Middle East Simplified
By far the most turbulent region in recent times across the globe, the middle east has complex geopolitical fissures along with confusing timelines and normalized genocides. The never-ending cycle of violence between a radical Islamic militia and international coalitions has torn the transcontinental region apart. This is a brief guide to understand the two most significant wars in the post Arab Spring middle east.
Modern middle east and North Africa consists of 22 countries. Of these, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran consistently make headlines. Yemen and Syria both face the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever seen while Saudi Arabia and Iran have vested interests in their frailty. Much like Europe in the Cold War, today the Middle East is divided into two camps, Sunni majority countries like Saudi, UAE, etc pitched against the few Shia dominated countries like Iran, Iraq, etc. In the developments of the failed Arab Spring movement these coalitions have seized opportunities fueling annihilation.
Mohammed Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in front of a government building after he was harassed by the corrupt administration. His death, in 2011, sparked a nationwide agitation which called for democracy and transparency, called the Jasmine Revolution. Through social media the agitation turned into an international movement now known as the Arab Spring. In the same year, the governments of Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya fell to the clarion call for democracy. Unfortunately, most of these revolutions did not end successfully. For example, in Libya, the dictator Muammar Gaddafi was publicly executed. However, the people who demanded democracy and cultural freedom were presented with increased instability and religious ferment, and today, Libya is engulfed in the civil war. This was true for many of the ousted regimes. The vacuum of leadership was filled in by organizations like ISIS or the nation’s army declared totalitarianism. It is from here that most of the crises arose.
The vicissitude of power from Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was the origin of Yemen’s ongoing conflict. President Hadi inherited the problems of food scarcity, militancy, economic stagnation, and mutiny.
He was unable to maintain the peace for too long because, in 2014, the minority Shia Muslim rebel group called the Houthis overthrew him and laid siege on the capital city of Sanaa.
The world-weary Yemini public, including the Sunni population, supported the armed Houthi rebellion as they made plans to take over the entire country. What transformed this conflict into a proxy war was the suspected involvement of Shia dominated Iran by Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi government believed that the Houthis were receiving funding from Iran and so they tackled it by forming an alliance of eight Sunni states which actively conducted airstrikes on Houthi territory and at times bombed civilian areas. This coalition also obtained aid and intelligence from the US, UK, and France.
The alliance was able to force out the Houthi rebels from Sanaa but Yemen is still in the midst of a civil war. The upheaval has allowed ISIS and Al Qaeda to take hold of certain parts of Yemen.
In 2019, the Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the drone strike that destroyed two Saudi oil installations. This impacted about half of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil exports. The US, Saudi and European nations believe that Iran is in fact responsible and a recent UN finding that the Houthis were not the perpetrators has augmented the accusation against Tehran.
As a result of the pandemic, a unilateral ceasefire has been declared by Saudi Arabia.
The Yemen Crisis has been dubbed ‘the worst humanitarian crisis in the world’.
The United Nations has said that in 2019, 23,000 deaths were accounted for, a large proportion resulting from the Saudi led airstrikes. 80% of their population is in need of humanitarian assistance. Between 2015-2018, the charity Save the Children has reported 85,000 children died of acute starvation. According to the BBC, the war has displaced 3.65 million people.
Bashar al Assad assumed the presidential position after his father’s death. When the Arab Spring arrived in Syria, he took drastic measures to suppress the cry for democracy. The protests moved into armed resistance and Syria slipped into civil war.
Similar to Yemen, there is a Shia-Sunni conflict as well as international interference.
The Assad family is Shia Alawite who rules a Sunni majority nation. The government has received aid from Iran, Hezbollah( Shia militants from Lebanon), Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia.
The rebel groups are supported by the US-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syrian Kurds have joined the coalition for different reasons but the SDF’s primary goal is to combat the Islamic State. Until 2019, they were successful, but on President Trump’s orders the US troops were pulled out and Turkey launched a cross border offensive, beginning another conflict and allowing ISIS the opportunity to reclaim territory.
In April 2020, the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons three times in a single week. According to the report, two bombs containing sarin nerve agents were dropped on the village of Khan Sheikhoun and a chlorine bomb was dropped on a hospital. This is not the first such allegation against the Assad regime.
Since 2011, 55% of Syrians have been displaced.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported 4,00,000 deaths since 2011 not including the 2,00,000 people who have gone missing.
Hospitals and schools have been bombed and six UNESCO world heritage sites have been destroyed.
The Syrian crisis has resulted in over 1,24,000 immigrants seeking asylum in Europe alone.
Both Yemen’s and Syria’s conflicts have been long-drawn and the global community has become desensitized to atrocities committed over the past nine years. UN-mandated negotiations have failed and world powers seem to have involved themselves in wars they never should’ve been in. These wars were definitely not anticipated and now their end cannot be ascertained.
By: Naomi Kurian