Understanding the Yemen war

Saudi Arabia has said it is scaling down its airstrikes in Yemen, but instead it has been stepping up both its rhetoric and the war

Two weeks after Saudi Arabia announced that the coalition it leads would end Operation Decisive Storm against Yemen after the airstrikes campaign had achieved its goals, Saudi jetfighters and gunships have continued pounding the kingdom’s restive southern neighbour.

The Sunni Arab powerhouse’s declaration that it is moving into a second phase of activities after downgrading the Iran-backed Shia Houthi group and eliminating threats from across its border has raised questions about what Saudi Arabia is up to in the war in Yemen.

Questions also persist about the role of the United States in the conflict as Washington tries to appease Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) following its tentative agreement with Iran last month over its nuclear programme.

The US dispatch of warships to the area to prevent possible Iranian arms shipments and Saudi threats that its navy would attempt to search the ships if they tried to dock in Yemen have raised concerns of a potential international confrontation in Yemen.

The disclosure by the United Nations envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, that Yemeni warring political factions were on the verge of a power-sharing deal when the Saudi-led airstrikes started is bound to raise even more eyebrows about this war on one of the most impoverished Arab countries.

With Saudi strikes continuing, sectarian sentiments rising and competition for influence and military capabilities increasing, Yemen could likely become a flashpoint in the volatile Middle East and Gulf region.

What is at stake is whether Saudi Arabia, which appears poised to achieve the subordination of the Houthis, will be able to avoid a quagmire on its borders and if the region can avoid a sectarian conflict on a large scale.

Riyadh claims four weeks of airstrikes have wiped out the weapons and military installations of the Houthis, who took control of the capital Sanaa in September forcing Sunni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.

But on the ground Saudi Arabia does not seem to have made much headway, especially in breaking the grip of the Houthis on power. The Saudi-led air campaign is no nearer to stopping the advance of the Houthis alongside army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Thus far, the Saudi campaign has failed to split the Houthi-Saleh alliance, and it has not succeeded in creating a gap between the members of the alliance and the larger Sunni tribes in Yemen either.

The Saudis have been no more successful in creating a credible tribal or political opposition to the Houthis to help reinstall Hadi in power.

Many observers believe that Saudi Arabia may even have no viable strategy for achieving its political goals in Yemen and compelling the Houthis to come to the negotiating table on its terms.

The Houthis and their allies are still making gains. They have overrun large swathes of the country, including parts of South Yemen, and they have encircled the coastal city of Aden whose facilities were widely feared to be being used to unload possible Iranian arms shipments.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Pakistan, two key Sunni allies, have rebuffed a Saudi request to send troops into the country, underlining the Saudis’ inability to resort to a ground option to deal with the Houthis.

As if to underscore how fragile Yemen is, on Saturday the Islamic State (IS) group declared its official presence in the country in a video. IS is the second terrorist group operating in Yemen alongside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has long been trying to take over the country.

Some of the political and human impacts of the war may be devastating and will have long-term implications on Saudi Arabia itself, which will have to live with the chaos and devastation in its backyard.

By the time Saudi Arabia announced it was halting its operations on 19 April, some 1,000 Yemenis had been killed, including 150 children. Thousands of others had been wounded, some 120,000 displaced, and millions more trapped in their homes in an attempt to escape the bombings.

The airstrikes have pushed Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, to the brink of disaster. The Saudi-led blockade has deprived the Yemenis of food, fuel, water and medicine, causing what a Red Cross official called a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the country.

According to UN reports, almost 16 million people, or 61 per cent of the total population, have required humanitarian assistance, hundreds of thousands of these having been displaced by the waves of conflict over the past decade.

As Yemen suffers and Saudi Arabia continues its bid to bludgeon the Houthis into submission, attention is also being focused on the United States, which has aided the Saudis both diplomatically and militarily.

By publicly claiming that Iran was still seeking to supply weapons to the Houthis the White House has not only given credence to the Saudi pretexts for waging the airstrikes but also added more fuel to the fire.

Moreover, Washington has provided Riyadh with intelligence information and tactical advice, including vetting military targets, and it has accelerated the sale of new weapons to Riyadh and its Gulf allies.

The US navy has beefed up its presence by deploying the warship Theodore Roosevelt off the Yemeni coast, reassuring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies of its continued support.

American pundits have been defending the Obama administration’s approach in Yemen as part of the US president’s broader “Iran doctrine” to reintegrate the Islamic Republic into the rest of the world by encouraging Tehran to break through its isolation.

They explain Obama’s approach as a “dual engagement” strategy by which Washington will bolster the Saudis and their allies through new US military commitments while continuing to seek to finalise a nuclear deal with Iran.

Others commentators believe the US engagement is about weapon sales. According to the New York Times, US industry officials have notified Congress that they are expecting additional requests from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar for thousands of new US-made weapons, including missiles and bombs, to rebuild depleted arms stockpiles.

To many analysts, the fact that the United States is backing the Saudi campaign in Yemen despite the collateral damage and a general consensus about the campaign’s futility means that Washington has become an accomplice in the war in Yemen.

As for Saudi Arabia, failure in Yemen is certainly not an option. Saudi columnists and experts who usually reflect the opinions of the royal family have been toiling to convey Riyadh’s message that the kingdom is bent on confronting Iran not only in Yemen but also in places such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Yet, the key questions being asked these days are what Riyadh’s other options are and if it has any way out of what could become its Vietnam. Few outside Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners believe the kingdom’s justification for the war and wonder if Riyadh is waiting for a ladder to get it down from the position it now finds itself in.

Many observers find the Saudi war in Yemen mystifying. What is Saudi Arabia seeking in Yemen ? Why does Saudi Arabia feel it knows what is best for the Yemenis ? Why is it fighting so hard when most Yemeni factions agree that talks can resolve the conflict ?

Is it part of a short-sighted plan that has chosen Yemen as an arena to confront Iran and the Shia in the region ? Is the incursion into Yemen part of an assertive Saudi foreign policy that uses the military to carry out its agenda ?

Answering these questions and understanding the war in Yemen requires the meaningful evaluation of the potential outcomes that could ensue and in turn the complex implications of these outcomes and their broader ramifications in the region.

As doubts increase about the effectiveness of the Saudi air campaign, attention is being turned to a possible Saudi-led land incursion into Yemen. Though most analysts believe that talk about a Saudi invasion is just a bluff, Riyadh could resort to it as an act of desperation if it fails to achieve its goal of compelling the Houthis into submission.

But several unintended consequences could emerge either way which would undoubtedly impact the Saudi domestic front and alter Riyadh’s position in the regional order.

Domestically, ending the war without succeeding in subduing the Houthis would have dire consequences for the royal family and could trigger the power struggle that was thought to have subsided after king Salman moved quickly following his succession in January to put the House of Al-Saud in order.

Two of the most powerful members of the royal family, second-in-line to the throne, Minister of Interior and King Salman’s son prince Mohamed bin Nayef and Minister of Defence prince Mohamed bin Salman lead the war on Yemen and they could take the blame for its failure.

An unsuccessful Saudi military intervention would bolster the Houthis and would give them even more power in Yemen at the expense of Saudi Arabia’s allies. It would also give Iran more leverage and increase its regional status.

The implications of the failure to achieve the goals of the war on Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Gulf and in the Arab and Muslim world will be enormous. And the Yemen crisis and its outcome threaten to change the trajectory of the Shia-Sunni polarisation in the region for the worse.

One of its unintended consequences will be fertile land for radical organisations such as IS and Al-Qaeda to grow still further.


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.