In what has been three decades of ill-advised wars in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen may be the most ill-advised of them all. “Operation Decisive Storm,” the ironic name for Saudi Arabia’s aerial campaign in Yemen, has led to nothing decisive in Yemen beyond ensuring that the country remains a failed state and fertile ground for organizations like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Long before the commencement of “Operation Decisive Storm,” Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, was grappling with a host of problems ranging from severe water shortages, food insecurity, and a moribund economy, to a long running multi-front insurgency. Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has exacerbated all of these problems and could well be the coup de grace for a unified and relatively stable Yemen.
On Tuesday April 21st, the government of Saudi Arabia abruptly announced that it was ending “Operation Decisive Storm” and that it would be scaling back its aerial campaign in Yemen. “Operation Decisive Storm” will be replaced with “Operation Restore Hope,” an unfortunate name for a military operation given that it was also the name for the US’ ill-fated 1992-3 intervention in Somalia. It is unclear what “Operation Restore Hope” aims to achieve; however, the first phase of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has been disastrous.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 900 people have died in Yemen since the Saudi led aerial campaign against Yemen began on March 25th. In addition, one hundred and fifty thousand Yemenis have been displaced and the number of food insecure people has increased to more than twelve million. Due to the ongoing blockade of its ports—Yemen imports more than 90% of its food—prices for basic food items have soared and there are widespread shortages. In Aden, where temperatures routinely climb into the triple digits, most of the city of more than five hundred thousand has no access to water. Across the country, supplies of gasoline and gas have been exhausted. Hospitals, which were already struggling to cope with a lack of medicine and supplies, now have little or no fuel left to run their generators. Those patients in Yemen’s Intensive Care Units will likely die as their life saving machines are idled due to a lack of electricity.
AQAP has, so far, been the only beneficiary of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In south east Yemen, in the governorate of the Hadramawt, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken over Yemen’s fifth largest city, Mukalla, and has also taken control of the city’s airport and port. “Operation Decisive Storm” targeted the Houthis, a Zaidi militia that is the sworn enemy of al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia’s aerial bombardment also focused on those elements of the Yemeni Armed Forces that are allied with the Houthis and former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. These same military units, including the Yemeni Air Force which has been largely destroyed, were also critical to fighting AQAP and its allies. “Operation Decisive Storm” has effectively neutralized the two forces that were responsible for impeding AQAP’s advance across large sections of southern and eastern Yemen.
So what did the Saudis hope to achieve with “Operation Decisive Storm?” The government of Saudi Arabia claimed that it launched military operations against Yemen to restore the now exiled government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi who fled Yemen for Saudi Arabia on March 25th.
However, the reinstallation of Hadi’s government, which had little support before he and his ministers openly called on the Saudis and their partners to bomb their own country, remains unlikely. Hadi, who was Saleh’s long serving vice-president, was chosen to be vice-president by Saleh for a reason: Hadi has no power base in the Yemen. Hadi is a southerner who has no ties to Yemen’s perennially powerful northern based tribes and as a southerner who sided with Saleh and the north in the 1994 civil war, he is regarded as a traitor by many in the south.
It is also important to note that the so called Hadi supporters who are fighting Houthi militias and their allies in south Yemen are fighting under the flag of the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Most of those fighting in Aden and in other southern cities are not fighting for Hadi but for independence from the north due to a long list of unaddressed grievances. Up until a few months before his departure for Saudi Arabia, the security services under Hadi’s control were pursuing and arresting members of al-Hirak, the Southern Separatist Movement.
The second—and linked—goal of the Saudi led aerial campaign was to force the Houthis to disarm. This was as unlikely as the restoration of Hadi’s government. The Houthis have fought six wars against the Yemeni Armed Forces since 2004 and successfully fought off Saudi forces in 2009-10. While Saudi Arabia’s air war undoubtedly degraded some of the Houthis’ military capabilities and may have resulted in the loss of what is already arguably limited support for the Houthis and their allies, it in no way defeated the Houthis who have withstood far worse with far fewer resources than they now have.
After bombing Yemen for nearly a month and igniting what could be a prolonged civil war, the government of Saudi Arabia may have finally come to the conclusion that the only way forward for Yemen is through dialogue and negotiation. No one party or faction in Yemen is capable of asserting control over the country, even with the support of a regional power, be it Saudi Arabia or Iran. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a master of Machiavellian politics with an encyclopedic knowledge of Yemen’s tribes and clans, was never able to exert full control over Yemen. For much of his 33 years in power, Saleh was derisively referred to as the “mayor of Sana’a” because his writ did not extend much beyond the Yemeni capital. In many respects, Yemen can be described as an “asylum of liberty.” Power has historically been dispersed among various factions. This dispersal of power militates against strong centralized authority.
In an April 19th interview with Russia Today, Jamal Benomar, who resigned as the United Nations Special Adviser on Yemen on April 16th, claimed that negotiations between all parties in Yemen were ongoing and nearing a successful interim conclusion before the bombardment of Yemen began. In his rambling April 19th speech, Houthi leader, Abdul Malek al-Houthi, vowed not to surrender but also indicated that the Houthis remained open to negotiations. Yemen’s former ruling party, the General People’s Congress, and its former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have both called for renewed negotiations.
Yemen has a rich corpus of traditions that, when allowed to function, can limit conflict and favor negotiated settlements. These traditions were in evidence during Yemen’s own popular uprising in 2011 which, while violent, did not, at that time, lead to the kind of brutally violent civil wars that have engulfed Libya and Syria. Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, if it continues, could upend many of these traditions and ensure that Yemen is the next Syria or Libya. At a minimum, the war has already led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians, destroyed critical infrastructure, impoverished thousands more Yemenis, and allowed AQAP to dramatically expand the areas under its control.
Michael Horton is a writer and Middle East analyst.