After a Month of Airstrikes, Where Does Yemen Stand?
Smoke rises after a Saudi-led airstrike hit a site where many believe the largest weapons cache in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP)
Late on Tuesday, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that launched a military campaign — dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm” — against Houthi rebels in Yemen nearly a month ago announced that it was ending the operation. Taking its place would be “Operation Renewal of Hope.”
But after a month of bombing, it appears little has changed as a result of the airstrikes. Fighting between Houthi rebels and the varied forces opposing them has continued on the ground. Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi continues to operate as Yemen’s president from Saudi Arabia, where he was forced to seek refuge in March. Meanwhile, the airstrikes have claimed almost 1,000 lives, according to the United Nations, and the ensuing chaos has left an opening for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to seize territory and attack government buildings in the south.
Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri, a spokesperson for the coalition, said on Tuesday that the “primary goals” of Operation Decisive Storm had been achieved and “sovereignty has been protected.” Speaking from Riyadh, Hadi thanked the coalition for “supporting legitimacy.”
A statement from the Saudi embassy in Washington outlined the goals of the new operation:
“[O]bjectives of Operation Renewal of Hope include protecting civilians, enhancing humanitarian and medical assistance to the Yemeni people, confronting terrorism, and preventing any moves by the Houthi militias and their allies to acquire or use weapons seized from the Yemeni armed forces or abroad.”
For several hours after the announcement, it was unclear what the change in operations would mean: An end to airstrikes? A ground operation? Yemeni bloggers and activists were cautiously hopeful. But on Wednesday, the coalition launched a new series of airstrikes in Yemen.
FRONTLINE spoke to Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who previously worked as a journalist based in Sanaa, about where Yemen stands after a month of airstrikes, and what comes next.
What does the Saudi-led coalition’s announcement that it ended Operation Decisive Storm mean?
Well, clearly it doesn’t mean the end of airstrikes. We’ve already seen airstrikes targeting Sanaa [Yemen’s capital] and Taiz over recent hours. So airstrikes are still continuing. There’s actually no statement, no direct mention from the Saudis of an end to airstrikes. It’s kind of — if you read between the lines it was suggested — but there was no clear message there. What it appears is that we are going to have a shift from sort of a barrage of attacks to more targeted action.
There’s also these mentions of dialogue, so it seems … they’re shifting towards targeted strikes in addition to pushing forward this political process. The Saudis say this is because … they succeeded in all of their [goals] for the first part of the operation, simply taking out all of these military targets.
There was a New York Times article Tuesday where officials suggested that American pressure was behind ending the barrage of attacks. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
American and European officials have been very anxious about the civilian casualties and just the wanton destruction that was waged by a lot of the Saudi strikes, particularly within the last two or three days.
You had the strikes on the 20th that simply leveled much of a neighborhood in Sanaa — one of the wealthiest neighborhoods, which is worth noting. So not only was it the fact that you had very significant destruction, it also happened in an area where — unlike many parts of Yemen — people generally speak English, are connected to the world. If you bomb your average Yemeni village in the far north, for example, you’re not going to get much attention. But when you have something like that happen in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the capital — I felt like half of Yemen was getting on Twitter and complaining about it, you know what I mean? In the sense that it was an attack that got a great degree of attention, and killed … a number of civilians, left dozens if not hundreds of homes uninhabitable and flattened a number of apartment buildings. It was a very significant strike.
I think there’s also the fact that there has been — you could call it almost a stalemate — where the coalition was really able to knock out a lot of the Houthi and Houthi-allied forces in the military, aerial and ballistic power. But the Houthis have really managed to maintain much of their hold on the ground, at least in the northwest of the country. They have sort of halted in parts of south, but even then the Houthis are still able to launch attacks and indeed have control over much of the southern city.
What is the military impact of this airstrike campaign that they carried out?
You’ve had the Houthi and [Former President Ali Abdullah] Saleh-allied parts of the military’s capabilities severely degraded. You’ve seen in many areas in the south, where the Houthis — at first it seemed like they were just sort of on an endless, an unstoppable march — to a decent extent that has been halted, even if they are still fighting. I would say that would be the key thing in terms of military aspects: this degradation.
Whereas in the north, their ballistic capabilities have been degraded, if not completely taken out. In al-Asiri’s statement, he said that Yemen no longer fears the Houthis, [and] they no longer present a danger to Yemen’s neighbors — sort of reflecting the fact that the Saudis were anxious about the Houthis posing a threat to them.
Do we have any clues as to what the next step in the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign will be?
It’s very unclear, there’s just a lot of speculation. Hadi in his speech made a comment about supporting the southern resistance further and rebuilding the military. Those are obviously extremely ambitious words but they could suggest that the focus will shift to Yemeni forces on the ground.
When you look at this, I think it’s very dangerous … There’s a chance that by pushing this sort of internal struggle between pro- and anti-Houthi Yemeni factions, that you will 1) start a conflict where thousands if not tens of thousands will lose their lives and 2) you will have these fissures within Yemen’s society that could completely rip apart.
Let’s not forget that the Houthis and their supporters are at the end of the day Yemeni, and they represent a significant portion of Yemen. So to act like this is a group of people who can just be annihilated or wiped off the earth or be sent back to god knows where is, I would say, not just problematic but foolish.
You mentioned the humanitarian situation. The latest United Nations figures say at least 944 people have been killed and 3,487 have been injured. What has been the toll on Yemeni infrastructure? People already had trouble accessing water, electricity.
I mean you’re talking about the price of things — of staples like rice — doubling, tripling. Things like that [are] four, five, six times as expensive as it was. That may be an understatement, because you have these growing food and gas fuel shortages. The question is whether there will be some shift away from that, whether the the coalition will be letting more food and fuel into the country. We’re looking at a situation where it’s not unreasonable to ponder whether people are going to start starving to death.
And I think the coalition is aware that being blamed for a humanitarian crisis would be very [problematic] for them. So I find it hard to believe that they would just sit by and let this happen, I don’t think they’ll do that. So I think we will have to have a shift then where more humanitarian aid is let in and for that matter where Yemen is allowed to re-engage with the outside world — where this blockade, which is effectively blocking most things from coming in and out of the country, will be lifted.
Is there any functioning government within Yemen to speak of at this point? And is there a functioning army?
What you have is factionalization. The government in exile, even if they are the constitutionally legitimate government, have very little — if any — power on the ground. Then you have the Houthi government apparatuses, which are effectively ruling in Sanaa and points north and some points south.
In much of the country you’re dealing with complete militia-fication, in Taiz, in Aden, in the south. In the east of the country, in the province of Hadramawt, Al Qaeda and allied local tribesman have effectively established governance. So you’re seeing a sort of fracturing where other groups ranging from the Houthis to Al Qaeda to tribal groups are taking on the role of the government.
What would a political solution look like? Who would it involve?
The need for a political solution has been clear for a month now. It’s a matter of getting all sides to the table and hammering out the details. But it’s something where you’d most likely see Khaled Bahah, currently vice president and prime minister, taking a more formal role, assuming the powers of the presidency, possibly heading a governing council or presidential council … All with the idea of paving the way to parliamentary and presidential elections with a constitutional referendum preceding them.
There’s no viable political solution without the participation of the Houthis and Saleh’s supporters. The idea that you can just shun these people who are currently the most powerful force on the ground — love them or hate them, there are no ideal parties in this conflict — these are groups that have a decent amount of support in Yemen’s body politic. It’s a matter of getting all sides to agree on something and come together for the sake of the country to avoid things descending into chaos.
The danger, however, is that everyone is increasingly feeling as if this is an existential fight. When you hear many southerners in Aden, they think they’re under an existential threat. The Houthis think that if they even compromise, that will mean defeat and their eventual elimination.
Average civilians are living in fear day in and day out. It’s a terrible situation. And unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether Yemen’s political stakeholders — and for that matter regional, international stakeholders — have the will to take the steps necessary to prevent Yemen from devolving even further into a worst case scenario.
It’s bad, but the sad thing is that it can get so much worse.
What role has the U.S. played in all this?
It’s very hard to tell. We’re getting mixed messages from the U.S. The main message we’re getting from them is that they’re standing back and letting this be a Saudi-led action. Whether that’s a matter of optics or it’s a matter of them wanting to distance themselves is another question. I think there’s a lot of skepticism I’ve heard from the U.S. side about this operation.
What role has Iran played or not played in this?
There are two things when it comes to the Houthis’ relationship with Iran. Do they have a relationship with Iran? Yes, absolutely. Do they receive political and to some extent military support from Iran? Absolutely.
Does Iran control the Houthis? No, absolutely not.
Would the Houthis be as powerful without Iran’s support? Probably, to be honest. The Houthis are so powerful and it’s largely because of internal reasons. At the end of the day, the Houthis are a local Yemeni group that is acting [in response to] Yemeni political issues, Yemeni internal issues.
There’s no denying that Iran has a role here, but I think their role particularly with regard to this idea of the Houthis being some kind of Iranian puppet — that’s ridiculous. I think that Iran’s role in Yemen has been wildly exaggerated.
And last but not least, there’s Al Qaeda. There was the prison break a few weeks ago, and then there were reports that they had taken over Al Mukalla. How have they capitalized on the conflict?
Al Qaeda’s capitalized in two ways. … By capitalizing on the increasing sectarian sentiment, [they’re] fighting alongside local tribesman in a number of areas. You’ve had a number of tribes sign truces behind the scenes with Al Qaeda to sign up to fight the Houthis on a larger level. This is quite significant. You have this sense where a lot of the [tribes] of Yemen see the Houthis as a much bigger danger than Al Qaeda poses to them.