What Kind of a War is the Yemen War?

by Martha Mundy | published March 27, 2018

This short note poses three questions central to understanding the nature and meaning of the Yemen war. These concern the strategy of the Coalition war itself, the structure of legal reference, and the forms of information concerning the war. The three fields intersect. 


The Yemen war is about to enter a fourth year; thus the strategy of the Coalition, which controls Yemen’s airspace and sea-space (alongside the Combined Maritime Forces and from May 2016 the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism), has moved through several stages. [1]

The war began in late March 2015 with considerable aerial bombardment, deploying implosion and high kinetic weapons around Sanaa in what appeared an experiment in shock-and-awe. Many strikes focused on the Yemeni armed forces loyal to the government in Sanaa and civil heartlands of the Houthi movement. The bombing likewise hit road networks, gas and petrol stations, electricity generation plants, camps of internally displaced persons, and buildings said to belong to Houthi leaders, in a manner reminiscent of attacks by Israel on Lebanon in 1996 and 2006. It may be that the strategists planned for a quick war; they seem to have told other agencies that Yemeni resistance should be swiftly broken and to plan for reconstruction. USAID and the UN prepared damage assessment maps of Saadah, Sanaa and Taizz and night light countrywide survey maps after a few months of the war. [2] A first round of peace negotiations was then to lead nowhere, thanks to the terms enshrined in UNSCR 2216 that the forces of the Yemeni army loyal to ex-President ʿAli ʿAbdullah Saleh and the Ansarallah (Houthis) surrender as precondition for political settlement. From mid-August through October the Coalition again intensified aerial bombardment, in particular in Sanaa and Saadah Governorates. Civilian and economic targets, not least the port of al-Hudayda, formed a more important proportion of the targets. Over the following year, although the intensity of bombardment fluctuated, many government and educational buildings having already been damaged, the same broad patterns of targeting continued. Civilian and economic targets included food production/processing, and storage and distribution facilities, notably, across the country the major food importer and distributor, the Yemen Economic Corporation (YEC). This pattern continued through late summer of 2016. But no surrender followed.

From the autumn of 2016 the kinetic assault having failed to produce Yemen’s “collapse” [3] in reverse order to that of the long war on Iraq, economic war came to the fore: move of the central bank to Aden, quasi-exclusion from the international banking system, refusal of ships’ passage and attacks on fishing boats, detachment of oil-producing regions under governors affiliated to the Coalition powers, and attacks on all elements of life in the northern border regions (houses, farms, transport, markets, public institutions, medical facilities). All the tactics and more that have been deployed in Gaza time and again were put into effect in a much larger-scale experiment of punishment of a people in the name of internationally recognized political legitimacy.


There are two aspects of legal reference especially prominent in the Yemen war. 

The first aspect is the post-facto legitimation of war by the world’s highest legal institution through a technique that Joy Gordon has termed deliberate ambiguity. [4] The UNSCR 2216, which placed sanctions on five individuals and called for the restoration of a president (ʿAbd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi) whose term had already expired, has been taken to permit the attack and blockade of Yemen. [5] The permanent members of the UNSC wield enormous powers of collective action and its delegation to their allies. Constructive ambiguity is constantly fine-tuned so as to devolve legal responsibility from those who delegate to the agents they empower.

The second aspect of legal reference concerns the forms in which challenges to this grey legality of collective aggression can be made. The form of the language of rights is adopted to contest collective violation. In the resolutely individualized spirit of rights, organizations struggle to prove that a particular strike violated the laws of war through the destruction of a particular cultural monument, [6] of a public social ceremony, or of a marked medical facility, or through the use of identifiable banned weapons against civilian targets. Dossiers are presented to the UN Human Rights Council, a child of the UN General Assembly. [7] By contrast, collective right is addressed only in relation to public health. So the UN Humanitarian Coordinator has appealed for collective action on such grounds. But, the response to that remains vested in the same body, the UN Security Council, which has delegated (ambiguously) the power to create such terrible need.


Before the onset of hostilities, over almost four decades of the rule of President ʿAli ʿAbdullah Saleh, international, national and NGO development agencies had come to dominate the production of knowledge about and the policy for Yemeni society and economy. From early March 2015 the major agencies such as the World Bank and Food and Agriculture Organisation closed their operations following the withdrawal of Western and Gulf embassies. [8] Thus, the source of credible information that such agencies represent for the West virtually ceased to exist on the ground. The ILO was exceptional in conducting a labour survey in late 2015. [9] Some agencies worked with satellite sensing to make damage assessments, presumably on the understanding that the war was to be short. With the destruction of airports, repeated suspension of flights, and vetting of travelers by Saudi Arabia, it became difficult for non-Yemeni journalists to enter the country. The work of Yemeni ministries assessing damage to infrastructure and health and of Yemeni journalists logging the targets of aerial bombardment was not regarded as reliable information. [10] Thus, for most of the first two years of the war, while the occasional voice from inside Yemen might be raised and heard above the official press briefings of the Coalition military spokesman al-Asiri and the able hasbara ofthe Saudi foreign minister al-Jubayr, Western media coverage was for long periods absent. [11] But from late 2016, as the health and diet of the Yemeni masses became critically impaired, international agencies were allowed to return to Yemen so long as their purpose was humanitarian. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator began to issue strong appeals for aid and an end to the blockade. [12] Finally, unlike the earlier uniformity of the press of the Gulf states, the dispute with Qatar has belatedly freed al-Jazeera in its coverage of Yemen. [13] But as the imperial powers do not act in response, such appeals quickly subside back into the general silence.

When this information regime is challenged as it has been by the UK Campaign against the Arms Trade (CAAT), the government response, translated through senior judges, was to argue that as the government knows what others do not (and cannot), there is no case to be answered. [14] Parallel arguments are advanced against attempts in the US Senate to challenge that government’s role in the war. Academics too are essentially confined to regional political commentary, and any protest or critical analysis they advance is shown to be vacuous since without consequence. The governments are not mistaken in their claim to absolutely finer knowledge. Given the enormous data bank of the military, and the exceptionally clear skies and hence clarity of satellite imagery of Yemen, their knowledge of the war and its effects is detailed, formidable and subject to continuous study. [15] Analyses drawing on sources from inside Yemen by contrast produce artisanal results if set against the machine power of imperial government knowledge.

Coda: whose war?

In an interview on March 11, 2018, the assistant spokesman of the Yemeni Army Colonel ʿAziz Rashid, referring to recent statements that he ascribes to the head of the US navy about weapons testing on the Yemen coast, states that the major planner of the war is America. He notes that unlike other Arab spokesmen who hide behind the description of conflicts in terms of internal differences and problems, the Yemeni Army and the Popular Committees in defence of Arabism and Islam do not flinch from naming the wrong doer. [16]

At a time when information is so scarce, such a voice too should be heard, although, to date, only those in the control rooms know exactly which countries plan and study the experiments of the Yemen war.



[1] Huffington Post, May 26, 2015; Combined Maritime Forces, United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism, February 14, 2018.
[2] United Nations Institute for Training and Research.
[3] Middle East Institute, March 7, 2018. The term is used by former US ambassador to Yemen (2010-2013) Gerard Feierstein as reported in an interview. It has no legal nor even any exact meaning in this context but expresses the wish of a would-be winner – as if in a boxing ring – and promises the quasi-medical response of humanitarian aid.
[4] YouTube, November 1, 2016. Joy Gordon has discussed the deployment of this strategy in regard to Yemen in a 2016 conference.
[5] United Nations Security Council, April 14, 2015.
[6] On cultural damage see Lamya Khalidi, “The destruction of Yemen and its cultural heritage”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 49(4), 2017: 735-738.
[7] In its reports the UNSC appointed Panel of Experts on Yemen has also documented a small number of individual cases of bomb damage that appear to violate the laws of war. See Report S/2018/68 available at https://www.un.org/sc/suborg/en/sanctions/2140/panel-of-experts/work-and-mandate/reports.
[8] Compare Sheila Carapico “War and De-development”, POMEPS Studies 29.
[9] ILO.
[10] For example, Anthony Cordesman, “The War in Yemen: Hard choices in a hard war”, CSIS, May 9, 2017, p. 7 writes: “There are no reliable data on the number of Saudi and UAE strike sorties flown in the civil war, their intended targets, the number of civilians killed, and the level of collateral damage.”
[11] The Guardian.Hasbara is a term that simply means explanation in Hebrew but which has come to
[12] From late 2016 the UN Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick has issued numerous warnings. His statement on the second anniversary of the war is available at http://ye.one.un.org/content/unct/yemen/en/home/news-centre/news/humanitarian-coordinator-yemen-jamie-mcgoldrick-statement-humanitarian-situation-yemen.html. He too writes of a looming ‘collapse’ in Yemen (cf. note iii).
[13] Al-Jazeera.
[14] Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
[15] Cf. maps mentioned in note ii. What is possible is evident in material shared with a French journalist, see http://www.france24.com/fr/20180221-yemen-carte-destruction-capitale-yemenite-sanaa-sar-images-radar-satellite-ase .
[16] Al-Masirah, March 11, 2018.

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