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Seven years on, and the war in Yemen has not achieved its goals

March 22, 2022 at 3:45 pm

Yemeni children at health centers in Sanaa, Yemen on December 20, 2021 [Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency]

The war in Yemen will complete its seventh year this week and there is no end on the horizon, despite continuous calls to bring the conflict to a close. International anti-war organisations intensify their calls for a ceasefire, knowing that it is a “futile war” unlikely to be resolved by military means. The Saudi-UAE coalition has been unable to deal a fatal blow to the Yemen army and popular committees, while the latter been unable to defeat the coalition decisively.

The conflict is a war of attrition exhausting for both sides, with no tangible results for either. Despite calls for an end to the fighting, the political and economic influence of the main parties has blocked a mandatory UN Security Council resolution to this effect. This is seen as a catastrophic failure of joint international action.

It was clear that the war broke out for political reasons related to the struggle for influence in the Middle East. The growth of the influence of the Ansar Allah group led by the Houthis in Yemen was viewed as an expansion of Iranian influence, although this group was historically close to Saudi Arabia. Was this sufficient to launch a full-scale war under the pretext that the group’s influence threatened Saudi national security? What about the UAE, which has no common border with Yemen, and is geographically closer to Iran than to Saudi Arabia’s neighbour? Why didn’t the Sultanate of Oman enter the war, although it has a long border with Yemen?

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Moreover, what was the logical and moral justification that prompted both the US and Britain to participate in the war? If the logic that was presented as a justification for launching the war in Ukraine is used, then the objection to the Russian invasion is null and void. Russia sees Ukraine’s possible membership of NATO as a security threat, bringing Western influence and troops up to the Russian border. We must ask why NATO opposes Russia in Ukraine while ignoring what some of its main members are doing in Yemen.

America discovered early on that the Yemen war was a failure and the Yemeni parties led by Ansar Allah could not be defeated. Hence, Washington ended its role by February last year, which angered Saudi Arabia. The UAE reduced its military participation three years ago, after the number of casualties rose and the Yemenis threatened to strike at its economic and military interests.

After seven years, the war is now chasing those who have waged it, so the decision to continue or stop it is no longer theirs. Each option has political, legal and moral consequences. Yemen has become a strong regional power with experienced fighters in its ranks. This puts pressure on Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Instead of an overwhelming qualitative advantage for the two allies, the Yemenis have regained the initiative and created a new equation based on the “balance of terror”. They are also more dependent on missiles and drones, which was not among the calculations of those who planned the war. Hence, as soon as Yemeni sites are targeted by the coalition, the response is swift and damaging. Economic facilities in Riyadh, Dammam and Abu Dhabi have been hit, as have military facilities. The Saudis and Emiratis have lost the advantage.

What’s more, the images of starving Yemeni children have tarnished the coalition’s image. Nobody with a conscience can fail to be moved by pictures of skeletal babies and children. Despite the attempt to impose a media blackout in Yemen, human rights organisations and journalists have been able to reveal to a global audience the effects of the war on the people of Yemen, especially the siege of airports and ports.

Moreover, the UAE has helped to establish armed groups in southern Yemen and Hadhramout, which threaten any peace and the future of Yemen. It has also backed the separatists in Yemen in order to control the port of Aden, which has been placed under the management of the Emirates’ huge DP World Company. The southerners in Yemen now understand the expansionist ambitions of the participants in the war. The UAE controls many African ports in the Bab Al-Mandab area, and has turned Yemen’s strategic Socotra Island into a military base alongside its military expansion in a number of regional countries. Suspicions have been raised about the presence of Israeli troops on Socotra and the military and strategic consequences if the concerns are justified. The Saudi-Emirati coalition forces, meanwhile, are seeking complete control of the port of Hodeidah, through which food and construction materials enter Yemen. Hence, despite the UAE’s reduction of its direct military presence, the people of Yemen view it with suspicion.

Yemeni children affected by the Saudi-coalition war - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Yemeni children affected by the Saudi-coalition war – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The coalition forces have lost the initiative for both war and peace in Yemen. They cannot escalate the fighting but do not want to end it without first achieving real victories that provide them with effective leverage in negotiations.

It is clear that the only result of the war so far is chaos, fragmentation and destruction, which does not contribute to security and stability in the region. For example, what will the Sultanate of Oman gain from the chaos on its southern borders? What will Saudi Arabia’s national security look like if its southern neighbour is unstable? Supporters of the war in Washington and London have long known that the crown princes in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were unable to manage a comprehensive war like the one in Yemen, where fierce local resistance has contained it from the beginning and turned the equation around, imposing a new balance that nobody expected. As such, there is now international movement to stop the war thanks to pressure from human rights and relief organisations, and a growing international anti-war movement.

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The Yemenis were not in a position to force the coalition to accept a ceasefire under any conditions, but were dictating their own conditions and demanding that negotiations be held in a neutral country; Oman has fit the bill so far. Whatever the expectations of each party to the conflict, it is obvious that after seven years of war, getting out of it will be more difficult than going in. The setbacks for Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be reflected regionally, whether within the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is fractured as a result of disagreements over the war; in terms of relations with Iraq and Iran; or with regard to local tensions in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

If the mass executions carried out by Saudi Arabia recently were a message to opponents of its policies locally and regionally, it is a weak message in light of the military setbacks in Yemen. Nevertheless, many agree that speeding up the end of the war is better than delaying it, especially for the Saudi-UAE coalition. Ending it will save some face and provide a less embarrassing way out. Dreams of a comprehensive victory in Yemen have evaporated, and discussions have become focused on getting out at the lowest possible political cost. After seven years, there is no way out of the war except on a zero-sum basis, where there are winners and losers. Seven years on, and the war in Yemen has not achieved its goals. This failure is, in the eyes of the world, a defeat for the party that launched and sustained the war.

Translated from Al Quds Al Arabi, 20 March 2022, and edited for MEMO.

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