It has been nearly a month since a Saudi-led coalition began a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Since then, around 950 people have died, with nearly 3,500 wounded. The existing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, has worsened.
In a surprise announcement on Tuesday, the Saudi defence ministry said that it would halt airstrikes, as its objectives had been fulfilled and the rebels no longer posed a danger to Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries. It said that the new phase of the operation would focus on rebuilding the country while denying the rebels operational movement, protecting civilians and supporting evacuation and relief operations.
The US – which backed the campaign – welcomed the Saudi’s move. There has been some speculation that the decision to reel in the operation was made under pressure from Washington, which is anxious that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of the terror group, is making gains amid all the chaos. The decision was also welcomed by Iran, which Saudi Arabia accuses of arming the rebels; Iran denies that it has done so. After the announcement, there were international calls for a return to peace talks and for urgent deliveries of humanitarian aid to Yemen. However, locally, the decision to halt the airstrikes came as a surprise; the deposed Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has not been restored to power and Houthi fighters are still in control of the capital, Sana’a.
Indeed, just hours after the Saudi announcement, Houthi fighters captured an army brigade base loyal to Hadi’s government in the central city of Taiz. Soon afterwards, a Saudi airstrike hit the brigade headquarters, illustrating the ongoing fragility of the situation. The Saudi declaration that bombing was over did make an allowance for continued strikes, saying that it would take action against the Houthis as and when necessary.
Negotiations are already underway to stop the fighting in Yemen, but there is no clear way out of the conflict. On 14 April, the UN Security Council passed a resolution making clear demands on the Houthis. Among other things, it called for them to give up their weapons and the territory they have seized (including the capital city). After years of insurgency, though, both before the 2011 revolution and since, the Houthis have fought hard to get to the position they are in, and will not be willing to give it up readily.
Many analysts have noted that the conflict in Yemen is turning into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This week, it was reported that a nine-ship convoy from Iran was in the area. The US said it was monitoring these vessels, which are suspected of carrying weapons to the rebels in violation of a UN embargo. The scale of Iranian involvement with the Houthis has never been confirmed, but there is little doubt that the relationship was one of the key motivating factors for the Saudi airstrikes. As the Houthis seized the capital and cemented their grip on Yemen, the prospect of an Iranian client-state on its border was too much for the kingdom to countenance. There is also little doubt that the increased role of external powers in the Yemeni conflict has worsened the already dire situation significantly.
However, to understand the situation in Yemen only in terms of the sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict that is unfolding across the region would be to misunderstand it completely. While there is a sectarian flavour – the Houthis are Zaidi Shia Muslims and many of the tribes fighting against them are Sunni – the war is not defined by sectarianism. It has its roots in decades of tension between the north and south of the country (which were only unified in the 1990s), in tribal rivalries, and in the long-term economic and political marginalisation of different communities during the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh’s long spell in power. Saleh, having repressed the Houthis throughout his leadership, is now backing the movement in a bid to destabilise the regime of his successor, Hadi.
It is not a natural ground for a proxy war, because the battle lines are so blurred, and there is no clear exit strategy for either side. The only hope for peace in Yemen is a negotiated settlement that brings in all parties; but as the Houthis fight to retain their hard-won gains and southern militias pledge to keep fighting even if the Saudis leave, and the Saudis make apparent steps towards a possible ground invasion, it does not seem that the willingness is there to agree or implement such a plan. The airstrikes might have stopped (or at least, reduced in intensity) but the conflict rages on.