Less than a day after Saudi Arabia announced the end of its month-long campaign of air strikes against Yemen, its warplanes were back in action on Wednesday, striking rebel Houthi positions in the mountainous central highlands.
The engagement, launched after the Houthis took a military base in the city of Taiz, fits with the oil-rich Sunni kingdom’s emerging strategy of using its military superiority to contain the Zaydi Shia rebel group while at the same time seeking to start political dialogue.
Western powers, including the US, have been pressing Riyadh to end the air campaign as civilian casualties have mounted and tensions with regional rival Iran have increased. Almost 1,000 people have died and as many as 150,000 have been displaced by the conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross described the humanitarian situation in Yemen as “catastrophic”.
But observers say the strategy of pursuing negotiations while continuing military operations may not bring a swift end to the conflict, particularly as the Houthis continue to make territorial gains.
“The narrative in the region was that this campaign was designed to give the Houthis a shock, degrade their capacity and force them back to the negotiating table on Gulf terms,” said Sir John Jenkins, Manama-based executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Middle East. “But that doesn’t quite map on to what we are seeing now, and we will see how far the gap is between their positions in the coming week or so.”
The US has welcomed Riyadh’s change of strategy. “We look forward to a shift from military operations to the rapid, unconditional resumption of all-party negotiations that allows Yemen to resume an inclusive political transition process,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the US National Security Council.
Although Washington supported the operation, as part of the broader, regional balancing act the administration is trying to engineer as it pushes ahead with nuclear negotiations with Iran, it has been alarmed at the potential for al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen to take advantage of the chaos.
But Houthi forces say they will not negotiate until Saudi-led attacks end. “We demand, after a complete end to the aggression against Yemen and the lifting of the blockade, to resume political dialogue . . . under the sponsorship of the UN,” Mohammad Abdulsalam, spokesperson for the Houthi rebels, stated.
Analysts say the rebel group is likely to try to consolidate and extend its territorial gains to strengthen its hand ahead of any talks. Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies have already had to modify their objectives. When the aerial campaign began in March, Riyadh said it was seeking to restore the legitimacy of Yemen’s presidency. Now it is claiming success for the more limited objectives of preventing a Houthi takeover and degrading the group’s military capabilities.
Riyadh’s military let-up may be temporary, according to some observers in the kingdom, who say it could be designed to expose the Houthis’ lack of interest in a political solution while giving the Saudis space to rethink a strategy that has not yielded the desired results.
“In the end, victory is about controlling the battle space and achieving your political aims, so the test is yet to come,” said Sir John of IISS. “It doesn’t appear that the Houthis think they are beaten.”