Yemenis are wondering if the 28-day Saudi bombing campaign is really over or whether the war has simply entered a new phase. Air strikes were still taking place in Aden, Taiz and other Yemeni cities hours after they were supposed to have ceased.
The Houthis, the Shia militia whom the Saudis are supposedly trying to displace from power, overran an armoured brigade headquarters in Taiz after heavy fighting as the air war ended. Whatever else Saudi bombing has done, it has not broken the Houthi’s grip on power.
The course of the air war has been very similar to successive Israeli bombardments of Lebanon and Gaza over the past 20 years. First, there are bloodcurdling claims how the enemy will be defeated by airpower alone. Then, it becomes clear that air strikes are doing a lot of damage to civilians – 944 Yemenis have been killed and 3,487 wounded so far, according to the World Health Organisation – but are not having a decisive impact on opposing military forces. Finally, there are mounting demands that air war ends from foreign countries, notably from the US, which has aided the Saudi airforce with intelligence and logistics.
Saudi Arabia in Yemen today is facing the same frustrations felt by Israel in Lebanon and Gaza as it takes on board the lack of real achievement. The Houthis, a well-organised militia movement whose identity is rooted in the Zaidi variant of Shia and the tribes of the northern provinces of Yemen, have not been forced to retreat at any point.
They have full control of Sanaa and are fighting in Aden. They have many opponents inside Yemen, but in Sanaa and the northern part of the country people are appalled by the damage and casualties caused by what they see as indiscriminate air strikes.
It had never been quite clear what the Saudis intended to achieve by this campaign that seems to be an exaggerated response to factional battles within Yemen. They claim that the Houthis are the proxies of Iran but this is widely seen as propaganda or an exaggeration, though it may be self-fulfilling since, under pressure, the Houthis will look for foreign allies.
A further motive may be domestic Saudi politics as the new Saudi King Salman and his son Mohammed, the Defence Minister and chief of the royal court, look for a small successful war to counter-balance successes for Iranian backed governments in Baghdad and Damascus.
Iran has provided political and humanitarian support to the Houthis, but both Tehran and the rebels deny it has armed them. On Wednesday, Iran welcomed the Saudi decision to halt the operation codenamed “Decisive Storm” and launch a new one titled “Renewal of Hope.”
By fleeing to Saudi Arabia and endorsing the bombing, President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi, the man whom the Saudis are supposedly trying to restore to power, has discredited himself. He made a rambling speech on television at 1am just as the Saudis were announcing an end to the bombing. Observers noted that his glasses were askew and several commented derisively that “a man who could not fix his own glasses could scarcely be expected to fix the problems of Yemen”.
The crisis in Yemen has got a lot worse as a result of the Saudi air war. Yemen has always been only loosely controlled from the centre and many well-armed players have influence but the war has exacerbated and militarised divisions. Protagonists are not always what they seem. Fighters reported as being supporters of President Hadi in Aden appear rather to be south Yemeni separatists who want to reverse the unity with the north agreed in 1990.
The Southern Resistance Movement says it is still fighting and is not going to go home tamely just because of a deal, if such there is, between the Saudis, Houthis and former President Ali Abdulllah Saleh, who is still very much a power in the land where he retains the loyalty of many army units and is allied to the Houthis. This is a reversal of the previous alignment when, for many years, Saleh was seen as a proxy of the Saudis and the Americans who tried to crush the Houthis.
The Saudis appear to have chosen Yemen as another arena in the confrontation between Iran and the Gulf monarchies and Sunni against Shia. This may be a distorted interpretation of a conflict in which local factors are more significant, but it may force Yemen into the same mould as the sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Syria. One ominous development is that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has greatly benefited from the dissolution of central authority and may present themselves as the shock troops of the Sunnis.