Saudi-Led Campaign Of Airstrikes In Yemen Marks 100th Day

The conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and Yemen rebels approaches a grim milestone, with no end in sight

Jul 01, 2015 at 5:59 PM ET

Saudi Arabia’s boldest military campaign in almost 100 years is marking its 100th day on Friday of punishing airstrikes on the Arab world’s poorest country, with seemingly no exit strategy in sight.

Since March, the kingdom has led an Arab coalition in an aggressive—and escalating—war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who it accuses of being proxies for its regional rival Iran. Cast as a litmus test for Saudi power and influence in the region, the conflict, known as “Operation Decisive Storm,” has deteriorated into a humanitarian crisis that threatens to undermine some of the kingdom’s larger foreign policy objectives in the region. An attempt by the U.N. to broker peace fell apart in June, and hours later, the bombing resumed.

“The lack of a viable exit strategy suggests that this war could go on for hundreds of days,” said David Weinberg, a Middle East analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “We’ll probably see Day 1,000 before it ends.”

More than three months of Saudi-led airstrikes, coupled with ground wars between the Houthis and armed militias, have already upended Yemen, killing thousands and sending countless others fleeing from their homes. Cities and world heritage sites across the country have been reduced to rubble. Food and potable water remain in short supply, even in Sana’a, the capital. Medicine is now virtually nonexistent, volunteer medics told Vocativ.

The death count surpassed 3,000 people this week, nearly half of those were civilian deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Some 14,000 people have been maimed or injured. An outbreak of dengue fever in Aden, Yemen’s ravaged port city, reached 8,000 suspected cases. More than a million Yemenis have been displaced.

“The parties to this conflict show an utter disregard for human life, repeatedly attacking civilian infrastructure including hospitals, schools, power stations and water installations,” Stephen O’Brien, an undersecretary-general for the United Nations, said last week.

On Wednesday, United Nations officials added Yemen to the ranks of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, declaring it a so-called Level 3 crisis.

The prospect of a prolonged conflict poses a challenge for Saudi Arabia that extends far beyond its border with Yemen, analysts say. After years of wielding influence with its financial wealth and diplomacy, the country now seeks a more hawkish foreign policy in the Middle East. The Saudis have stockpiled billions of dollars in arms supplied by the United States and sunk billions more into developing their own military facilities. They had hoped their campaign in Yemen would be a fierce and swift display of their power.

Yet so far, the offensive has failed to push the Houthis out of strongholds surrounding Sana’a and Aden. Nor has it stopped the rebel group from seizing additional towns and territories in the western part of the country. With no strategic gains, experts say, Saudi Arabia risks undermining its projection of military might.

“If Riyadh can’t achieve a good result in Yemen, what hope does it have in the wider region?” speculated Simon Henderson, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Henderson, who described the Saudi offensive as a “big gamble” back in April, added that further setbacks could have far-reaching consequences for the kingdom. “Because the Houthis are perceived as being Iranian proxies, there is the implication that other such proxies—Hezbollah, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq—cannot be defeated by Saudi military strength either.”

The narrative within Saudi Arabia, however, remains entirely different, with the public still firmly behind the offensive. The country’s state-run media continues to cover the conflict with patriotic zeal, heralding each airstrike against Houthi targets. Saudi clerics help advance the cause; many imams using Friday sermons to rally support for the war and to warn of the machinations of Iran in the region, according to Fahad Nazer, a terrorism analyst at JTG Inc., a U.S.-based consultancy.

“The overwhelming support the Saudi public has shown for the Yemen campaign suggests that the notion that the Saudis are morally justified in putting a stop to the transgressions of a violent aggressor has resonated widely,” said Nazer.

Failure to achieve a swift, decisive victory has also not dampened the future prospects of Prince Muhammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s young, newly-minted defense minister and the war’s chief architect and public face. The favored son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Prince Muhammed overtook dozens of older princes to become deputy crown prince in April, making him second in line to the throne. In recent weeks, as peace talks collapsed and airstrikes continued to pound Yemen, the prince led Saudi delegations to Russia and France to broker arms and economic deals worth billions of dollars.

“No Saudi prince has enjoyed this high a profile in decades,” wrote Bruce Riedel, a security expert at the Brookings Institution and former CIA analyst.

Meanwhile, Yemen spirals further into chaos. Around 1,200 inmates, including al-Qaeda suspects and Houthi militants, reportedly escaped from a prison in Taiz on Wednesday. A day earlier, ISIS fighters, whose numbers appear to be growing, claimed credit for a car bombing in Sana’a that killed 28. The week itself began with an airstrike on a U.N. compound, though it wasn’t clear which Arab coalition member was responsible.

Saudi Arabia will not back away, says Nazer. “They made it clear from the start that they will do whatever it takes and for however long it takes to accomplish their objectives,” he said.