In case you've forgotten, there is a devastating war in the Middle East which has torn apart a once proud nation. This war has ripped the country into pieces and has provoked the involvement of many of the world's largest powers. No, we're not talking about Syria this time. Yemen, located at the far southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, has been engulfed in its own civil war for the last two years. But things in Yemen have recently gone from bad to worse. After nearly two years of constant warfare, Yemen's water and sewage infrastructure has nearly fallen apart. As a result, Yemen is now experiencing the worst outbreak of cholera anywhere in the world. This week, we'll explain this terrible development and the slim prospects for peace in the region.
We've already covered some of the basics of the conflict in a previous post, but here are the main points again. Just like Syria, this conflict stems from the Arab Spring protests of 2011 and 2012. Popular uprisings sparked the removal from power of Yemen's president Ali Adbullah Saleh, with his vice president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi taking over in his place. Though a shaky peace held for a couple years, a group of rebels known as the Houthis began waging a fierce independence movement against the government forces of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2015. The Houthis (backed by Iran but not necessarily controlled by Iran) have taken significant portions of the country, including the capital of San'aa. They are allied with forces loyal to former president Saleh and want to see more freedom for the Zaidi Shia Muslim sect in Yemen. But Hadi's government forces maintain a strong presence in other major cities and enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia (and by extension the United States). So like nearly everything else in the region, the Yemeni civil war has turned into a protracted asymmetric battle where major powers are propping up their side with military support. Yemen's recent history is filled with separatist wars, secession movements, and Saudi military interventions, so in some sense this development is not entirely unexpected. But the big problem here is that much of the outside support going to Yemen is indirect support via air strikes and not direct ground troops. This all but ensures that the war will drag on for many more months, since neither side is strong enough to completely defeat the other right now.
Unfortunately, it doesn't appear like the recent cholera outbreak is likely to change this situation. Disease is usually rampant in war, and almost never provokes the type of international response needed to end a conflict. Polio has returned in Syria and dysentery is a constant concern in war-torn cities like Mosul. Even Yemen's prolonged famine is unlikely to change anything. So far, over 200,000 people have been sickened by cholera, with over 1,300 dead so far. Agencies like the United Nations are attempting to provide basic sanitation and clean water, but the task of providing relief is complicated by claims of Saudi Arabia denying access to certain aid organizations. Naturally, the United States is also hesitant to get itself too involved in another civil war in the Middle East, so American humanitarian support is limited as well.
So why isn't this issue as well known as the war in Syria? Yemen is geographically isolated and has very little strategic value for any of the world's major powers. Though Yemen controls the port of Aden, there are enough nearby ports that its importance is limited. Refugees also have a much harder time escaping and getting to Europe since they have to navigate a much longer sea route (and traveling through Saudi Arabia is extremely dangerous). Syria, on the other hand, is right in the heart of the Middle East and plays into the politics of other critical nations with competing interests (Iran, Turkey, Israel, Iraq). Yemen only borders Saudi Arabia and Oman, so it's very important to the Saudis, but not so much to almost anyone else. Then there is the scale of the suffering. Though something like 15,000 people have been killed so far with over three million displaced in Yemen, this has been overshadowed by the nearly half a million Syrian casualties and twelve million refugees and displaced persons in the Syrian conflict.
Eventually the disease will subside, but the war will linger. Neither the Houthis nor the Yemeni governmental forces have enough strength to take the country outright, and the Saudis are hesitant to commit enough of the hundreds of thousands of troops that would be needed to fully defeat the Houthis. Iran appears to be providing some support to the rebel groups, but it isn't interested in massive ground deployments either and doesn't want to make it's support obvious to the rest of the world. In short, it looks like tragedy and disease will continue to ravage this poor section of the Arabian Peninsula, with no end in sight. For more information on assisting Yemen's refugee population, visit the UNHCR site for Yemen here.