Why Aren’t We Talking About the War in Yemen?
Why Aren’t We Talking About the War in Yemen?
The Middle East is, as i’m sure you’re aware, a pretty complicated place. Simply bringing it up in the west will conjure mental images of civil wars, massive inequality and oil rich sheiks pulling the strings. It’s unsurprising as to why, the region is majorly unstable with the rise of ISIS and the civil war in Syria having been the major news coming out of the region for the last five years. Throughout this time the other major stories to hit our newspapers and computer screens haven’t exactly been cheery either. From discussions of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, to the tensions between the US and Iran over nuclear technology, and even through stories of slave labour being used to build stadiums for the upcoming football world cup in Qatar; the picture of the Middle East we get is one of tensions and humanitarian issues. Despite the blanket coverage of the region in western media however, one key topic seems to be almost completely missing from our focus: the civil war in Yemen.
Yemen’s civil war has been tearing through the country since 2015, and is being fought between the forces of a democratically elected, but later exiled Hadi government, and rebels from the Houthi rebel group who have been politically active in the area since the early 2000s. Add into the mix factions of Al-Qaeda, and other groups affiliated with ISIS, and the whole situation appears to be a microcosm of the issues that affect the region at large. And yet our culture is full of commentary on the war in Syria, while even major newspapers only push out an article a week on the situation in Yemen.
The similarities between the two conflicts are pronounced, but there are a few reasons the Syrian civil war has become more prolific a topic than Yemen battle. For starters, the Syrian conflict began whilst the west was still drunk on the progress of the Arab Spring. As the uprising in Tunisia spread its way across North Africa and through the Middle East, western governments and media establishments were falling over themselves to pronounce the discontent in the Arab world as a great humanitarian, people-led revolution that signalled the end for oppressive governments in the area and a victory for democracy, and thus by default western civilisation itself. The Syrian conflict was born of the era of western hope for the future of the Middle East, whereas by the time the Yemeni civil war kicked off, the tone in the region has been rather more sombre.
We’ve entered the reality where we can see the lasting legacies of the Arab Spring. For every country who moved forwards, such as Tunisia, there’s a country like Egypt that has moved sideways, overthrowing a leader of 30 years only to elect a leader with hardline policies; there’s a country, like Bahrain where the government simply targeted civilians and quashed any potential threat to its power, and there’s Syria, which has been ravaged by a deadly civil war. The western gaze no longer sees potential for the westernisation of countries in the Middle East and the rest of the Arab world. When the civil war in Yemen began, it was just another in a long line of issues the region has faced, rather than the easily sellable narrative of democracy rising out of dictatorships. Put simply, people had lost faith in the area ever reforming.
The impacts of the Syrian civil war have stayed so culturally relevant in the west for a variety of reasons. The impacts of the refugee crisis that the war has created has become a major factor in European politics, with rightwing populist political tendencies that have been on the rise in recent years latching onto the issue and using it to demonise the refugees and convince the public that people who have fled a war zone to save their own lives are going to make the public unsafe, and are only moving into europe for personal opportunism. Over time, this rhetoric has led to the biggest ideological shift western politics has undergone because of events starting in the Middle East since 9/11. The rise of ISIS and the western fascination with the group has also played a major part in keeping Syria in our mind’s eye. ISIS formed its now meagre, but once vast base of operations in Syria after the rebels and the Assad regime became too engrossed in fighting to keep all of the country under control. As ISIS began to push towards Kurdistan, British fighters and television crews flocked to the area to fight against, and document the atrocities committed by ISIS. To the western audience ISIS are currently the biggest, most threatening name in the region, due mainly to their radicalisation and terror attacks on western soil, making the fight against ISIS in Syria the focal point for the failing “War on Terror”.
These reasons suggest why Syria still attracts the gaze of western governments and news outlets, but in reality there are as many reasons to talk about Yemen. On a humanitarian scale, the war in Yemen has been equally as catastrophic for the civilians of the country as the war in Syria. In only two years an estimated 70% of civilians have become in dire need of humanitarian help, with two million people displaced and tens of thousands having fled the country. That may not seem like much in comparison to Syria, where millions of people have fled the country since 2012, but Yemen is a much smaller country, and things have been trending downwards much faster than they ever did in Syria; over 50% of medical facilities are already inoperable and malnutrition amongst adults and children has reached a grave level. As you read this, one person every 35 seconds is catching Cholera, as the waterborne bacteria ravages a civilian population without access to medical supplies that could end this epidemic and save thousands of lives.
So again – Why isn’t this all over the news?
To really understand what’s going on you need to look at who the western powers are backing in each war. Initially, the west stayed out of the war in Syria. The Russians and Iranians were too closely tied to Assad for the likes of NATO to simply declare themselves as supporting the rebels without risking heightening tensions with Russia. Instead the west stayed out of the conflict officially until in 2014, two years into the war a US led international task force was deployed in the Kurdish region of the country, the same part fighting ISIS, and now backs plans to create an autonomous region called Rojava in the area. The official purpose of the taskforce was to combat ISIS, however realistically it was the first chance the west have had to influence the area without risking escalating tensions.
In Yemen however, the two main groups in the area are the Saudi backed, US supported exiled government, and a rebel group who have no official international backing, which on paper doesn’t sound like a particularly winnable war for the rebels. The rebels however have been able to sustain the war however, with the common wisdom being that the group are backed and funded by Iran.That information alone changes the scope of the war from being a civil war between opposition groups contained in one state, to that of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran is not particularly admired in the west, and all the fuss over their nuclear programme is evidence of that. They don’t play by the rules the west expects them to, and have caused some headaches in the area. In stark contrast Saudi Arabia have been a solid ally to the west for many years, despite our feigned uproar about civil rights issues in the country. They’ve been willing to let western nations use their geographically important country to exert influence over the Middle East and to try to keep Iran in check, and in exchange the likes of the UK and US have happily sold the Kingdom weapons to pursue their own agenda in the region.
The simple fact that this war is basically a spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran doesn’t make for comfortable news in the west. The fact that an ally we’ve armed and allowed to go on unchecked has caused more civilian than military casualties makes for even harder hearing. The main reason, in all honesty, for the lack of mainstream coverage on Yemen, is that it’s too easy to look at the situation and realise that it’s one of our own making for continued attempts to undermine the power of on Iran in the area. It’s not like the situation with ISIS, where there’s a rhetoric of retaliation which allows us to sit by happily whilst we engage them in the field. It’s not us fighting, but it is our weapons and money fuelling the conflict.
We’re finally coming to a point, at least in the UK, where the general public are starting to wise up to the negative impacts of foreign policy. It’s no longer a mad idea that the war on terror has created more terror, and public criticism of foreign policy has begun to surge in recent months. Perhaps in realising this, governments and their favoured media outlets in the west have kept this story from gathering too much attention, because looking at it objectively the situation is as much caused by the west’s unwavering support of Saudi Arabia as it is the Saudis themselves, and that kind of realisation could be too damaging to the status quo.
Written by Zac Harvey
Visuals by Alex Kay Potter