National Security

Disease, Drones, and Economic Collapse: Yemen in a Nutshell

As the Syria Civil War seems to be coming to a close, the civil war in Yemen is still escalating, threatening to replace Syria as the most desperate center of violence and crisis in the region.

Like Syria, Yemen is a battle ground not only for local players, but for regional powers as well. Granted that the war in Yemen was not brought on the country by foreign entities but is rather deeply rooted in local conflicts. The struggle for control between the ethnic Zaidi faction known as the Houthis and forces fighting for Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi have been brewing within the nation for decades. However, it is the broader, Middle East-wide power struggle that has made the Yemen Civil War the intense conflict it’s been for over three years.

The face-off between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Iranians backing the Houthi rebels has drawn the United States into the fray as well. America has been involved in the country for some two-and-a-half years. The escalating conflict in Yemen has shown a real need for America to protect its Saudi friends. Ballistic missiles provided by Iran have repeatedly been fired into Saudi Arabia over the past several years. The U.S. has thrown in substantial support for Saudi Arabia on this issue specifically. America provided the Saudis with Patriot anti-missile systems to defend its most sensitive locations, especially around the capital of Riyadh. American diplomats also took the war as an opportunity to expose Iran’s backing of the Houthi rebels and supplying of weapons to the country. This was great for the Trump administration, fostering an agenda of clamping down on Iran in any way it could. In terms of actual war-fighting support, American aircraft provide vital refueling for Saudi warplanes flying back and forth from bombing sorties in Yemen. The U.S. has also used its navy to help protect areas around the Saudi coast from Houthi maritime forces. For nearly two years, multiple U.S. vessels have been deployed in the Gulf in response to Houthi suicide boat attacks on Saudi frigates. The U.S. has an important interest in keeping order in Yemen, as the country has long been an important hub for al-Qaeda, largely due to the chaos caused by the national conflict. Parallel to its efforts in the civil war, the U.S. continues to deploy drones to take out militants in the country, mostly in its southern region.

But American intervention hasn’t stopped things from falling apart in the country. With a near total severing of import and domestic infrastructure in shambles, the country has descended into a rather hellish state. All of this while militant factions continue to harass neighboring countries involved in the fighting.

There are currently four major issues influencing the situation in Yemen:

Disease

The basic health of the Yemeni population has long been concerning. More than sixteen million people lack access to basic healthcare and only half of the country’s health facilities are operational.

Of course a total lack of supplies has contributed to this as well. Throughout the war, over eight million people in the country have been, at one point or another, close to starvation.

But the rampant spread of disease has by far been the largest health concern in Yemen. This is a hard problem to contain in a country that has turned into a virtual human slaughterhouse, with over 9,000 killed and nearly 53,000 wounded.

According to recent UN reports, enemy number one among Yemen’s public health battle is once again the cholera epidemic. There are roughly 10,000 suspected cases now reported per week. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), since the disease began spreading in April 2017, there have been more than 1.2 million cases of suspected or confirmed cholera in Yemen. More than 2,500 people are reported to have died from the preventable disease. Around thirty percent of cases involve children under the age of five, an important statistic considering cholera can kill a child within hours of exposure. All but one of the country’s 23 governorates have been affected.

The severity of the cholera outbreak has been escalating drastically over the past several weeks. To put things in perspective, in the first eight months of 2018, 154,500 cases were recorded. In September alone there were an additional 185,000 afflicted patients.

Luckily, the UN along with other international aid workers have mounted a large-scale effort to combat the growing plague. Reportedly, over 3,000 health workers have been trained and mobilized for this effort. During the latest campaign, close to 387,400 people were vaccinated, covering 72 percent of those in need of inoculation. This is in addition to the 540,000 women, children and men who received the vaccine in August. Despite this concerted effort, however, the daily disruption due to constant fighting has made the job of a health worker less than easy.

Economy

The leader of the regional coalition, Saudi Arabia has long advocated a strong-handed policy toward the rebels and other factions as pretty much the only solution to long-term stability in Yemen. The relentless bombing campaigns hitting Yemeni population centers, along with a maritime siege has made this policy rather clear. Oddly enough, at the same time the Saudis are implementing their brutal tactics, they are also taking steps to insure the Yemen’s economy doesn’t suffer a total collapse.

Not surprisingly, the civil war has taken quite the toll on markets in Yemen. The country’s currency isn’t doing any better. As of the beginning of October, the Yemeni riyal traded at 800 to the U.S. dollar, about half of what the currency stood at last year. To help Yemen’s economic situation, Saudi Arabia gave a $200 million cash infusion to the country’s Central Bank. The donation was meant to shore up Yemen’s reserves, which have been all but depleted over the past several weeks. First on the list of expenditures will likely be basic necessities for citizens. As the war has raged on, prices have skyrocketed. Millions regularly struggle to access basic necessities such as food, water, and fuel.

Neighboring Countries

The Houthi in Yemen have for a while now been using Iranian weapons to target coalition members on their own turf. The Saudis have by far been hit the most, prompting the U.S. deploying anti-missile systems in the kingdom.

In this effort, militants continue to expand their targets. A week ago, a Samad-3 drone struck the world’s third busiest airport, Dubai International. This was in retaliation for the Emirate’s involvement in the pro-Yemeni government coalition. UAE actively participates in both ground and air operations in the country.

As in other coalition countries, the people of UAE have slowly begun to feel the effects of the war at home. Earlier this year, the government increased mandatory military service from twelve to sixteen months. Nor is this the first time an Emirates airport has been reported hit by the Houthis. In July, Abu Dhabi Airport was also allegedly struck by a similar drone.

The effects of being hit in the homeland can either strengthen the resolve of these countries, or urge it to explore alternatives to fighting. Which brings us to the final point.

Diplomacy

Last month, an attempt by the United Nations to bring the warring sides in Yemen to the table failed. Apparently this was due to logistical reasons only. Due to travel restrictions, the Houthis did not make it to Geneva.

The UN has firmly gotten the ball rolling on the diplomatic end. The special envoy to Yemen is already planning the next round of talks, this despite the Saudis long-held approach of seeking total victory over the Houthis.

Diplomacy is looking more promising than ever now that Yemen’s foreign minister said his government is willing to recognize the Houthis as a political entity. In the end of the day, a negotiated peace in Yemen will be the best scenario for everyone. Certainly for the long suffering Yemeni people, but also for the coalition members, all of whom have been involved in a drawn-out, taxing war the consequences of which are becoming heavier by the day.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Samuel Siskind

Samuel Siskind studied intelligence research at the American Military University in West Virginia. He served as a squad commander in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Corp of Combat Engineers, in the Corps' ground battalions and later in its Intelligence Wing at regional and divisional stations. For the past five years, Samuel has worked as a consultant and researcher on physical and information security issues for private and governmental institutions, in the US, Africa, India, and Israel. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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