecks. This renders their functioning vital for the global economy. Teheran already aspires to exercise its influence over Hormuz, which makes the issue of who is going to control Bab al-Mandeb even more important.


Third, if the Houthis are victorious—Iran gains a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, which would be unacceptable for the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, as it would endanger their southern border regions, as well as for the international community, because it would have an effect on global trade.


Finally, international terrorism will be affected—since the result of the conflict will determine whether Yemen remains a safe-haven for Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorist and jihadi groups which fill the open vacuum the six decade instability has produced.

Awareness of Yemen is rising, particularly in France, due to the French government´s decision to follow-through an arms sales to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). The issue has been underscored when French NGO Disclose, published an alleged secret report issued by the French military intelligence, Direction du Renseignement Militaire (DRM). Addressed to President Emmanuel Macron and some in his Cabinet, the report suggested that French-made arms may have been used in a way that also endangers, maims or kills civilians. CEASAR howitzers, for example, are deployed along KSA’s south-eastern border with Yemen, to support the loyalist and coalition forces in their advance into the territory held by the Houthis. On the other front, more French-made weapons are deployed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) such as Leclerc-type tanks in the battle for the strategic city of Hodeidah. Given that the main strategy of the coalition is based on aerial operations ─ over the last four years the coalition conducted some 24 000 air missions in Yemen, it is important to note that, air raids may cause more collateral damage than ground forces as it is more difficult to distinguish targets from the air. This air-to-ground verification gap is likely the reason for high number of civilian casualties.


France has stated that they do not supply the Saudi Air Force. However Saudi fighter jets (British-manufactured Typhoons) are equipped with the French-made targeting pod called Damocles. This targeting pod is also used by the Emirati Air Force on their French-made Mirage fighter jets. The coalition is also using French-manufactured Cougar helicopters and Airbus A330 MRTT as mid-air refuelling planes. In the naval domain, two French-made warships were used by the coalition to cut Iranian supplies to the rebels.


French Minister, Florence Pery, has stated that as far as the government is aware, the arms sold to Saudi Arabia are only used for defensive purposes within Saudi territory. Recently, Pery even confirmed a new shipment of arms to Saudi Arabia being dispatched, while not specifying its contents. President Macron only recently, during an EU summit in Romania, provided a statement in which he defended the arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE, stating: ‘Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are allies of France and allies in the fight against terrorism. We accept responsibility for that.’


There can be several reasons for these sales, but the most common one is profit. According to Business Insider, France was the third largest arms exporter in 2018 and is repeatedly present among the top 5 arms exporters in the world. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are one of their largest export markets, with Saudi Arabia ranking second and the UAE sixth. Another reason might be that France is selling these weapons as part of a strategy to fight terrorism. France has its reasons to be interested in Yemen as the terrorists responsible for the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack were part of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The UAE is also determined to fight Al-Qaida in Yemen. This suggests that France is willing to support countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE in order to equip and encourage them to fight the common enemy. France is not the only country supporting the Arab coalition, the US, UK and Canada provide key materials as well.


Of course, the conflict is not one sided. Houthis acquired part of their arsenal from defecting members of Yemen´s Armed Forces. Yet primarily, Houthi rebels are supported logistically and materially by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Evidence of this support can be traced to lead up to the conflict. In 2013, the US Navy, in cooperation with Yemen´s Navy, seized Iranian ships smuggling rockets, grenades and different types of ammunitions to the Houthis. Iran´s support is not limited to weapons and ammunition supplies. Over the years, they provided Houthis with funds, personnel and training (both from Iran directly and from Hezbollah). Iran is thus once again breaching the UN arms embargo, which was imposed on it. Throughout the conflict, Houthis are being criticised by the international community and many NGOs for their tactics and brutality, which among others include: using anti-personnel mines, recruiting child soldiers, taking hostages for ransom and blocking access of humanitarian aid to civilians.


And, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are present in Yemen. AQAP (A.K.A. Ansar al-Sharia) has been using Yemen as a base for their regional operations for several years. As the country lapsed into civil war, radical groups gained more support and rose in number, from a few hundred fighters to at least several thousand members by current accounting. These groups, partially or fully, control the areas in Hadhramaut Governorate. Since November 2014, the Islamic State is also present and has been steadily gaining more followers, fighters and land.


The Arab coalition, and their allies, are not only fighting the war in Yemen; they are also fighting the peace. It is important to mention some humanitarian efforts. The French government remains committed to providing over 13 million Euros (over the past two years) in humanitarian aid to Yemen through international organisations and NGOs like the Red Cross, World Food Programme and Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE). Their primary task is to provide food and medical supplies. Until now, the largest aid is provided by Saudi Arabia, which is committed to spending over 500 million dollars on humanitarian aid to Yemen. They also recently signed an agreement on development and reconstruction with Hadi´s government. As France is trying to raise its profile in the region, including by strengthening relations with the Arab Gulf countries, Paris will have to find a way to navigate the geopolitical challenges as much as the challenges of its domestic politics. The Euro-Gulf Information Centre will continue to monitor the situation in Yemen and its connection to Europe.

05 June 2019

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