Yemen war: 5 years since the Houthis’ Sanaa takeover

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On September 21, 2014, Yemen‘s Houthi rebels took control of the capital, Sanaa, following a rapid advance south from their northern stronghold of Saada after weeks of anti-government protests.

With the Houthis proceeding to push southwards, the conflict escalated in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a ferocious air campaign to reverse the rebels’ territorial gains and restore the internationally recognised government.

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The war in the Arab world’s poorest country has since spawned what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of people killed and millions at risk of starvation.

On the fifth anniversary of the Houthis’ takeover of Sanna, here is an overview of the five-year conflict.

1. The fall of Sanaa

In July 2014, Houthi fighters from Yemen’s Zaidi Shia minority launch a southern offensive from Saada. 

In September, they enter Sanaa, seizing the government headquarters and demanding a share in power after declaring victory.

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Allied with military units loyal to ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to quit after a 2011 uprising, the Houthis in October capture the Red Sea port of Hodeida, a crucial entry point for imports and humanitarian aid.

In January 2015, they seize the presidential palace in Sanaa, after heavy fighting, and surround the residence of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who flees to the southern port city of Aden.

2. Riyadh’s intervention

Saudi Arabia and allied countries intervene in March 2015 with air raids on the rebels. The military coalition is backed by the United States, which says it contributes logistics and intelligence.

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As the rebels advance southwards on Aden, Hadi takes refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Months later, the coalition drives the Houthis and Saleh loyalists from Aden in south Yemen and Marib, northeast of Sanaa.

By August, pro-government forces had retaken five southern provinces. In October, they announce they have retaken control of the Bab al-Mandab strait, a key waterway for international shipping.

But the front lines solidify, setting up years of stalemate.

3. The battle for Hodeida

In June 2018, government fighters, backed by Saudi and Emirati forces, launch an offensive to retake the port of Hodeida.

UN-brokered talks between the warring parties open in Sweden in December, yielding a series of breakthroughs including a ceasefire in Hodeida.

In May 2019, the UN announced the rebels had withdrawn from Hodeida and two other nearby ports, the first practical step on the ground since the truce deal.

4. Divisions

Splits emerged in the rebel camp in 2017. Seeing an opportunity to regain power for his family by reneging on his Houthi allies, Saleh switches sides, but is killed in December trying to escape them.

The anti-Houthi camp is also divided, notably in the south where fighting between separatists and forces loyal to the government threatens to create “a civil war within a civil war”.

South Yemen was an independent state until it united with the north in 1990, and separatists remain powerful.

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In January 2018, heavy fighting broke out in Aden between separatists and government forces.

In August 2019, deadly new clashes erupt.

The separatist-dominated Security Belt forces, which are backed by the UAE, seize Aden and other parts of the south, retaining control despite briefly being driven out by pro-government fighters.

The new front exposes a rift between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which are effectively backing different sides in the south despite being partners in the anti-Houthi coalition.

5. Humanitarian crisis and peace efforts 

Yemen’s conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, according to relief agencies.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF describes the conflict as “a living hell” for children, with 1.8 million under-fives suffering severe malnutrition.

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In September 2019, the US says it is in talks with the Houthis, seeking to end the war.

The negotiations open a direct channel between President Donald Trump‘s administration and the Houthis amid a threat of a broader regional conflict with Iran.

On September 20, the Houthis unexpectedly announce that they plan to halt all attacks on Saudi Arabia as part of an initiative to end the devastating conflict.

It follows twin attacks on Saudi oil installations, claimed by the Houthis, that knocked out half of the kingdom’s production.

Riyadh’s ally Washington condemns the attacks as an “act of war”, placing the blame on Iran and announcing it is imposing new sanctions and sending more troops to the Gulf. Iran denies involvement. 

Yemen war: 5 years since the Houthis’ Sanaa takeover

On September 21, 2014, Yemen’s Houthi rebels took control of the capital, Sanaa, following a rapid advance south from their northern stronghold of Saada after weeks of anti-government protests. With the Houthis proceeding to push southwards, the conflict escalated in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a ferocious air campaign to reverse the rebels’ territorial gains and restore the internationally recognised government.

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