The Saudi-led coalition of Arab air forces began carrying out airstrikes on rebel forces in Yemen in 2016. In the space of those 12 months, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates, at least 3,200 civilians had been killed and 5,700 wounded, with 60% of the casualties inflicted by air strikes. The UN said on 12 November 2015 that at least 5,878 people had been killed and 27,867 others had been wounded since the escalation in March 2015 of the conflict.
In January 2016 the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR) reported that 470,000 deaths had been caused by the conflict in Syria, either directly or indirectly. This represents a dramatic increase from the total of 250,000 fatalities attributed to the UN in news reports in recent years. But the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stopped updating the death toll from Syria’s civil war in January 2014.
Yemen Civil War (2011-201?)
By early 2015, Yemen was pretty much a failed state, beset by a circular firing squad of factions. Besides a local struggle for power, the Yemen conflict is widely viewed as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. At least 10,000 people had died by mid-2016. Yemen was wracked by internal divisions as the Houthi movement spread beyond its traditional rebellion in the north, separatists continue to press their cause in the south, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claims attacks both at home and abroad, including on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier in January 2015.
- Shia rebels loyal to Abdul Malik al-Houthi are also known as the Shabab Al-Mu'minin (Believing Youth). In September 2014, Houthi fighters swept into the capital and they continued to battle for control of other parts of Yemen. The Houthis are a group of combatants associated with the Zaydi Revivalist movement in Yemen, which emerged as a result of deep-seated frustrations among those tribes who felt as though they had become marginalized after an Egyptian-backed revolution against the Zaydi Imam in 1962 brought an end to Hashemite domination. The Houthis operated alongside allies of former president and former adversary, Ali Abdullah Saleh, toppled in 2011.
- President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been in power for 30 years until ousted in 2011. Ali Abdullah Saleh was a Zaidi Shiite, but had the support of key Sunni leaders, and his Vice President was a Sunni Muslim. Saleh retained influence among Zaidi tribes - from which the Houthis belong - in the north and top military commanders. By 2015 Houthis appeared to have major backing from Saleh, their long time adversary. Together they formed the so-called “Popular Committees", militias that controlled much of northern Yemen. The bulk of the January 2015 fighting against the Hadi governement was led by the Republican Guard, the elite military unit led until 2013 by Ahmed Ali Saleh, the eldest son of the ousted president. Just exactly how and when these former opponents became allies is obscure.
- The Yemeni army avoided clashing with the Houthis or to support them in their advance on al-Qaida strongholds. The army fought a number of campaigns against the Houthi in the 2004-2009 timeframe, and did not give a good account of itself. President Ali Abdullah Saleh had exercised tight control over the army, and its apparent neutrality in the conflict after his 2011 departure may reflect his continued influence. President Hadi released a list of military and political appointments on April 6, 2012 that struck at Saleh’s patronage network.
- President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was elected in 2012. He is supported by the international community and as a Sunni continued to have the backing of the Sunni majority in Yemen. He was widely seen as weak and inefficient. The Presidential Guard was the only military unit still loyal to the internationally recongnized government of President Hadi. President Hadi, Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and his Cabinet tendered their resignations 22 January 2015. Under Yemen's constitution, the speaker of parliament would serve as interim head of state. The current speaker, Yahia al-Rai, is an ally of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. By March 2015 the president of Yemen controlled barely a quarter of Yemen. Hadi fled to Riyadh and sought help there in a bid to return to power. A Saudi-led campaign of bombardment has been devastating Yemen without a UN mandate since 26 March 2015, several days after Hadi was said to have fled the country.
- Islah, the Islamist opposition party, is generally considered moderate, but contains radical members of the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood factions. Although not party policy, per se, powerful individuals within Islah have made targeting Zaydis a major objective. Fighters from the conservative Islamist forces loyal to military general Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar of the Islah Party are backed by the Saudis.
- The Herak group of Southern separatists are seeking a two-region division between the former North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) and South Yemen (Republic of Yemen), as a precursor to full secession. The Houthis found common ground with the separatists, and support a two-region state in which they could dominate the north and consolidate territorial gains secured during 2014.
- Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a Sunni extremist group based in Yemen that orchestrated numerous high-profile terrorist attacks. AQAP emerged in January 2009 following an announcement that Yemeni and Saudi terrorists were unifying under a common banner. AQAP took control of Zinjibar and other areas in Abyan, Lahj, and Shabwah governorates in 2011 and held these locations for approximately one year until a government offensive drove them out in June 2012.
In March 2015 in response to a request from Yemeni president Hadi for Arab League / Gulf Cooperation Council military intervention, invoking Article 51 of the UN Charter, Saudi officials announced the formation of a coalition to counter the Houthi rebellion, with membership including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, and Senegal. The Saudi-led coalition conducted air and ground operations throughout the remainder of the year.
Houthi rebels fired numerous rockets and three SCUD missiles across the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, killing at least 47 Saudi civilian and military personnel from April to December, according to media reports. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported that the Saudi-led coalition launched rocket attacks into populated civilian areas near the Saudi-Yemen border in northern Yemeni towns of Sa’ada and the province of Hajja. Human Rights Watch reported that 13 people total were killed, including three children, in seven rocket attacks from April to mid-July in Hajja Province.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that “[t]he cases monitored by the Office indicate that air strikes were the single largest cause of casualties, resulting in approximately one third of the deaths and injuries recorded by the OHCHR." The OHCHR reported that between July 2015 and June 2016, 1,259 civilians were allegedly killed and 1,360 injured by air strikes led by Saudi Arabia and its coalition forces. In March 2017, the OHCHR reported that at least 4,773 civilians have been killed and another 8,272 injured. It further reported that there had been an “intensification in hostilities" in the first three months of the year, including 106 civilians killed mostly by coalition forces in one month.
In a series of investigations undertaken between 2015 and 2017, a U.N. Panel of Experts concluded that the Saudi coalition had breached its international obligations during the course of hostilities. After an investigation in 2015, it concluded that the Saudi-led coalition had bombed residential neighborhoods and treated “the entire city of Sa’dah and region of Maran as military targets." The Panel assessed the information to which it had access and concluded the coalition has committed “a grave violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution" and in some specific instances “found such violations to have been conducted in a widespread and systematic manner."
On May 8, May 2015, Brigadier General Assiri (official spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition) stated publicly that “[w]e have also declared Saada and Marran as military targets loyal to the Houthi militias and as a result the operations will cover the whole area of those two cities." The targeting of entire cities, as inferred from the statement of Saudi officers, was a seemingly egregious violation of applicable international law related to targeting, suggesting deliberate disregard for binding international obligations. While the Saudi statements could have been taken to imply a general operational priority, the UN Panel assessed the continuing pattern of questionable strikes to warrant the adverse inference.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list