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What Really Did Happen in Yemen?

Many valid questions were raised in relevant capitals about the abrupt start of the Saudi bombardment of Yemen, the abrupt halt of this bombardment, and then its resumption on a selective basis. The assumption at the beginning of the military operation in Yemen was that the limit of the operation, its political and military goals and its end game were well studied beforehand. However, this assumption is being questioned, as is the apparent disconnect between the whole context of events and the actual military steps that were seen.

True, that a good chunk of the Houthi – Ali Saleh military capabilities have been destroyed. But the war was not waged just to destroy some equipment. The sudden decision to use military force implied, as many hoped, the existence of a generally defined political objective behind such a bold action. That raises the question: what exactly is there now, politically speaking, after the bombardment, that was not there before the war?

In a way, the war in Yemen was perceived by the Arabs as a step towards taking the initiative to confront an overall expansion of Iran’s influence in the Middle East. It revealed the depth of sentiments in the Arab world that finally the Arab political structure was capable of initiating an action rather than remaining within the strict circle of reactions. But the value of this Yemen war in historical terms—as seen by many—may lie in the fact that it is a testimony to the structural problems in the Arab strategic decision making process, not of its competence.

The gains achieved by the war are very ambiguous up to now. Then came the indecisive halt of the “Decisive Storm,” which now seems to continue in a “light” form, even after victory was celebrated.  Saleh and Houthi forces are still active. It is possible that the military operation in the form it took was necessary. It may have been a symbolic declaration that Arabs will not stand idle while their region is being subjected to a sweeping Iranian offensive with the objective of circling the heart of Arab Land. But could air power achieve really what was said to be the direct objectives of the military operation? Decisive Storm should have been studied more carefully in content to avoid turning it into a missed opportunity, or worse, into a loss of confidence in future initiatives.

The US administration exerted a bit of pressure to end this war, and that was for good reasons. If an ally started a war without putting a cohesive strategic outlook on the table at the same time, it would be merely repeating bitter lessons learned the hard way in Washington. The escalation in Yemen was threatening to trigger a regional war. The risk of such a war was heightened with Iran sending navy ships to an area off the Yemeni southern coast and the Arabs sending theirs to the same area. The “official”t end of Decisive Storm was a way for Washington to get the Iranians to pull out their navy. But it was understood that the Saudis preserved the right to resume bombing when requirements on the ground make it necessary.  

It was not clear what Riyadh wanted the Houthis to do when the war started. It was not clear how the Saudis saw who (other than tribal and Al Qaeda fighters) would control the ground once the Saleh’s forces were destroyed. It was not clear with what means President Mansour Hadi would be able to get back to the presidential palace. It was not clear who really would join the Saudi coalition—Pakistan? Turkey?  And it was not clear what the bombs should destroy after finishing off all meaningful military targets. But above all, it was not clear who would really gain, if the State structure in Yemen was destroyed by military means, other than Al Qaeda and ironically the Houthis themselves.

Half-backed wars are always self-damaging. And it is not in the interest of anyone to negatively affect Riyadh’s regional role as it is the central stabilizing force in the Middle East. The objective weight of Saudi Arabia is far more important to the Middle East than merely a decision taken under domestic pressures or personal calculations. Saudi Arabia is the central power in the Arab world now whether people like it or not. The integrity and prudence of its decisions are a plus for the Arab world and its stability. Its impulses and hastiness affect the whole region and reduce the relative weight of Riyadh.

It is not too late to reposition the Yemeni crisis in a proper strategic and political context. It is first crucial to reach a political reconciliation within Yemen and to allow an inclusive semi-democratic political structure to emerge.  A stable Yemen means no Al Qaeda threats and no Houthi Hezbollahs—therefore a secure south Arab peninsula. For Yemen to be stable, an inclusive political system should be devised by the Yemenis themselves, and a reconstruction plan should be implemented without delay. The UN role, with the constructive role of Oman, could help, provided that there is a conscious decision in Riyadh to help things go their natural way. Any role for Iran in Yemen should be rejected upfront as such a role stirs up more problems than it promises solutions.

Such a political reconciliation will require time, patience and the involvement of several regional and international powers. The GCC countries do not trust Aly Abdullah Saleh. Yet, a good portion of Yemen’s army is loyal to Saleh and his son. If this portion remains within the Yemeni armed forces, Saleh will preserve his role in Sana’a. If it is dismantled, there will be a risk of getting the army too thin in this critical moment. The Houthis also represent a problem. The whole crisis pushed them closer to Tehran and Hezbollah. Loyal to Arab tribal culture, it will be difficult for them to forget whatever losses they incurred. The near future of Yemen will have these two mines threatening any prospects of stability. These two issues must be discussed openly with the relevant parties in Yemen during the proposed UN sponsored peace talks.

If there is a well-studied plan to reap some positive results from whatever happened in Yemen in the last few weeks, it should start from within Yemen itself. The worsening of the conditions of the wounds created by the war will be reflected negatively in the future of the Arab peninsula. Bold moves like wars have their bills, and these bills have got to be paid, even if they are delayed.

Rebuilding Yemen, which starts from rebuilding its state structure, should start immediately for this war not to go down in history as yet another factor in bringing Yemen down to the status of a failed state. 

Riyadh correctly named the phase that followed “Decisive Storm” as “Hope Restoration.”  Hope for Yemenis should mean stability and a credible promise of a better future. Future military assistance to Yemen should focus on confronting and disrupting non-state armed groups. The Yemeni military should be surgically separated from politics. Yemen is not a full-fledged failed state. It cannot be equated with Libya or Syria yet. And it is self-damaging to increase the sectarian temperature there. If the war is integrated into a strategy to rebuild Yemen, Saudi Arabia will emerge as a net benefactor at the conclusion of this turbulent episode. Riyadh has everything to win from a stable and secure Yemen.

But what cannot be delayed any further is the frank and possibly painful examination of how the Arab political system operates, particularly regarding the question of peace and war, and how strategies emerge and tactics are chosen. The world is getting smaller, and whatever happens in the Middle East affects all four corners of the globe and increases the sufferings of all people in that region.

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