April 24, 2015
Opinion: Saudi Arabia Scales Back Yemen Bombing
By Barbara Slavin
While Saudi officials proclaimed "Operation Decisive Storm" a victory against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, the campaign weakened but did not dislodge the Houthis and expanded the power of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The Obama administration initially backed the bombing as a way to shore up Saudi self-confidence following the tentative nuclear agreement between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (P5+1) and Saudi arch rival, Iran. But the price in civilian deaths and destruction has been too high and the military and political returns too meager.
An obviously relieved White House early Wednesday "welcomed" the Saudi announcement and said that the U.S. looks "forward to a shift from military operations to the rapid, unconditional resumption of all-party negotiations that allow Yemen to resume an inclusive political transition process."
The U.S. statement proved premature as the Saudis resumed bombing the cities of Taiz and Aden even as they stopped attacking the battered Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
The U.S. and Iran bear some responsibility for the nearly 1000 deaths – a third of them civilians — and massive destruction caused by the month-long campaign. Americans provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that assisted the Saudis and their allies in choosing Yemeni targets. The planes and weapons used by the coalition came largely from the U.S.
Iran has reportedly given the Houthis financial, material and training support according to reports by the New York Times and Reuters.
The U.S. also pushed through a Security Council resolution banning arms supplies to the Houthis and their ally, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and sent an aircraft carrier into the Arabian Sea in part to track Iranian ships.
Tehran saw an opportunity in Yemen to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for the latter's intervention in Bahrain and other regional conflicts. But Iran did not instigate the Houthi advances and may have played a diplomatic role to pause the conflict. Indeed, Iranian officials predicted a cease-fire several hours before the Saudis announced a "new phase" in the war, suggesting that Tehran was talking to both the Houthis and members of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
It's hard to say at this point what the Yemen exercise will bode for President Barack Obama's doctrine of encouraging Middle Eastern countries to resolve regional disputes with a minimal U.S. military footprint.
Air power clearly has its limitations. The Saudis failed to get regional allies to contribute ground troops to the campaign and were rebuffed even by long-time aid recipients such as Pakistan.
The air campaign does appear to have convinced some rebellious units of the Yemeni army to quit the service of former president Saleh, who ruled the country from 1990 until he was ousted amid popular protests in 2012.
Neither Saleh nor his ineffectual successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is likely to resume power. A possible consensus replacement would be Khaled Bahah, a former prime minister and ambassador to the U.N. who was named vice president by Hadi earlier this month and who appears to have had some Houthi support.
Bruce Riedel, an expert on the region at the Brookings Institution, said in an email that new Saudi King Salman was wise "to declare victory to avoid sliding into a quagmire but his reign is off to a poor beginning in Yemen. The Houthis and their Iranian friends may not be winners yet but they certainly are not the losers."
Riedel predicted a prolonged stalemate that would further radicalize and impoverish Yemen, boost al Qaeda and push the Houthis even deeper into the arms of Iran.
Charles Schmitz, an expert on Yemen at the Middle East Institute, told VOA that the Saudi-led air campaign "did degrade to some extent the military capabilities of the Houthi forces and forced the Houthi to make political concessions."
Schmitz predicted that the Houthi would eventually withdraw from the south of Yemen, where they have little support, and then "from the major northern cities after a period of time. Some form of a national unity government will form and take charge of the military. Saleh will leave the country and be isolated from politics... The problem is that the Yemeni military is very divided and it is unclear how a depoliticized military will take root."
Even if a political resolution can be found, Yemen will need massive amounts of humanitarian aid and long-term assistance to rebuild. The Saudis have offered $274 million in emergency relief aid but should provide much more to repair the damage caused by the bombing.
After a week in which record numbers of desperate refugees from Africa and the Middle East have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach safe haven in Europe, the international community writ large has a responsibility to seek political solutions to regional conflicts, not to escalate them.
Writing in the New York Times earlier this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called for the "establishment of a collective forum for dialogue in the Persian Gulf region."
The Obama administration, which is focused on concluding the nuclear agreement with Iran and tamping down Saudi and Israeli concerns, is unlikely to back this suggestion for now. But Obama could raise it when he meets with the leaders of the GCC next month at Camp David.
Iran and Saudi Arabia should also meet bilaterally to discuss how to begin to contain the sectarian conflicts that have been exacerbated by their rivalry. As the major powers in the region, they have a responsibility to the smaller nations to put as much energy into diplomacy as they do into finding and arming proxies.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.