Despite 'halt' to Saudi raids, peace elusive for Yemen

Ian Timberlake
Yemeni boys hold weapons as they sit on a pick-up truck during a demonstration by supporters of the Shiite Huthi movement in Sanaa on April 22, 2015 (AFP Photo/Mohammed Huwais)

Yemeni boys hold weapons as they sit on a pick-up truck during a demonstration by supporters of the Shiite Huthi movement in Sanaa on April 22, 2015

Yemeni boys hold weapons as they sit on a pick-up truck during a demonstration by supporters of the Shiite Huthi movement in Sanaa on April 22, 2015 (AFP Photo/Mohammed Huwais)

Riyadh (AFP) - Saudi Arabia has declared nearly a month of air strikes on Yemeni rebels a success, but at the cost of a resurgent Al-Qaeda and with no sign of peace yet.

"Mission accomplished," a Saudi newspaper proclaimed Wednesday, echoing a banner on a US warship where then-president George W. Bush infamously declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq in 2003.

But, like in Iraq, fighting raged on between rebels and forces loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who remains in exile in Riyadh, a day after the Saudi-led coalition announced a halt to its air war.

"The air campaign had exhausted its potential," and with Riyadh's allies like Pakistan unwilling or unable to provide ground forces, there were "few good options," said the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy.

It said US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had also "made clear that they favoured a political solution" to the conflict.

"All sides will have been very conscious that the greatest beneficiary of the chaos in Yemen was the more immediate enemy: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."

The Saudi defence ministry said Operation Decisive Storm had managed to "successfully remove threats to Saudi Arabia's security and that of neighbouring countries" by destroying heavy weaponry and ballistic missiles seized by the Huthi Shiite rebels.

Saudi-led warplanes returned to action Wednesday, in line with the coalition's vow to carry out targeted strikes on Huthi "movements and military operations" when necessary.

- 'Bar set low' -

The goals of the campaign were not very clearly defined from the start, according to a diplomatic source who did not want to be named.

"I think they've set the bar pretty low with what they sort of wanted to achieve" in the air campaign, the source said.

"They want to end it now before they get too bogged down."

Eight Saudi armed forces personnel were killed in skirmishes along the Yemen border during Decisive Storm, while the World Health Organization has said at least 944 people have died from fighting inside Yemen since March 19.

A Western diplomatic source described as credible coalition claims to have destroyed the rebel weapons but said the Huthis, in any case, never posed "any real threat" to Saudi Arabia.

The coalition spokesman, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri, has said that Decisive Storm also aimed to protect Yemeni citizens and "legitimacy", a reference to the government of Hadi.

At the start of the bombing campaign Hadi fled to Riyadh, where other members of his government have been based, following the advance of the Huthis on the southern port city of Aden.

Supporters of the rebels questioned what the air campaign had achieved.

"The operation has failed", said Ali Bukhaiti, a pro-Huthi writer and analyst based in Yemen.

"Hadi is still in Riyadh and the Huthis have not withdrawn from a single village. They will only withdraw according to an internal understanding with Yemenis."

- Victory, 'in a way' -

The Huthis on Wednesday demanded a complete end to attacks by a Saudi-led coalition and sought UN-sponsored talks.

Another diplomatic source said of the air campaign that "in a way, it's a victory" for Riyadh and its allies.

He said the coalition had managed to limit the rebels' gains, obtain international support through a UN Security Council resolution, mobilise the support of Arab allies, and "showed their determination in front of Iran", accused of backing the rebels.

All of this, the source said, has "created a new framework for resuming the national dialogue, with a new equilibrium."

The coalition said the new phase of operations, dubbed "Restore Hope", aimed to "swiftly resume the political process", backed by the United Nations, deliver aid and fight "terrorism" in the country.

The United States considers Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to be the militants' most dangerous branch.

The franchise has exploited the chaos to expand its territory in the southeast of Yemen where it has seized the provincial capital of Mukalla including the airport.

"Dealing with AQAP is an important objective for Saudi Arabia: while AQAP is based in Yemen, its main objective is to attack Saudi Arabia," the Soufan Group said

"Ironically, the most effective force against AQAP in Yemen has so far been the Huthis, and vice versa," it added.

The Shiite rebels, whose traditional stronghold is in the mountainous north, fought six wars with the central government from 2004 to 2010.

Getting the Huthis back to negotiations was always the aim of the coalition air strikes, the first diplomatic source said, and if that can be accomplished, "then I guess they can claim some sort of win".