By Adam Simpson*
On March 26, 2015, a Saudi Arabian-led military coalition — composed of ten Sunni Muslim states, including all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members except Oman — launched “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen. The coalition’s objectives were three- fold: to roll back the gains made by Ansar Allah (Yemen’s dominant Houthi militia), to restore President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government, and to bring security and stability to the country. Though the Saudis have since declared their mission accomplished, military operations have resumed under the re-branded moniker “Operation: Restoring Hope.” It is difficult to imagine how a military campaign, especially one limited to air strikes, could achieve these objectives.
The coalition’s strikes, albeit aggressive in nature, have thus far had little effect on Ansar Allah’s advances. One of the original goals was to prevent the Houthis from seizing Aden. Although the city remains heavily contested, the Houthis were able to seize portions large enough to force Hadi to flee to safety in Riyadh. As of this writing, the Houthis are making a final push for the Tawahi district, perhaps one of the last remaining bastions of the Hadi government within Yemen.
The Houthis have advanced far outside their northwestern province of Sa’ada, beyond the capital city of Sana’a, and are now fighting local groups for control in several southern provinces, including Abyan and Shabwa. Interestingly, the strikes led by the Saudi Arabian military coalition are not focused on the critical southern front. Though coalition bombs have struck hotspots in Aden and Taiz, they have also pummeled Houthi strongholds in northern Sa’ada province, in Sana’a, and in the coastal cities of Hodeidah and Haradh. If the coalition strikes are aimed at immobilizing the Houthis, their mission has patently failed. While there have been notable raids into Saudi territory, Houthi manpower remains focused on the local resistance in Yemen’s southern provinces where the outcome of the war will be decided.
The Fall of Yemen’s “Legitimate” President
Hadi’s legitimacy has been the primary justification for the Saudi Arabian campaign, but his supposed legitimacy had always been tenuous. And for the past year, it has declined in the eyes of a growing number of Yemenis.
The president-in-exile began as Saleh’s unassuming vice-president, selected as the result of a GCC-sponsored bargain that saw Saleh’s resignation and the ratification of Hadi, the only candidate on the ballot. As a cautious yet somewhat incompetent caretaker, Hadi prolonged the transition process when decisiveness was needed, and moved precipitously at times when consensus was critical. Hadi all but ignored the many conflicts that raged around Yemen – the Houthis’ feud with al-Ahmar tribes, the recurring clashes involving al-Hirak (the Southern Separatist Movement), as well as tribal conflicts in Hadramawt and Marib – hoping that the document agreed upon at the January 2014 National Dialogue Conference would solely define Yemen’s future.
Since August 2014, Yemen’s limping economy has become altogether paralyzed and widespread insecurity has devolved into outright war. Currently, the Yemeni president calls from Riyadh for the coalition to continue bombing Houthi targets. What remains of his support comes from those who view him as the most viable agent for resisting the Houthis. The same is true of Hadi’s legitimacy.
The Coalition’s Destabilizing Impact on Yemen
Paradoxically, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister has announced that the bombing campaign will continue until “Yemen is back to security, stability and unity.” As a neighboring country, Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in Yemen’s stability, yet the coalition’s ongoing military campaign is destroying the vestiges of that very stability.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that the violence has claimed approximately 1278 lives, with the caveat that this figure is most likely grossly underestimated. Prior to the conflict, Yemen imported over ninety percent of its food. Currently, twelve million Yemenis are believed to be food insecure. The Saudi Arabian-imposed blockade will cause this figure to skyrocket as the campaign continues. The resulting persistent power outages and the lack of access to fuel, clean water, and medical supplies has created a level of instability that a Houthi government could not remotely imitate.
Amidst the tumult, the immediate threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) looms larger than ever. On April 16, 2015, the group seized control of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province. Yet the coalition’s strikes have completely avoided AQAP.
Washington’s role in “Operation Decisive Storm” has been largely logistical, but nonetheless supportive. In spite of this support, U.S. military officials have appeared confused about the goals of the Saudi Arabian-led bombing campaign. The day after the operation was launched, General Lloyd Austin, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, told reporters, “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” Despite a professed ignorance of operational goals, the U.S. is on board as a junior partner. Other U.S. officials have stated that the goal of the bombing campaign is to coerce a political solution. However, this contradicts the statements of Hadi and his backers in Riyadh. Hadi himself has called for the coalition to continue bombing his country until the Houthis are defeated. The Saudis have similarly stated that the terms for a ceasefire must be Houthi disarmament and the restoration of Hadi’s presidency. These are not terms characteristic of political solutions, but rather of military defeat. Despite White House statements, Washington and its Sunni Arab allies are simply not on the same page in “Operation Decisive Storm”.
The U.S., if it can muster the will, may be able to halt the onslaught by pressuring its Arab allies to agree to a ceasefire. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia remains deeply committed to the unrealistic goal of reinstalling the Hadi government. Hadi’s newly appointed Vice President, Khaled Bahah, is well-liked by a wide range of political factions, but what support he enjoys is certain to diminish as long as he remains in Riyadh. There are many ways for Bahah to right the course and revive political negotiations, yet the politics surrounding the current calamity remain beside the point as the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. Stability in Yemen will require Saudi Arabia and the coalition to cease the bombing of the Arab world’s poorest country. If the military campaign persists, a greater number of Yemenis, who have thus far refused to choose between an array of bad options, will feel greater pressure to commit to one side or another.
*Adam Simpson is the Project Assistant for the Middle East Strategy Task Force, an initiative of the Washington, DC-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
This article was originally published by Gulf State Analytics on May 22, 2015.