On May 1, 2003, then-President George W. Bush stood in front of a large crowd aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego and famously pronounced with a draped “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him the end of US combat operations in Iraq. The declaration, it turned out, was wildly premature, for Washington’s direct military involvement in the war would go on for another eight costly years. It was an embarrassing if not deceitful moment in the history of US foreign policy, one that America’s friends in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, took turns to mock and decry.
Yet history sometimes has a funny and brutal way of repeating itself. Twelve years later, it was Saudi Arabia, the leader of the pack of US regional partners who had the deepest concerns about US policy in Iraq, who made a similarly fraudulent proclamation, when Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri declared, to the shock of many, an end to the Kingdom’s campaign of air strikes against Iran-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen. His argument, made on April 21, 2015, was that the so-called “Decisive Storm” operation had accomplished some of its stated goals of stopping cross-border fire and degrading the military capabilities of the enemy. A year and a half later, however, the conflict in Yemen rages on, with the Houthis neither seriously weakened nor prevented from lobbing missiles into Saudi towns and killing civilians as a result.
The crisis in Yemen, despite its unique local circumstances, shares many of the same traits of civil conflicts across the Middle East: failed governance, economic collapse, lack of political legitimacy, and foreign intervention. For more than three decades, Yemen was under the tight-fisted rule of president Ali Abdullah Saleh. A wily politician, he somehow managed to impose his will on a diverse country of 27 million people through his mastery of tribal Yemeni politics and use of violence and divide-and-rule tactics. That the West embraced him for his purported role in fighting terrorism in Yemen helped him keep his seat for such a long time. The Arab awakening of 2011, however, was too powerful a force for Saleh to handle, and a popular uprising against him by various factions of Yemeni society including the Houthi northerners and the Hirak southern separatists led to a Saudi-orchestrated political transition that transferred power to vice president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and in return, gave Saleh immunity from prosecution for exploitation of state resources. It was a tough pill for power-hungry Saleh to swallow, but he ultimately cooperated. An election followed soon after, and Hadi won completely unchallenged only because he was the only candidate on the ballot. The Houthis and Hirak boycotted the election, calling it a sham, meant to reinstitute a clientelist government friendly to the Saudis.
Saleh’s acquiescence did not last long. Away from the political spotlight and bereft of real authority, Saleh was determined to return. However, lacking numbers, he needed help to stage his comeback. So he partnered with the Houthis, with whom he fought viciously in the past, and rallied forces in society still loyal to him. A marriage of convenience between Saleh and the Houthis was formed, and it sought to dethrone Hadi, bring Saleh back to power, and offer the Houthis a larger piece of the political pie. While they have yet to accomplish the last two objectives, they did manage to force Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia following their capture of Sana’a, the capital, and other areas. Riyadh was furious about the coup, and expressed zero tolerance for another perceived Iranian outpost in the region, no less in its own backyard. The Saudi response was something the world had never seen before from the risk averse Kingdom: a sustained military campaign whose purpose was to reinstate Hadi’s government and deny the Houthi-Saleh alliance its overall objective of redrawing Yemen’s political map to Iran’s liking.
While the Saudis have achieved some goals in the war including the effective bombing of several heavy weapons depots of the Houthis and the naval blockading of the country’s ports, the Houthi-Saleh alliance, which represents a political-military force with hundreds of thousands of supporters, still controls Sana’a and is nowhere near defeated. In a show of defiance of the Saudis, the alliance has forced its way into political legitimacy by recently forming a new governing body, though it was quickly rejected by the United Nations and the exiled government of Hadi.
Riyadh’s tactical military successes have surprised skeptics, but they also have come with enormous costs for Yemen and possibly Saudi prestige. Yemen today represents a humanitarian disaster, with over 10,000 dead, nearly 14.5 million people with insufficient food supplies, over 19 million without access to clean water, and more than 3 million internally displaced. And while it is unclear how much Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and newcomers the Islamic State have benefited from the chaos, the reality is that the continuation of the war is a recipe for further radicalization, to which the United States is extremely sensitive.
But if the tragic war in Syria and all its disastrous consequences for Middle East security were not enough to move Washington, Yemen, one of the poorest countries on the planet, is less likely to do so. Except for killing terrorists who might have the ability to launch attacks against the US homeland and US forces in the region, the United States has no other major interests in Yemen. So when Riyadh started its aerial bombardment last year, all the White House asked for was to limit the collateral damage and deny the transnational jihadis any opportunity to expand their presence in the country. However, the Saudi military has struggled with both: thousands of innocent Yemenis have lost their lives and the terrorists are still very much active, with the Islamic State claiming one of the deadliest attacks in the southern port city of Aden on August 29, which killed at least 54 people. With these concerns in mind, and international reputational costs of supporting a war that has led to a humanitarian catastrophe rising, Washington has finally decided to weigh in.
Except that the Obama administration either has no clue how to end the fighting in Yemen or the desire to expend any political capital to do so in its remaining months in office. While Secretary of State John Kerry did propose a peace plan in early September during his meeting in Jeddah with Saudi, Emirati, Russian, British, and UN officials, even he probably knows that it is not really a practical plan. His idea of the cessation of hostilities, the disarmament of the Houthi-Saleh force and their withdrawal from Sana’a and other seized areas, the hand-over of all heavy and medium-sized weapons to a neutral, third party, and the creation of a national unity government, all sounds wonderful on paper, but it is aspirational more than anything else.
If anything, Kerry’s proposal, which lacks implementation mechanisms, raises more questions than it answers, for the sequencing of all the steps he laid out is a bit unclear and perhaps even controversial. Some say that it diverges from Saudi preferences. It’s not that the Saudis rejected Kerry’s initiative, but they didn’t endorse it either. Riyadh, for instance, has no interest in giving its blessing to a national unity government before Saleh and the Houthis turn down their weapons, for fear of giving them political legitimacy prematurely. The latter have threatened to cut off the hands that touch their weapons. As to the identity of the neutral, third party to which all weapons would potentially be handed, it remains a mystery. The Saudis have not warmed up to the idea yet because they believe that the Hadi government should be the sole arms collector. Their reasoning is that the Houthi insurgents seized the weapons from the state in the first place, and therefore should return them to the state. The Houthis, in return, have little trust in the United Nations or any other external body, should it be tasked with assembling and training an independent Yemeni or international force that would play the disarmament role.
But all of this might be irrelevant at the moment because battlefield dynamics do no lend themselves to any major compromises by either party. The situation on the ground is fluid in some areas, but overall has produced a stubborn strategic stalemate, not unlike that in Syria: neither the loyalists nor the rebels have been able to achieve a decisive military victory that would compel the other side to make important concessions at the negotiating table or ideally, to surrender.
There is talk in Riyadh, the seriousness of which is unclear, of a ground military invasion to force the capitulation of the Houthi-Saleh alliance. But even Deputy Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi campaign, and the most ambitious generals in Riyadh realize that such an operation would come with a heavy price, with the possibility of failure. Also, the Saudis know that a major military effort in Yemen that does not have the political and military support of their American counterparts has reduced chances of success.
But it’s not a ground-invasion-or-nothing choice for the Saudis. While there is no military solution to the Yemen conflict, that doesn’t mean that nothing else can be accomplished on the battlefield. The Saudis will still try to pull off, with the help of the better-trained Emiratis, as many advances as possible; cut off more weapons supplies of the Houthis; try once again to cause splits within the Houthi-Saleh alliance by luring soldiers loyal to Saleh and offering them credible incentives; and finally, inch closer to the capital, all for the purpose of handing their side – the Hadi government – a stronger bargaining hand at the negotiating table. But all of this seems easier said than done. The Houthi-Saleh alliance appears to have fortified its position in Sana’a, and should Tehran double down on its military backing of the Houthis, the battle for the capital could prove long and bloody.
Increased international attention on the tragic situation in Yemen notwithstanding, the truth is that the conflict is not yet ripe for a solution. Rights organizations have called on the United States to stop its arms transfers or freeze the logistical support it is providing to Saudi Arabia, yet even if that happens, it won’t bring an end to the conflict. Neither will Kerry’s predictable diplomacy, which the Houthis rejected anyway. As is often the case with civil wars, battlefield dynamics will have the most direct impact on the likelihood of peace. Right now, neither camp seems battered, and therefore, neither side is likely to concede. That is precisely why the previous round of peace talks in Kuwait failed.
But more broadly, the Saudis will have to decide on their own how far they are willing to go in Yemen to do proxy battle with Iran, their arch-rival, and equally important, with whom they are going to do this. Their best friend has been the UAE, and while its armed forces have performed well on the battlefield, seizing territory from the Houthis and chasing down AQAP fighters, Abu Dhabi’s commitment to the war effort is not – or perhaps should not be – as strong as Riyadh’s for understandable reasons: Yemen is not a direct national security threat.
Furthermore, despite working together in Yemen and bolstering their bilateral ties in recent years, there might be fault lines between the Saudi and Emirati positions on Yemen, including the future role of the Yemeni Al Islah Party – an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood – and the post-war makeup of the Yemeni state – unitary or federalist. Abu Dhabi has a visceral allergy to political Islamists while Riyadh is less rigid if their participation suits its interests. Abu Dhabi does not mind a partitioned Yemen while Riyadh does. As helpful to Riyadh as Abu Dhabi has been on the battlefield, Muscat should be further consulted to restart the diplomatic process. Indeed, the Omanis’ impartial mediation is arguably unique. Yet somehow Oman’s diplomats with responsibilities for Yemen, led by Mohamed Al Hassan, a confidante of Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawi, seem to be far less active today than they were in earlier stages of the crisis, for reasons unknown.
As I wrote at the beginning of the Saudi campaign, it is true that Riyadh assembled an Arab coalition for the fight in Yemen, but this is ultimately Saudi Arabia’s war, and how it ends will affect profoundly its standing and ambitious plans in the region.
Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.