Report

Saudi Arabia Signals Bombs Will Continue to Drop in Yemen

Riyadh says it wants a peaceful solution, but will continue its air war in Yemen as long as Iranian-backed rebels continue their offensive.

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Saudi Arabia boasted Tuesday that it was winding down its air campaign in Yemen because its forces had destroyed the most powerful weaponry of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels controlling most of the country. Turns out that Riyadh may have gotten ahead of itself: the Saudi ambassador to Washington said Wednesday that while the number of airstrikes might decrease, the bombardment of Houthi targets would continue until the rebel group halted its military offensive.

The apparent reversal comes one day after Saudi Arabia announced it would be halting the air war and moving to a new mission called Operation Restore Hope because its forces had “successfully managed to thwart the threat on the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries through destruction of the heavy weapons and ballistic missiles seized by the Houthi militias.” The shift raised hopes that the fighting that has left nearly 1,000 dead and spurred a growing humanitarian disaster might abate.

Instead, Saudi bombs are still falling on Yemen, and Riyadh’s emissary to Washington said that his country plans to keep the pressure on Houthis fighters if they attempt to gain additional territory. That risks further escalating what is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has been accused of providing weapons, training, and funding to the Houthis, a charge Tehran strenuously denies.

“The Houthis should be under no illusion that we will continue to use force in order to stop them from taking Yemen over by aggressive action,” Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir told reporters during a rare afternoon press conference, adding that he hopes the Houthi movement will participate in U.N.-brokered talks aimed at ending the fighting. “We are determined to protect the Yemeni people and counter any aggressive moves that the Houthis may undertake.”

According to Jubeir, the first phase of the Saudi campaign was aimed at eliminating the threat posed by the ballistic missiles, heavy weaponry, combat aircraft, and command and control systems that had fallen into Houthi hands as they took control of large parts of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa, and forced Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the country. The rebels were bolstered by the defections of large numbers of Yemeni troops loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Jubeir said that these weapons have now been destroyed and that the Saudi campaign in Yemen is shifting its focus toward a political process to end the fighting, addressing humanitarian needs, and protecting what he described as Houthi aggression against the Yemeni people.

But beyond saying that Saudi Arabia will counter any Houthi advances, it remains unclear exactly how Riyadh plans to prosecute the second phase of this campaign.

On Wednesday, Saudi warplanes bombed Houthi rebels outside the city of Taiz, where the group reportedly advanced on a military base controlled by troops loyal to Hadi. Jubeir cited that bombing as an example of how Saudi forces remained committed to preventing Houthi advances during this second phase of the campaign. Asked whether Saudi Arabia would commit ground troops to the fight, Jubeir said all options remain on the table.

Jubeir said that Saudi Arabia is providing support and weapons to so-called “Popular Committees,” militia groups who have in recent years emerged in Yemen as a counterweight to extremist groups in the country. Jubeir said that if the Houthis do not join the political process, these groups will step up activity against them.

Houthi rebels demanded Wednesday that all Saudi attacks in Yemen cease, as a condition of the group joining the U.N. talks.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, fighting was reported in Aden, which has been the site of intense street-to-street combat, and Jubeir said that Houthi rebels are advancing on the port city from three directions. Given Jubeir’s description of bombings in Taiz, his repeated mention of Houthi advances on Aden may have been a warning that Saudi forces plan to strike against the group’s forces there.

The comments by the Saudi ambassador, telling the Houthis that his country will in effect not strike their forces if they do not attempt to make further gains, appear geared toward laying the groundwork for a political settlement to the four-week conflict. On Wednesday, the Houthis released Yemen’s imprisoned defense minister, a possible confidence building measure. Earlier in the day, Saleh, who was ousted in a 2011 revolt and whose support for the Houthi movement has been a key to their sudden rise, expressed support for talks. “We hope that everybody will return to dialogue to solve and treat all the issues,” he said in a statement.

The outlines of a political settlement remain vague, and it is unclear what kind of compromise solution the Houthi rebels would accept. Saudi Arabia has said that restoring Hadi, the most recently ousted president, to power is a key goal of their campaign, and Jubeir reiterated on Wednesday that he is Yemen’s legitimate ruler. But after sweeping out of the impoverished north to challenge Hadi’s rule, it would seem unlikely that the Houthis would accept the Saudi demand that he return to the presidency.

In short, the next step of the conflict would appear to depend on whether the Houthis attempt to further consolidate control of Yemen — and Saudi Arabia escalates in response.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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