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Yemen war turns two

Saudi Arabia and the United States need to put more thought into the endgame for the war in Yemen.
Women hold a banner as they take part in a protest marking the International Women's Day outside the United Nations offices in Sanaa, Yemen March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah - RTS11XSB

This month the war in Yemen is 2 years old. It pits a coalition of mostly wealthy Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, supporting President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government against a ragged alliance of Houthi Shiite rebels and backers of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who enjoy Iranian support. Despite occasional claims that victory is near by the Saudi-backed Hadi loyalists, there is little prospect for the war to end. The Yemeni people, the poorest in Arabia, are paying a terrible price.

The war is Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud's war. Salman had just ascended to the throne in early 2015 after the death of his brother Abdullah. Salman had just made his favorite son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, defense minister. The Houthi rebels chased Hadi out of Sanaa and seemed poised to take the whole country. Hadi fled in exile to Riyadh. The Houthis opened direct commercial flights from Sanaa to Tehran, Saudi Arabia's nemesis, and took other steps to strengthen their longstanding but limited ties to Iran.

Riyadh panicked. Salman feared an Iranian puppet state on his most vulnerable border, with 27 million Yemenis under Iranian influence demanding a fair distribution of the Arabian Peninsula's wealth. The Saudis announced creation of a coalition to back Hadi and return him to power in Sanaa. Some of the announced partners, including Oman, Yemen's only other neighbor, and Pakistan, quickly made it clear that they were not joining the war. The Pakistani parliament even voted unanimously to stay out of the war. Salman has not visited Muscat since; he has been to every other Gulf Cooperation Council capital and his monthlong trip this month to Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, China and the Maldives flies over Oman en route to the Arab summit in Jordan.

It quickly became clear that the young defense minister had no game plan for victory or an endgame for the war. The mission was titled Operation Decisive Storm, but two years later there is no decision. The young prince originally was the public face of the campaign; now he prefers to discuss his ambitious plans to oversee the kingdom's economic transformation to Saudi 2030. The Saudi border towns have borne the burden of the Houthis' counterstrikes with rockets and missiles. Reporters are not allowed to visit.

The Saudis and the Emiratis did succeed in keeping the rebels from taking Aden. After prolonged conflict, the Hadi government has been installed in most of the former South Yemen, although its control is tenuous outside Aden. Hadi spokesmen say victory is close. One promised that the fall of Sanaa is imminent this month. This seems unlikely.

Even if the Saudis take back Sanaa, the kingdom will face a prolonged, possibly endless, struggle to pacify the Houthis. The Saudis have been battling the Houthis for over a decade along the border in a series of small campaigns that go back to 2004. Then the Saudis were Saleh's ally. The Zaydi Shiite majority in the north has a deep aversion to the Saudis' Sunni Wahhabism.

Salman's father, King Ibn Saud, and all his brothers who have ruled since 1953 recognized that Yemen is a morass that can suck in resources. Ibn Saud fought a war with Yemen in the 1930s but kept his goals limited. His successors often found Yemeni politics and politicians to be frustrating and unresponsive to Saudi influence. All avoided getting into an open-ended conflict.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been a beneficiary of the war. That is why the new US administration has conducted more airstrikes against AQAP targets since January than the Obama administration did in all of 2016. Attacking al-Qaeda makes sense — it is a dangerous threat to our interests — but it is a sideshow in the Yemeni war. As long as the war continues, AQAP will find plenty of ungoverned space to thrive in and plenty of angry Yemeni recruits.

Iran is the biggest beneficiary. Its support to the Houthis costs it very little. A handful of Iranian and Hezbollah advisers and some weapons transferred is a pittance for Tehran. But it gains propaganda advantage by helping the Yemenis against the Saudis. It gains from bogging down its rival in a conflict that is strategically crucial to Riyadh and marginal to Tehran. And it would like to see America bogged down in Yemen, too.

The United Nations has tried to get a lasting cease-fire and begin a political process. But the guidelines provided hastily by the UN Security Council at the start of the war are hopelessly tilted toward the Saudi position because all the major powers wanted to court the new king. Ironically, only Russia argued that the resolution was one-sided. In any case, none of the Yemeni parties has shown any significant willingness to compromise, and the Saudis are unwilling to force Hadi to step aside. So the diplomacy is as stalemated as the war.

America and Britain have provided the aircraft and munitions that the Royal Saudi Air Force has been using to bomb the infrastructure of Yemen for two years. A minority in Congress has tried to block arms transfers and sales but they are unlikely to succeed. Nonetheless, criticism of the Saudi war is growing around the world.

The war is a costly one for the kingdom, especially when oil prices remain low. No reliable figures are available about the costs of the Saudi war. Riyadh provides no figures. The Saudis fund not only their own military campaign but the costs of their Yemeni allies and many of their coalition partners such as Sudan. Saudi Arabia had the third-largest defense and security budget in the world in the first year of the war (2015), according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and while the Yemeni war is only a part of the Saudis' military spending, it is a burden far beyond what a nation of only 20 million citizens can sustain.

The Yemeni people were the poorest in the Arab world before the war. Now, according to UNICEF, a Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes from severe malnutrition and other problems linked to the war and the Saudi blockade of the north. Many others are stunted for life by malnutrition. The humanitarian costs are staggering and they will have a long political legacy.

Several members of the new American administration have experience with Yemen, including the secretaries of state and defense. Now is the time for a thorough interagency policy review of Yemen. While terribly poor, Yemen is strategically important as the underbelly of Saudi Arabia and the guardian of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait through which most of the West's oil imports pass. The prime American interest is to help our oldest ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, find a way out of a conflict that is not working out in its own interests. Our other urgent interest is to stop the carnage against the Yemeni people. Diplomacy is the answer, but it will need to be American-led with conviction and consequences.

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