René Wadlow

Saudi Arabia and Yemen: Lost in the sands of war

Image: AAP

They may have changed the name of the conflict in Yemen, but René Wadlow questions whether the new operation is really “restoring hope” to the troubled region.

 

For the moment, the aggression of Saudi Arabia against Yemen has changed its name from “Operation Decisive Storm” to “Operation Restoring Hope”, probably on the advice of the public relations firm which advises the US Pentagon on the name of its operations.

The 28 days of bombing from the air of cities and camps, killing women and children, created a storm but the results were in no way decisive. Since the commencement on 24 March, at least  1000 people have been killed, many more wounded and some 150,000 displaced within the country. Nevertheless, the aggression had little impact on the power configuration within the country. However, the constant violation of the minimum standards of the laws of armed conflict has had some impact on the perception of the conflict with a few in the USA and Western Europe. As the weapons used by Saudi Arabia are largely of foreign production, supplier states have a responsibility − at least morally − in the way the weapons are used.

There are international agreements that set humanitarian law and human rights’ standards in times of armed conflicts, mainly the Red Cross Geneva Conventions of 1949, written in the light of experience during the Second World War, and the two Protocols to the Conventions, written in 1972 in the light of experiences of the Vietnam War. Not all States have ratified Protocols I and II, and a number of States have made reservations, especially refusing to forgo reprisals against civilians. Protocol I requires that attacks against military objectives be planned and executed so that “incidental” civilian injuries are not “excessive in relation to the specific military advantages anticipated.” The decision-making is subjective on the part of the military, and military officers rarely see any action as “excessive”.

Nevertheless, the public outcry, lead by the few international non-governmental organisations at work in Yemen, has been strong enough to produce a change of name of the operation and some statements on the part of Saudi officials that negotiations for a “political solution” are needed.

The members of the UN Security Council looked at the situation and then decided to look away. The UN envoys to Yemen have had little influence on the promotion of a “political solution” or even any meaningful negotiations. The most recent UN envoy, Jamal Benomar, has resigned in frustration. There is wide agreement in UN circles that Yemen is in a quagmire and on the eve of division between north and south, with a free-fall of its economy, a collapse of its health services and its food imports blocked. The country’s present form dates from 1990 when south Yemen (Aden) was more or less integrated into the north, but the country remains highly fractured on tribal, sectarian and ideological lines, with tribal structures being the most important.

Saudi Arabia, which should have known better, thought that it could expand its influence in Yemen. The new King Salman, with his son Mohammed as Defence Minister, hoped for a quick victory, having an endless supply of modern military equipment from the USA. The memories of the Egyptian intervention, with its heavy use of chemical weapons in the Yemen civil war of the 1960s, was overlooked both by Saudi Arabia and its close partner Egypt, although Egypt had lost some 20,000 soldiers at the time.

One generation rarely learns from the experiences of earlier generations, and both Saudis and Egyptians had hoped to advance their interests in Yemen’s political confusion. Instead, Saudi Arabian leaders have been lost, blinded by the sands of war. It is likely that the King and his son will never be trusted again. The aggression in Yemen was the first foreign policy effort of Saudi Arabia that had not been designed and directed by the USA − their first effort to walk alone. The King and his son fell and will never be heard from again on the international scene, but oil revenues will continue to assure the royal court of a comfortable life style.

With the exit of Saudi Arabia from the scene, the door was left open for Iran to play the role of peacemaker. In a letter sent to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on 17 April, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif set out a four-step Yemen Peace Plan:

  1. An immediate ceasefire ending all foreign military attacks
  2. Humanitarian assistance
  3. A broad national dialogue
  4. Through the dialogue, the establishment of an inclusive national unity government.

In support of the plan, the Foreign Minister wrote, “It is imperative for the international community to get more effectively involved in ending the senseless aerial attacks and establishing a ceasefire, ensuring delivery of humanitarian and medical assistance to the people of Yemen, and restoring peace and stability to this country through dialogue and national reconciliation without pre-conditions. This critical situation is escalating, and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is approaching catastrophic dimensions.”

Negotiations among the multitude of factions in Yemen will be difficult. The most likely pattern will be for the country to split into two again, with each half having a number of relatively autonomous regions. The best that we can hope for is that these autonomous tribal areas do not fight each other actively. We can also hope that there will be minimum cooperation to allow necessary food imports. Poverty and the lack of a political horizon seem to be the continuing fate of Yemen, but violent internal conflict and Saudi aggression may not be permanent.

 

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  • Ben

    Brilliant analysis! I want to also mention that Saudi’s and Yemen have a complicated history that westerners do not understand so articles like this really do help get heads around the realities

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