Signs of hope for Yemen?

Saudi readjustment suggests potential for a political solution

A Yemeni member of the southern separatist movement, allied to fugitive President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, carries ammunition on his shoulder and gestures at checkpoint in the southern city of Aden, on 21 April 2015. (AFP/Saleh al-Obeidi)

Skepticism is helpful. Cynicism isn’t. Skepticism allows that, in spite of the chorus of negativity surrounding them, recent events in Yemen should be properly seen as generally encouraging, although they also point to the difficulties that lie ahead. Cynicism stands off to the side, rolling its world-weary eyes and shaking its jaded head. But to what purpose?

The announcement by Saudi Arabia and its allies that the initial and major part of the aerial intervention in Yemen is over should be welcomed. The Saudis apparently believe that the goals of the air campaign have been largely met. Saudis say that enough of the Houthi militia’s command-and-control centers, ballistic missile launch vehicles and weapons caches have been destroyed to meet the aims of the first and decisive phase of Operation Decisive Storm.

At midnight on Tuesday, Decisive Storm gave way to a second phase of the operation, Restoring Hope. The Saudis say that the purpose of this second part of the intervention is to “protect civilians” and provide ongoing but less aggressive support for the military and other armed forces acting in the name and interests of the internationally-recognized government.

Skepticism prompts us to question the extent to which the largest goals set for Decisive Storm at its outset—the reversal of the Houthi ‘coup’ in early February and the restoration of the government of exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi—have really been met. And, indeed, to ask if they were ever achievable aims, especially given the limitations of what can be accomplished through air power alone.

But only unwarranted cynicism would fail to register that the Saudi announcement of the end of Decisive Storm is a positive development, even if the broadest aims of the campaign remain unfulfilled. The move to scale back the intervention recognizes that a pattern of diminishing returns has set in and that it is wise now to move towards a series of agreements with the Houthis and others in Yemen leading to a managed political transition in the country.

Hopes for peace now focus on the emerging role of Vice President and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah. He is widely seen as the national figure best placed to lead negotiations, as he is trusted, at least to some extent, by most factions in the country. Many observers believe that the fortunes of Bahah and those of a negotiated agreement to end the conflict are closely linked, if not interdependent. They will be viewing the level of his prominence and engagement at the center of national politics as a barometer for the likelihood of a workable deal to end the fighting.

Cynics, of course, were pointing to the resumption of airstrikes and fighting on Wednesday, immediately after the Saudi announcement that Decisive Storm had ended. Bombing raids were aimed at a meeting of Houthi militia leaders at a military headquarters near the old airport southeast of the city of Taiz—a meeting the Saudis claim was a violation of the agreement the two sides had just concluded. There were also raids in Aden, which was the scene of intense street fighting between Houthis and troops loyal to the government that left over a dozen killed.

As White House spokesman Jen Psaki dryly noted: “Obviously, the job is not done.” But neither is the continued bombing and fighting simply a bad sign. The ending of Decisive Storm strongly suggested that Saudi Arabia is aware of the possibility of being sucked into a quagmire in Yemen, but is determined not to allow that to happen. At the same time, the resumed attacks and continued fighting show that the Saudi side is not going to simply walk away or allow the Houthis or others to carry on as they please and that it reserves the right to act.

Instead, there is reason to be hopeful that what is being pursued is a sensible two-track approach that seeks, on the one hand, to pull back from the fighting and seriously pursue a political agreement with the Houthis and, on the other hand, to continue to be willing to ensure that the basic interests of the coalition and its Yemeni allies are maintained.

Some Saudi media are proclaiming Decisive Storm to have been an unqualified masterstroke, producing success after success, both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. There is no basis for such triumphalism. But there is equally no basis for opposite claims in much Western and some Arab media that the intervention in Yemen was a blunder, a disaster for Saudi Arabia, or even a failure. It may one day become any or all of those, but is none of them yet by any means.

And, to the contrary, the apparent willingness of the Saudi-led coalition to restructure the goals and aims of the mission, to pull back from an intensive engagement that did threaten to become a pointless and damaging stalemate on the ground, and to leverage what had been achieved through the air campaign into progress at the negotiating table suggests a more thoughtful and potentially effective approach than many had been willing to concede was plausible.

Yes, there is “much to be done” in Yemen. Yes, there is still fighting and bombing taking place and that is deeply troubling. Yes, there is a long way to go before the Houthis come to a modus vivendi with the rest of Yemeni society and the common battle against Al Qaeda—which has inadvertently been the main beneficiary of the conflict thus far—can once again, and properly, be the focus of military action in the country.

Yet, in spite of all of that, today one can identify real reasons to hope that better judgment is starting to prevail. One can finally begin to discern flashes of light at the end of Yemen’s dark tunnel. Although a cynic can and will not, even the most experienced and committed skeptic can and should recognize hopeful signs when they occasionally begin to sprout.