Tit-for-tat strikes, in that order, by Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led Arab coalition reproduce the pattern that defines the protracted war in Yemen. This time, Saudi Arabia's Air Defence Forces intercepted and destroyed one ballistic missile over Riyadh,
Tit-for-tat strikes, in that order, by Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led Arab coalition reproduce the pattern that defines the protracted war in Yemen. This time, Saudi Arabia's Air Defence Forces intercepted and destroyed one ballistic missile over Riyadh, another over Jizan, which borders Yemen. In retaliation, the Saudis carried out air strikes on the rebel-held capital Sana'a on March 30, 2020 that hit the presidential palace compound, a military school and an air base close to the airport. Reports of human casualties are not available, but Houthi sources said 70 horses were killed and 30 wounded. Further air strikes were reported in the northwestern Amran province. These strikes were described by the Saudi-led coalition as an operation to destroy legitimate military targets. These exchanges represent a fresh escalation of the war, particularly strikes on Sana'a, which had been rare since Saudi Arabia launched indirect talks with the Houthis in September 2019. The warring sides welcomed a UN call for an immediate truce to help fight the coronavirus outbreak. But given the fact that the talks do not seem to be going anywhere and the resumption of fierce battles in Al Jawf and Marib provinces since February 2020, Yemen's unabated agony shows no signs of ending. The recent escalation has added another 40,000 displaced people to the already uprooted 3.6 million. Hunger, starvation and disease are rampant. While the UN can be expected to play a role to bring hostilities to an end, it is hamstrung by the indifference of the major world powers and now the limitations and restrictions imposed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Yemen conflict has its roots in the failure of a political transition following the Arab Spring uprising in the country in 2011 that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi was unable to control the situation, exacerbated by jihadist attacks, a separatist movement in the south, security personnel's continuing loyalty to Saleh, corruption, unemployment and food insecurity. The Houthi movement that champions Yemen's Zaidi Shia minority and had staged a series of rebellions against Saleh, took advantage of the unsettled situation to take control of their northern heartland of Saada province and neighbouring areas. Many ordinary disillusioned Yemenis, including Sunnis, supported the Houthis who gradually took over the capital Sana'a in 2014-15. An attempt by the Houthis to take over the whole country forced Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015. That is when Saudi Arabia arraigned a coalition including eight other mostly Sunni Arab countries aimed at defeating the Houthis, who they view as Iranian proxies. Their initial confidence that exclusive control of the air and strike capability would end the war and restore Hadi in a few weeks has foundered since on the rock of the Houthi resistance. The latter have by now acquired ballistic missiles and drones that they regularly launch against Saudi Arabia.
Yemen, already tragically poor, is considered the world's worst humanitarian crisis because of the civil war complicated by foreign intervention. Big world powers have learnt to their cost the limits of being able to structure the politics of a country by invasion and occupation, e.g., in Afghanistan and Iraq. Regional power Saudi Arabia is now learning a similar bitter lesson vis-à-vis its military intervention in the Yemen civil war. As the world is diverted and focused on combating the coronavirus pandemic, it must nevertheless turn its attention to an unmitigated disaster in the making at the cost of the long suffering Yemeni people. While the protagonists must exercise (or be made to exercise) restraint, talks and a political solution seem the only way forward in a fractured and destroyed Yemen.