In Depth

Yemen crisis: who are the rebel groups and why are they fighting?

Local rebel groups are fighting for control of a country that could become the battleground for a wider war

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Yemen is quickly descending into an all-out civil war between rebel factions and the ousted government. There are also fears that the conflict is beginning to serve as a larger proxy war between regional Shia and Sunni powers. 

UN-brokered peace talks between the warring groups have failed, with mediator Jamal Benomar warning that the country is inching towards an "Iraq-Libya-Syria scenario". So who is involved in the fighting and why?

Key players in Yemen:

The ousted Sunni government

Earlier this year, the US-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was forced to step down after rebel groups stormed the capital, leaving a power vacuum. As a result of this, the Yemeni President and his ministers had to flee to the southern stronghold of Aden. Hadi has since reclaimed his presidency but remains in hiding. His government has the support of military and police loyalists as well as a Sunni militia known as Popular Resistance Committees, according to the BBC.

The Houthis

The Shiite militia has been attempting to take control of the country since 2004 and is by far the strongest rebel force in the country. The group has "legitimate, long term grievances of economic and political disenfranchisement by the government," writes Martin Reardon for Al Jazeera. The Houthis have since expanded their control of the country, alarming foreign powers. Western and Saudi leaders allege that the group is receiving financial and military backing from Iran, a claim denied by Tehran.

The AQAP

The Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is considered to be the most dangerous branch of the terrorist group. It has been linked to several international terrorist plots and claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

The separatists

Since North and South Yemen were united in 1990, southern separatists have been fighting to become independent again. The decision to unite the two was "fraught from the start" and led to a civil war in 1994, according to The Economist.

Islamic State

"The picture is further complicated by the emergence in late 2014 of a Yemen affiliate of the militant group Islamic State (IS), which propounds an extreme version of Sunni Islam and seeks to eclipse AQAP," the BBC reports. IS militants recently claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings at mosques in Yemen's capital Sanaa, which killed at least 137 people. Both al-Qaeda and IS consider Shia Muslims to be heretics and have vowed further attacks against the Houthis.

So who's in charge?

"Even in the best of times, it's hard to tell if anyone is in control of Yemen," NPR says. The central government has long been in disarray, and different rebel groups control different parts of the country. In the north, the Houthis largely hold sway, while the separatists control much of the south. AQAP fighters meanwhile control swathes of rural territory from the south west to the north east.

Why does the conflict matter?

The US lost a key ally in the Arabian Peninsula when Hadi was pushed out, and the unrest that has followed will allow terrorist organisations in the region to expand unchecked, analysts warn. The conflict in Yemen has also "provided an opening for IS, which is keen to outflank al-Qaeda and prove itself the true defender of the faith," according to CNN. However, for the moment Islamic State remains a relatively "small player" in Yemen compared to al-Qaeda.
The recent intervention of Saudi Arabia and its key regional allies risks further destabilisation in the Middle East. There are fears that the conflict could spiral into an international war, with Yemen becoming a battleground for Iranian and Saudi rivalries.

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