Myanmar’s manifold civil war which in reality is several civil wars within a single state, has raged since the country became independent of British imperial rule in 1948. While Yemen’s birth as independent nations in the 1960s was fraught with a traditional war with a declining British empire in the south and a hybrid war in the north, both the Arab Yemen Republic (North Yemen) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) were fully independent states by the dawn of the 1970s, all the while Myanmar’s post-colonial internal conflicts continued to asymmetrically rage.
While Myanmar’s civil war has generally been seen as an insular conflict, this was and to an extent still is far from the reality. From its earliest days, countries as diverse as the United States, Pakistan, China, Britain and Australia meddled in the internal conflict of a young state which at the time was internationally known as Burma.
Even today, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the United States and its allies have waged a diplomatic war and threatened economic war on Naypyidaw due to hypocritical attempts to distort the nature of the conflict. While the recent violence in Rakhine has been due to extra-legal migratory trends and a related localised confessional conflict, the US has sought to co-opt Muslim majority nations into constructing a “Muslims vs. non-Muslims” narrative where like in the former Yugoslavia, the largest state killer of Muslim civilians on earth, the United States, has opportunistically played the “Muslim card” for its own purely strategic gains. In order to avoid another full scale US hybrid war along an important global trading corridor, China has become involved in so far as Beijing has drafted and helped to implement a peace process involving both Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh in order to resolve the Rakhine conflict without harming the territorial unity of Myanmar or Bangladesh.
In Yemen, political conflicts stemming from the ouster of long severing President Ali Abdullah Saleh paved the way for a conflict between tibial and religious factions rallying behind Salah and those who supported Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Like in Myanmar, the Yemen conflict which from a distance looks like a localised religious struggle (in Yemen’s case a Shi’a Muslim vs. Sunni Muslim conflict) is in reality a battle for loyalties whose origin and development forms on the basis of tribalism and personal patronage.
Furthermore, just as Myanmar’s conflict became rapidly regionalised and internationalised, when in 2015 Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar (which has subsequently been kicked out of the coalition) intervened, the Yemen conflict became a wider war that now sees the US conducting air strikes while other major NATO members including Yemen’s former colonial overlord Britain continues to sell offensive weapons to the Saudi coalition. Likewise, Iran has become involved at a diplomatic level by recognising the de-facto government of the Ansar Allah (aka Houthi) movement in Sana’a as the legitimate government of Yemen. Adding to the mix, while the origins and likely outcome of the Syria conflict as well as the Lebanese Civil War were entirely different from those in Yemen, Levantine supporters of the Syrian government and Islamic Resistance have also rallied to give as much soft power support to the Houthis as possible.
In spite of intervention in the conflict from the Arab world’s richest states and the American superpower, the conflict remains a tactical stalemate while the contact lines between a de-facto recast South and North Yemen are the only thing that remains stable – much though no faction in the conflict with the exception of the Southern Transitional Council (formerly the Southern Movement) dares admit this.
There are many military factors involved in the stalemate. While Saudi Arabia boasts one of the most lavishly funded modern military machines in the world, Saudi Arabia’s strategists, soldiers and foreign mercenaries are not fighting for the survival of their state and in any case, it is widely known that Saudi Arabia’s armed forces are generally poor fighters in spite of their state of the art weaponry.
Likewise, while the US could easily beat the Houthis through either a merciless bombing campaign or land attack, it seems that especially under Donald Trump, the US has no stomach for a conflict that does not directly effect actual US interests no matter how much the US lies about Iran somehow being able to break through a Saudi naval blockade in order to arm the globally isolated Houthis. Because of this, while the US will occasionally help its Saudi ally to drop some bombs and kill some civilians, this has yet to have any meaningful impact on the Houthi’s ability to govern.
As of 2018, southern Yemen exists in an uneasy calm where an increasingly impotent President Hadi survives due to Saudi patronage while the UAE backed Southern Transitional Council are preparing to govern from Aden in a state that is a re-formed South Yemen in all but name. In northern Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its UAE partner have created a humanitarian crisis as a result of a relentless bombing campaign and blockade which has disallowed not only the passage of imaginary Iranian weapons to the Houthis, but also food, medicine and clean water. In spite of this, the Saudi led coalition has yet to score a meaningful victory against the Houthis in northern Yemen, in spite of the group being poorly armed and with no access to the international markets.
Making matters more complicated, while the Southern Transitional Council’s long standing position of seeking to bring South Yemen back to the map has aligned with the new pragmatic realities on the ground, neither President Hadi nor the Houthis seem to be coming any closer to conceding their claim to be the sole legitimate government of a united Yemen. Ironically, while many major powers openly contemplate the partition of Syria, a country which has successfully functioned as a unitary state for decades, speaking openly about a re-divided Yemen remains internationally taboo, even though the two Yemeni states lived side beside in a functional format that unlike a divided Germany, Korea or Vietnam functioned relatively harmoniously for decades.
Even if the wider international community embraced some sort of federated, confederated or fully re-divided Yemen, while the South could seemingly function under the leadership of the Southern Transitional Council and UAE patronage, few countries in the Arab world would recognise a Houthi led North Yemen. Because of this, there is a very real risk that at best a de-facto Houthi led North Yemen would become a new Transnistria – the unrecognised breakaway enclave “in” Moldova whose borders are cut off from its only de-facto ally, Russia. While North Yemen would of course have a coast, assuming the Saudis continue to blockage or even destroy the ports of northern Yemen, the country would become metaphorically landlocked indefinitely in spite of its western maritime border.
The other alternative is for the war to continue without abatement as the realities of the stalemate have ceased to bring any side to the table – especially since the Houthis assassinated former President Saleh who was the only man on the northern side who seemed capable of even attempting a negotiated settlement.
While Yemen is far smaller than Myanmar, the potential for the conflict to continue on and off in an indefinite fashion continues to loom. While the tragic humanitarian aspects of the conflict are the most frequently discussed aspect of the war, the equally important element of “when and how does it end” has been woefully ignored by every country involved in the conflict, as well as by many Yemeni leaders themselves.
While Syrian eyes begin to see light at the end of a long and blood-soaked tunnel, for Yemen, the endless river of blood continues to flow as not a single country including Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran are mature enough to moderate their entrenched positions in order to try and bring some variety of peace through some variety of compromise.