By Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, April 23, 2015
Saudi Arabia may have changed the name of its operation in
Yemen–from Decisive Storm to Restore Hope–but not much has changed on the
ground. Even after officials declared the near month-long Saudi-led bombing
campaign over on Tuesday, airstrikes continued, pounding the capital Sanaa and
Houthi positions in the city of Taiz.
According to figures from the U.N.’s World Health
Organization, at least 944 Yemenis have been killed and nearly 3,500 injured
since the Saudi-led campaign began.
The Saudis say the next phase will scale back airstrikes and
focus more on providing humanitarian assistance and kick-starting a political
process to reconcile Yemen’s warring factions. The country’s toothless
government, driven out of Sanaa last year, had come to power in 2012 through a
It’s unlikely Riyadh will have as much say a second time
around. Critics, including some American officials, fear the intervention may
Here’s what a month of bombing has achieved:
Rolling back the
Houthi tide. The initial spur to Operation Decisive Storm was the steady
advance of Houthi rebels, a Shiite political movement that receives some support
from Iran, into Yemen’s south last month. The airstrikes appear to have
thwarted the Houthis continued takeover of key military installations in the
country, particularly a few air bases pulverized by the Saudi coalition.
That may reduce threats posed by the Houthis to Saudi
territory–one of the supposed justifications for the campaign. But it does
little to stabilize Yemen itself, which is in the grips of continued conflict
between the Houthis and southern factions arrayed against it.
The country’s army has more or less dissolved, with some
units allying with the Houthis. While the Saudis have mooted dispatching ground
troops, no such force has been cobbled together as yet.
The hope is that a month of heavy bombardment compels the
Houthis to come to the negotiating table. But openings for peace still look
Houthi forces continue to encircle the southern coastal city
of Aden where, until a month ago, the erstwhile Yemeni President Abed Rabbo
Mansour Hadi had taken sanctuary. It’s likely the Saudis will have to continue
their strikes to prevent the Houthis from taking the city.
A Houthi spokesman said the Houthis would consider dialogue
only after the “complete end” of Saudi “aggression against Yemen.”
humanitarian catastrophe. All the while, civilian casualties are mounting
and what’s left of the Yemeni state is on the brink of “an imminent collapse,”
reports the WHO, referring to the country’s health care services. This is from
a press release issued on Wednesday:
Health facilities are struggling to function as they face
increasing shortages of life-saving medicines and vital health supplies,
frequent disruptions in power supply and lack of fuel for generators. Lack of
fuel has also disrupted functionality of ambulances and the delivery of health
supplies across the country.
Power cuts and fuel shortages also threaten to disrupt the
vaccine cold chain, leaving millions of children below the age of five
unvaccinated. This increases the risk of communicable diseases such as measles,
which is prevalent in Yemen, as well as polio, which has been eliminated but is
now at risk of reappearing.
Shortages of safe water have resulted in increased risk of
diarrhea, and other diseases. “Over the past 4 weeks, national disease
surveillance reports show a doubling in the number of cases of bloody diarrhea
in children below the age of 5, as well as an increase in the number of cases
of measles and suspected malaria. High rates of malnutrition among women and
children below the age of 5 have also been reported,” says Dr. Ahmed Shadoul,
WHO Representative for Yemen.
Gains for al-Qaeda.
The conflict in Yemen was complicated enough before the Saudis got directly
involved. A capable branch of al-Qaeda operates in parts of Yemen’s south and
east, and has clashed over the past year with the Houthis.
The turmoil unleashed by the Saudi bombing campaign,
according to some reports, presented the extremist militants with an
opportunity to make their own gains, including a successful assault on a Yemeni
air base and a major sea port.
Combating this wing al-Qaeda, known as AQAP, has been the
primary objective of U.S. policy in Yemen for the past decade, and has involved
an extensive drone operation.
polarization. Ever since Operation Decisive Storm began, experts have
looked at the wider context of Saudi Arabia’s regional rivalry with Iran: the
former is a Sunni orthodox kingdom, the latter a Shiite theocracy; their
proxies are battling in other pockets of the Middle East.
Iran’s exact role in Yemen’s conflict–which itself was not
a sectarian battle–is a matter of debate. Its shadow in the country, as well
as the heavy-handedness of the Saudi response, has led to a bitter war of words
across the Middle East and worries that a spiraling crisis could trigger a
larger, dangerous conflagration.
Moreover, the enmities within Yemen are hardening, with
factions in Aden steeling themselves for a grim fight against the Houthis.
Ironically, they’re all largely united in their total disregard for Hadi, the “legitimate”
president who has taken shelter in Riyadh and was powerless to prevent his
country’s unraveling in the preceding years.
“The strategic challenges of warfare in failed states must
either address the broader reasons for those failures, or run a critical risk
of becoming failed wars,” writes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic
and International Studies in Washington.
In the case of the Saudi intervention, so far, that risk
seems rather acute.