OBSERVER NEWS

Saudi Overreach in Yemen

By GEOFFREY KING

Saudi Arabia’s operation “Decisive Storm” morphed into “Restoring Hope” on April 21, 2015. Air strikes against the Houthi Movement and allied Yemeni army forces undertaken by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners failed to achieve the primary goals of “Decisive Storm”: crushing the Houthis and re-instating President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Leading up to the Saudi-led military action, Yemen had suffered from rash decisions undertaken by nearly all important players in Yemen’s political transition since the 2011 Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood–aligned Islah Party, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the former ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party, the U.S. and its pro-Hadi allies, the Houthi Movement, and Iran have all contributed to Yemen’s current crisis. The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed military actions in Yemen that began on March 25 constitute the latest overreach, complicating prospects for renewed political dialogue and pushing Yemen to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Six major instances of overreach by actors in Yemen’s political transition since the 2011 Arab Spring have led to the current political impasse. First, within the coalition government agreed to under the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) transition initiative, the Islah Party (including Muslim Brotherhood members, salafis, and northern Yemeni tribal leaders) began stacking certain military units and government ministries with its people, prompting backlash. In addition, Islah-linked salafi institutes increased activities in the traditionally Zaydi areas in the north, provoking conflict with the Houthis. Second, to maintain its leverage, deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh, his son Ahmed Ali Saleh, and their allies in the former ruling GPC have played a spoiler role, preventing many institutional reforms and hampering government functions. Third, the U.S. and the international community overplayed its hand by providing robust support for president Hadi as he pushed through a problematic national dialogue process that ignored legitimate demands for more inclusion from marginalized but important constituencies such as the Houthis and the Southern Movement. Furthermore, President Hadi forced through a decision to divide the country into six regions, to the dismay of many Yemenis. The international community provided wholehearted support for the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), whose outcomes are designed to be reflected in Yemen’s draft constitution. However, this process did not garner sufficient buy-in from Yemenis and invited conflict. Fourth, the Houthis, who gained popularity as the sole organized northern movement in opposition to the unpopular GCC transition process, overplayed their hand by launching a coup and military operations against the government and repressing dissent. Fifth, the Iranians meddled beyond acceptable bounds, providing increasing financial and military support for the Houthis (although the Saudis have always provided more support for non-state actors in Yemen than the Iranians). Sixth, the U.S.-backed attack by Saudi Arabia and its allies diminishes chances for a negotiated political solution needed to solve Yemen’s problems.

This most recent overreach represents Saudi Arabia’s “nuclear” option in Yemen. Having failed to sideline the pro-Iranian Houthi Movement during the GCC–brokered transition process, ongoing since 2011, Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies now appear willing to stem Houthi advances at a very high cost to Yemen itself. With the Iranian nuclear deal of paramount importance to the U.S. administration but perceived as a threat to Saudi interests, appeasing Saudi Arabia has obliged Uncle Sam to back a disastrous military adventure in Yemen, even as the campaign has benefitted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The strikes have destroyed critical public infrastructure and disrupted the activities of international humanitarian groups, increasing the suffering and desperation of Yemenis. The naval blockade, targeting of airports, and closing of land borders turned Yemen into an open-air prison. In addition, it has weakened Yemeni armed forces’ ability to confront an empowered AQAP and Islamic State (IS). Contrary to Saudi Arabia’s claims that its military campaign had succeeded, all signs point to continued bombardment under operation “Restoring Hope.” One consequence of the military strikes will be Yemen’s need for intensified foreign aid—a proposition that will necessitate increased GCC influence in the country. On April 18, for example, Saudi Arabia responded immediately to the U.N.’s call for $274 million in emergency humanitarian aid for Yemen by pledging the full amount.  

Instead of military intervention, Saudi Arabia could have incentivized compromise. Yemen now needs another arbiter. Worryingly, there are precious few states remaining in the region not actively supporting belligerents. Saudi Arabia—a party to the conflict who officially designates the Houthis as terrorists—cannot serve as a credible mediator. Similarly, the U.S., Iran, Jordan, Egypt, and most GCC states lack neutrality. The U.N. should step up to the plate, and the U.S. should help empower the new U.N. special envoy, Ould Cheikh Ahmed. Perhaps neutral Oman could play a role.

It is unfortunate that the April 14 UNSC Resolution 2216 (with Russia abstaining) did not call for a ceasefire in Yemen, implicitly endorsing “Decisive Storm.” However, key points of difference between Yemen parties on state structure and power sharing can still be resolved, perhaps through reviving aspects of the January 2015 Peace and National Partnership Agreement. Only substantial de-escalation can stem rising sectarian and regional divisions within Yemen and salvage positive aspects of the post-2011 transition and national dialogue. All parties should heed Yemeni civil society’s call of #KefayaWar.

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