Highly concerned that the security situation inside Yemen was no longer possible to ignore, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud made a decision that was highly uncharacteristic of Saudi behavior over the past decade: he went beyond the traditional option of funding acceptable proxies by assembling a Sunni Arab military coalition for conventional operations in Yemen.
On March 26, analysts of the Middle East and officials in western capitals were equally surprised to learn that combat aircraft from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were patrolling the skies over Yemen and unleashing an aerial bombing campaign against Houthi military targets across the country. For a state that has come to depend upon the United States for its external defense needs, the intervention in Yemen was an incredibly proactive and unconventional development for the highly conservative Saudi Kingdom.
Operation Decisive Storm, the codename for the bombing campaign, began with some very aspirational political and military objectives — and the Saudis devoted an extensive amount of military hardware to the effort. During the first night of the air strikes, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya reported that approximately 100 aircraft and 150,000 soldiers were tasked with prosecuting (or getting ready to accelerate) the war against Houthi fighters, a Zaydi Shia movement that was sweeping across Yemeni territory over the previous six months.
The Saudi Air Force was able to take full control of Yemeni airspace over the first 48 hours of the operation, despite the fact that Houthi militia units possessed an unknown quantity of surface-to-air and surface-to-surface ballistic missiles taken from the regular Yemeni armed forces. By the time Operation Decisive Storm concluded four weeks later, thousands of Houthi military targets were hit — a target list that included military bases taken over by the organization, hundreds if not thousands of fighters, weapons caches, and leadership positions in the movement’s home province of Saada.
Unfortunately for the Saudis, the destruction of countless weapons stocks and the killing of a large number of foot-soldiers — however significant from a military perspective — has not been enough to compel the Houthis to sit down at the negotiating table and meet directly with the legitimate and internationally-supported Yemeni Government. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s overly optimistic political objectives during the opening phase of the anti-Houthi campaign — a list that included the nearly impossible goal of returning “ [s]tate control over all Yemeni territory” to President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi — virtually guaranteed that Riyadh would not be able to call the mission a success.
No Military Solution
Over four weeks since Decisive Storm began — and as of this writing, into the second-phase of the Saudi operation, Operation Restoring Hope— Yemen is for all intents and purposes a failed state located next to two critically important shipping lanes to global commerce and energy markets. Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country with a crumbling infrastructure even before the Saudi-led military operation, has transformed into a country that is completely dependent on the goodwill and dedication of the international donor community.
Virtually no Yemeni province is free from the factional violence: depending on where precisely the fighting is occurring, it can be difficult for the most knowledgeable Yemeni scholar to distinguish between combatants. As if one needed any more evidence that the Yemeni military was an artificial creation, the conflict has split the army into factions that are more motivated to defend the interests of their patrons rather than the interests of the state. When combined, these factors produce a devastating result: a conservative estimate of 1,244 Yemeni deaths since March 19, a figure that will rise as long as the violence persists.
Detailing the problems, of course, is a far easier exercise than arriving at a solution. The situation inside Yemen today is highly complex and confusing, and the number of parties involved in the civil war at the moment lends any regional or local stakeholder advocating for peace at a terrible disadvantage. Civil wars and internal conflicts tend to continue as long as the parties involved in the fighting calculate that using violence is a more effective tactic to press their political grievances.
To date, there is no reason to believe that any of the belligerents in this conflict, including but not limited to the Houthis, loyalists of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Saudi-led coalition, and the government of President Hadi, are prepared to initiate a tough round of face-to-face diplomacy to arrive at some kind of peaceful resolution. Recent comments from Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen resisting any negotiations with the Houthis so long as the movement fails to unilaterally cede territory, is an indication that the exiled leadership still believes that they can count on Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, and Morocco to sustain the air war over the medium term.
The Necessity of Diplomacy
Ultimately, there is only one solution for Yemen’s latest conflict, and it’s a solution that the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Arab states, and Iran have all called for since the first Saudi jets took off: a U.N.-mediated political dialogue among all of the country’s stakeholders. President Hadi, Foreign Minister Yaseen, and the Saudis may in fact see the Houthis as puppets at the behest of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, but the movement has been ingrained in Yemeni society for centuries. As the most powerful actor on the ground today, the Houthis will have to be involved in any intra-party political negotiation if Yemen has any chance in ending this round of bloodshed.
The Houthis will also have to engage in some pragmatic behavior of its own, resisting the temptation to revert to the ideological character that has come to popularly define its ranks. What Abdel Malek al-Houthi needs to understand is that, despite having thousands of fighters at his disposal and thousands of supporters within the Saleh camp, he is not the President of Yemen — nor will he be. For all of his weaknesses, President Hadi is still Yemen’s legitimately elected president and the man that the United Nations Security Council has recognized countless times as Yemen’s top elected official. If the Saudis restrain themselves and publicly support a political role for the Houthis, the Houthi movement in turn will need to reciprocate by demonstrating to the millions of Yemenis they claim to represent that its leadership can be just as adept at diplomacy as they are on the battlefield.
If Operation Decisive Storm has revealed anything, it’s that even a persistent bombing campaign by the world’s most wealthy Arab monarchy will not be able to resolve a series of issues that are political in nature. The best option for everyone involved is to stop the fighting, sign a ceasefire, request a serious and thoughtful U.N.-sponsored political dialogue on neutral ground if need be, and establish a transitional, power-sharing government before another round of presidential and parliamentary elections. Ultimately, only a political crisis can be relieved through politics.
Thankfully, Yemen is not a problem that the international community has neglected over the past four years. If the U.N. Security Council has been embarrassingly inactive on Syria, the Council has been the opposite with respect to Yemen’s political transition. Since Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure from the presidency in the winter of 2012, the Security Council has passed a litany of resolutions, all of which are specifically designed to punish spoilers of the transition process (like Abdul Malek al-Houthi, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh) and support those in Yemen who are sincere in participating in a political dialogue. There is no reason the Security Council, acting as an impartial facilitator, should not continue to play its rightful role.
It’s high time for the Security Council, supported by states that can genuinely be described as impartial observers, to work with all of Yemen’s major political and tribal factions (including women and youth) to ensure that Yemen’s continues on a path towards real and sustained political progress. But first, the violence needs to stop.