The Wheels Are Coming off the Saudi Operation in Yemen

by James Spencer

After initially denying that their aircraft had even been there, the Saudis finally admitted that they were responsible for the double-tap strike on the October 8 funeral of a major Yemeni notable. However, they denied culpability. According to the official Joint Incidents Assessment Team report—produced with US and UK oversight—the 140 victims of the murderous violation of a funeral were killed by faulty intelligence; the 500 other mourners injured were wounded as a result of procedural mistakes. Compensation should be paid. But now that this “aberration” has been identified— or so the politicians’ assumption presumably runs—the war can resume, and the West should continue to support the Saudis in trying to bomb Yemenis into submission.

This is by no means the first occasion that the Saudis have violated legal and customary protections of civilian non-combatants. During this campaign, they have struck hospitalsweddingsschoolsmuseums, even gravestombs, and mosques. They did likewise in a previous campaign against Yemen, with almost identical targeting structures and similarly poor intelligence feeds. Apparently the Saudis learned nothing from their previous mistakes. Nor were the many US and UK targetting advisors apparently able to change the structures and procedures in a meaningful way.

How genuine, then, is this “mistake”? And are the Saudis lying about being “mistaken” in the same way that they initially lied about not being responsible for this attack as well as earlier wedding and hospital attacks?

The funeral was certainly a tempting mark. Many “high-value targets” were present. Indeed, of the top brass among those killed in the funeral strike, many were Houthis and Salihis. But many, too, were non-aligned peacemakers, such as the widely respected mayor of Sana’a. It seems far more likely that the Saudis, and their Yemeni clients (who allegedly supplied the intelligence), did indeed intend to hit the funeral gathering in the hopes that the two leaders of the insurgency were in attendance, and that, by killing them, the uprising would be decapitated.

There’s another pattern here: a neocon-esque Saudi refusal to concede that their vision for a dependent Yemen will not come to pass. Thus far, the Saudis have spent billions of dollars and caused and suffered thousands of casualties—but are no closer to achieving the quick and crowd-pleasing victory Operation DECISIVE STORM was supposed to have delivered. Nor, with the UAE having ended major combat operations, is there much prospect of a military breakthrough, or of any tactic that isn’t just more of the same.

Worse still, US pressure has been mounting for a compromise peace deal. Such a deal would greatly embarrass Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad and thus weaken his chance to succeed his father as king. The funeral strike probably looked like a golden opportunity to “cut off the head of the snake” and thus salvage some sort of political return on the immense sums of blood and gold spent in Yemen.

The admirable special envoys of the UN secretary general have come close to achieving a peace between all the factions on three occasions: first, with the (UN-endorsedPeace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA) in September 2014; second, with a deal in late March 2015 (sabotaged—possibly deliberately—by the initiation of the Saudi campaign); and third, in July 2016. On each occasion, the Saudis directly, or their clients, foiled the peace process by aiming for maximalist positions. Lately they have even tried to abjure the PNPA. Yet deep down, the Saudis must know that compromise is inevitable. Then-Prince Salman has said, “It is impossible to want everything but give nothing.”

The key issue now is the sequencing of the peace process: whether the formation of a national unity government happens concurrently with Houthi-Salihi disarmament and their withdrawal from the cities or whether (as the Saudis and their Yemeni clients demand) the Houthis and Salihis surrender all their gains before a newly constituted regime takes account of their interests. Neither the Saudis nor the transitional President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi—nor the Houthis nor the corrupt and corrupting Ali Abdallah Salih) have shown themselves trustworthy. From a military standpoint, once the Saudi-backed forces have got up one of the few routes onto Yemen’s central plateau, the Houthis and Salihis will have lost most of their advantages. So the sequencing in forming a national unity government is critical: will the current balance of power remain intact, or—as the Saudis prefer—will one side be effectively disarmed and disadvantaged.

After mounting casualties and misgivings, the British and Americans have finally called for another ceasefire. Without these countries actively enabling Saudi Arabia’s conduct, a pragmatic peace may be possible (although none of the political options looks good), and Yemenis can get on with the immense task (and cost) of rebuilding their country. If not, more Yemenis will die, and their survivors will blame the Saudis, the British, and the Americans for their situation.

James Spencer is a retired infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen. Photo: Aftermath of the Saudi bombing of a funeral in Yemen.

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