No clear winners in Yemen war
With peace negotiations expected to start soon, it is a good time to assess what has come out of the Yemen conflict and where the various parties stand.
For Saudi Arabia, the main outside power involved in the war, the conflict gave the royal family an opportunity to play to Saudi nationalism. At least initially, the war was popular in Saudi Arabia because it showed that Riyadh could launch a military operation in its backyard without outside approval.
Saudi officials portrayed the war as necessary to prevent Iran — the main external supporter of the Houthi rebels, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam — from gaining a foothold on its border and pursuing “adventures” in the Arab world.
But the war did not go as well as the Saudis hoped.
Both Egypt and Pakistan refused requests to provide ground troops to aid the Saudi-backed government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, though Egypt did deploy navy ships to keep the vital Bab el Mandeb strait open. While Riyadh boasted of a large coalition, Saudi UAE troops made up the bulk of ground forces. Despite spending billions on the war, the Saudis do not have much to show in terms of military gains.
Although Hadi, after initially fleeing Yemen with his cabinet, established himself in Aden with the help of Saudi forces, Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi did not make much headway on the ground. They regained some territory north and west of Aden but the Houthis still control the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, the Red Sea port of Hodeida and the northern territory that is their homeland. The Houthis have been aided by forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and have proven to be tough fighters.
Perhaps more disconcerting for the Saudis has been the public relations aspect of the conflict. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has criticised the Saudi campaign because of civilian casualties. More than 6,000 Yemenis have died in the conflict and probably more than half were civilians, including hundreds of children.
One of the reasons the Saudis now want a negotiated settlement is to mitigate accusations by the international community about perceived Saudi indifference to civilian casualties. The other reason has to do with not getting bogged down indefinitely in a Yemeni civil war the way Egypt was in the 1960s.
With low oil prices eroding Saudi government revenues, authorities fear that sustaining the war will become a drain on financial resources requiring greater austerity. First and foremost, the Saudi leadership wants to ensure against internal unrest that could jeopardise the rule of the royal family.
The Houthis have also concluded that the war is unsustainable. Iran’s aid is probably limited and Houthi stockpiles of missiles and ammunition may be running low.
Although the Houthis have fended off efforts by pro-Hadi forces to take Sana’a, they may not be able to hold the capital indefinitely. The Houthis may have determined that using their hold on Sana’a as a bargaining chip is the best means of ensuring a prominent role in a new Yemeni government, broader autonomy for their region and an end to Wahhabi proselytising in the region.
The United States came to Saudi Arabia’s aid with intelligence, logistical support and ammunition, primarily to prove to Riyadh that it is a reliable partner — and to ease Saudi concerns about the Iran nuclear deal. There have been downsides for the United States. The war has created greater instability in Yemen and has allowed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to make gains in southern and eastern Yemen and this al-Qaeda affiliate has been responsible for more anti-US plots than any other. The Islamic State (ISIS) also has taken advantage of the chaos in Yemen
Washington is also concerned about being connected to Saudi Arabia in the eyes of the Yemeni people, who have suffered severe hardships. Recent reports have suggested that an Saudi air strike that resulted in civilian deaths used US munitions. In addition to the civilian deaths, 2 million-3 million Yemenis are internally displaced and much of the country lacks sufficient food, water and medical supplies.
Washington fears that some of the anger many Yemenis feel towards the Saudis will be directed at the United States and hinder its efforts to contain al-Qaeda and ISIS elements in Yemen.
The United States continues to use drones to attack al-Qaeda in Yemen but it wants stability to return to the country so it can reopen its embassy and return its special forces to the country to fight the terrorists on the ground. That can only happen if the upcoming negotiations succeed and a unity government is established.
Until then, Yemen will remain a safe haven for terrorists and a humanitarian disaster with long-term political ramifications.