War, Death, Famine, Suffering, Rinse, Repeat

A civil war followed the Arab Spring. A majority of the population is displaced from their homes. Regional powers have intervened to support opposing sides in the conflict. International NGO’s and the United Nations accuse all sides of human rights violations. ISIS and Al Qaeda have moved in to fill the power vacuum, threatening regional stability.

Sound familiar? You almost certainly were thinking of the crisis in Syria, but all of the above equally describes the civil war that has raged in Yemen since rival groups attempted to take control of the country following the Arab Spring. In spite of being a terrible crisis of incredible severity, the international media pays far less attention to the situation in Yemen, leading to a much lower general knowledge of the conflict.

Yemen is another example of state failure due to civil war. It includes intervention by regional powers, in this case Saudi Arabia (with American backing) in support of the internationally recognized government and Iran in support of the Houthi rebel movement. In this conflict, ISIS is the newcomer, with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) having a long history of activity in Yemen. There is no direct intervention in the civil war by the major powers, at least not yet. The United States has attacked some Houthi positions, but only after these positions fired missiles at US Navy ships patrolling off the coast.

If the players are familiar, so is the terrible cost of the ongoing conflict being paid by the civilian population. Yemen was a very poor country at the start of the conflict and much of its infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. This has made humanitarian aid difficult to deliver even before you add the possibility of being shot at. As the situation deteriorates, people starve.

In Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, conflicts that drag on for long periods generally lead to significant harm to civilians. Much of this relief comes from non-governmental groups and the United Nations. The money to pay for these efforts depends on public attention to the crises. With so much focus on Syria, the smaller conflicts have a difficult time getting noticed.

Life and death hang on the ability to hold the attention of the world’s media.



  1. Famine in Yemen is the result of human action rather than natural disaster. Does this make the situation less sympathetic than if the famine were the result of drought or other natural phenomenon?
  2. The United Nations has issued an emergency call for aid for Yemen and for the warring factions to support aid delivery. Given the calls for aid in other areas (Syria, South Sudan, etc.) is the world likely to heed this call?
  3. In this kind of conflict, civilians pay a high price and the various parties to the conflict know it. All sides highlight the actions of their opponents as causes of the crisis, seeking to gain advantage from the suffering. Do the parties to the conflict have an incentive to make the crisis worse in order to use this as a bargaining chip or propaganda tool?