How Yemen Became a Humanitarian Nightmare: Untangling a Complex War


Guards searching the wreckage of a building after airstrikes in the capital, Sana, this month.CreditKhaled Abdullah/Reuters

When a civil war in Yemen erupted more than three years ago, it fractured what was already the poorest Arab nation and eventually plunged it into the planet’s worst humanitarian disaster.

While the world has turned its gaze from the prolonged conflict, it has ground on without easing and grown increasingly complex.

An assault by the Saudi-led coalition that has been battling Iran-backed Yemeni rebels for more than three years began Wednesday on the city of Al Hudaydah, which has a port that serves as a vital supply route for humanitarian aid and other vital supplies to the bulk of Yemen’s population. It marked the latest turn in a situation moving toward catastrophe for millions of civilians.

The war has already killed thousands of civilians and left three million people internally displaced.

Who are the main parties to the conflict?

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The conflict began as a fight between armed Houthi rebels from the north of the country and the government, then led by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Houthis are part of the Shiite Muslim minority in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and its neighbor and close ally, the United Arab Emirates, intervened in 2015 because of perceived Iranian support for the rebels. The Sunni Muslim monarchy of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are rivals for power and influence across the Middle East, and Yemen has become a battlefield for one of the proxy wars between them.

Iran has denied supporting the Houthis, but Iranian-made missile have been used by the group during the war.

Still, Yemen’s war stems more from a dispute about national political influence than sectarian conflict, analysts say.

The conflict has carved the country up into Houthi-controlled zones in much of the northeast, including the capital, Sana, and large parts of the south and west controlled by pro-government Saudi-led coalition forces.

How did Yemen’s conflict reach this point?

The conflict has its roots in Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising that began in 2011 and forced the longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, an ally of the United States, from power. Though Mr. Saleh had led a unified Yemen since the 1990s, competing interests loosened his grip on the nation. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most potent offshoots of the global terrorist network, thrived in large parts of the country, and Houthi rebels gained power in the north.

A demonstration calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in Sana in 2011.CreditSamuel Aranda for The New York Times

What is the importance of Al Hudaydah?

For millions under Houthi control, the Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah is the only supply route for humanitarian aid — including food and medicine — and other vital supplies. An estimated two-thirds of the population relies on it.

A ship carrying food aid docks at the port of the Yemeni coastal city of Al Hudaydah in 2017.CreditAbdo Hyder/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Yemeni women holding their malnourished children receiving treatment at a hospital in Sana.CreditYahya Arhab/EPA, via Shutterstock

The United Nations and aid agencies have warned that an attack on Al Hudaydah could exacerbate an already out-of-control humanitarian crisis and called for a cease-fire.

“They must act now to secure a cease-fire before the people in Hodeidah city suffer the same fate as those in Aleppo, Mosul or Raqqa,” David Miliband, the president and chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee, said in an email statement, likening the potential outcome to long-term sieges in Syria and Iraq.