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Bill Law

Yemen: 100 days and counting

The widespread bombing of one of the world's poorest countries has led to despair [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 July, 2015

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Comment: What has been achieved by Saudi Arabia's bombing of Yemen? Other than destruction, despair, disease and death, not much, writes Bill Law.
It all began with a press conference in Washington DC on 23 March, 2015.

Today, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir hosted a press conference at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia and issued the following statement:

"Saudi Arabia has launched military operations in Yemen, as part of a coalition of over ten countries in response to a direct request from the legitimate government of Yemen. The operation will be limited in nature, and designed to protect the people of Yemen and its legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis."

One hundred days and counting is as good a time as any to pose the question: what has the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen's Houthis accomplished?

When the air war was launched, the Houthis were entrenched in the capital, Sanaa. Their fighters had taken control of the Southern port city of Aden, where an on-the-run President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was forced to abandon his palace and flee by boat to sanctuary in Saudi Arabia.

According to Jubeir, the then-Saudi ambassador to the US, the stated objective of the aerial offensive was to do "whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling".

It was an objective that blithely ignored the reality that the Hadi regime had already fallen.

It was the first of many fictions. Operation Decisive Storm, as it was called, was a coalition of ten countries with half of that number coming from the GCC states - Oman wisely opted to stay out.

But it was always intended to be a Saudi show. Led by the newly installed defence minister and deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the campaign was a statement of intent to Iran.

The Houthis are widely assumed to be supported and armed by the Iranians. Their alleged involvement in Yemen, in most ways a Saudi client state, had already seen the Houthis brazenly seize the capital. President Hadi had effectively been installed by the Saudis, and running him out of Aden was a step too far.

And so the bombing campaign began.

Mohammed bin Salman - or MbS as he is known - cut a dashing and handsome figure in the early days with Saudi media running video and photos of him presiding over the war room.

There were daily "war" briefings too, as the Saudi spokesperson, Brigadier General Ahmed al Asiri, recounted successes and deflected criticism and concerns about mounting civilian casualties.

MbS is widely regarded as ruthlessly ambitious. Aged between 28 and 32 (opinions vary) he is the younger and apparently favoured son of King Salman. He has served for several years as his father's guide and gatekeeper - Salman is reportedly suffering from some form of dementia and is said to be able only to put in a short working day.

Still, the ascension of MbS to the defence portfolio, made him, at whatever age he is, the world's youngest defence minister.

His rapid rise was troubling to older members of the ruling al-Saud family. A quick, sharp successful military action led by him would not only put the Houthis and the Iranians in their place, it would silence his critics within the family and reinforce the image of a decisive young man staking his claim as a future king.

Or so it must have seemed to MbS at the time. The Saudis and their allies quickly took out military bases and missile sites, hammered Houthi supply lines and bombed and destroyed infrastructure in one of the world's poorest countries.

But the Houthis did not buckle. If anything, they strengthened their hold on Aden and Sanaa and threatened to take other cities. The United States - which was providing operational assistance to the Saudis - became increasingly anxious as the civilian death toll mounted.

Under pressure from the Americans, Ambassador Jubeir - at a hastily assembled press conference on 23 April - announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm, claiming that all objectives had been met, a claim that once again glibly sailed in the face of reality.

Jubeir immediately announced a new campaign: "Operation Renewal of Hope", which was presumably intended to help reconstruct a country that had been attacked from the air for 30 consecutive days.

"Tthe Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its allies were able to remove [the] threat, and protect the legitimate government of Yemen and the Yemeni people from the hostile Houthi movement, which is allied with Iran and Hezbollah," he told reporters.

Claiming the threat had been removed and the people of Yemen protected was another fiction.

By this point, MsB was not nearly so visible and reporting of the daily press briefings by Brigadier Asiri had been pretty much abandoned.

The brigadier exited stage right, gamely proclaiming the line that "the coalition began its operations upon a formal request from the Yemeni government and ended them at the request of the Yemeni government, which saw that the targets set for the operations had been achieved and to allow for the Yemeni government to begin restoring hope to the Yemenis".

Two days after announcing "Renewal of Hope", the bombing campaign started anew.

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On 9 May Brigadier-General Asiri returned to the world stage with a message for the people of the Yemeni cities of Saada and Marran to leave their homes.

The cities in their entirety, were - contrary to international law - now considered legitimate targets.

The brigadier-general gave the civilian population until 7:00pm that evening to get out of town. Saada, a city of 50,000, was largely reduced to rubble, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Operation Decisive Storm, or Operation Renewal of Hope - no one in authority seems to know or care what the aerial war is now called - has become an utter failure and remains for the Saudis an enduring embarrassment.

It has been a hastily conceived aerial war led by a young and inexperienced hothead with no exit strategy, leaving its neighbour Yemen an even more fractured and failed state, and one in which terrorist groups such as AQAP and the Islamic State group thrive amid the chaos largely created by the Saudis.

The human cost has already been declared a massive humanitarian crisis by the UN.

On 7 July the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that there were "more than 1,500 civilians dead, 3,600 injured and one million displaced in three months of violence".

Large swathes of infrastructure have been destroyed, including water filtration plants - creating both shortages and the growing threat of water-borne diseases. A naval blockade has impeded the flow of urgently needed medical supplies, hospitals have been hit both on the ground by Houthis and from the air by the coalition.

And the death toll rose abruptly the same day that the UN released its figures, when coalition planes bombed two markets, one outside Aden and the other just north of Sanaa.

At least 100 people were killed and several hundred wounded in the attacks, according to witnesses and Yemeni officials.

Still the bombing goes on. Adel Jubair, the former ambassador and now-Saudi foreign minister has had nothing to say about the outrages committed in the name of bringing the Houthis to heel.

Mohammed bin Salman is equally adept at keeping his head down, as animosity towards him is said to be growing within the ruling family.

So, 100 days and counting, and what has been accomplished? Well nothing really. Unless you consider the mounting human tragedy, which we must do.

Ignoring the people of Yemen, buying into the Saudi fiction, these are not options that we can any longer accept. The bombing campaign is a grotesque and cruel failure and it must end.

Bill Law is a former BBC Gulf analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @Billlaw49

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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