Saudi Arabia to scale down military operations in Yemen

By Simeon Kerr

Saudi Arabia has called an end to “major combat operations” in Yemen, marking a significant de-escalation in its military activities in the country amid informal talks between Riyadh and Houthi rebels.

The proxy war inYemen, which pitted a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab states against the Iran-allied Houthis, began almost a year ago as Riyadh launched air strikes against the rebels who had taken control of the capital Sana’a.

The coalition has sought to reinstate Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the exiled president, who fled after Houthi forces took Sana’a.

Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, told the Associated Press that the group would now work on “long-term” plans to bring stability to the country.

He said theSaudimilitary would continue to provide air support to Yemeni forces battling Houthi rebels and their allies among military units loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president who was in power before Mr. Hadi.

Saudi officials say the military effort has shifted from intensive, nationwide operations to more targeted support for Yemeni forces.

While efforts are shifting to diplomacy, some analysts questioned whether the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen had been a success.

“Not much has been achieved,” said Ibrahim Fraihat, senior foreign policy fellow at Brookings in Doha. “Unless there is an agreement to end the fighting and secure complete Houthi withdrawal from the capital, then the operation will not have achieved anything.”

“Calling an end to combat operations is a sign of concrete progress that is likely being made in the talks between Saudi and the Houthis,” he added.

Last week, Houthi representatives held talks with Saudi officials in Riyadh, after which a Houthi official called on Iran to stop interfering in Yemen. The official’s comments were welcomed by Saudi Arabia. A prisoner exchange also took place.

Since last summer’s ground offensive, the Saudi-led coalition has pushed Houthi forces out of the southern city of Aden but has met stiff resistance in the foothills of the highlands around Taiz.

While forces loyal to Mr Hadi have made some advances in recent weeks, they are yet to take control of Taiz, a strategic vantage point on the road to Sana’a.

Achieving a lasting peace remains a distant prospect.

“In the event that the war is declared over, the problem will be that you have lots of different heavily armed militias, who still haven’t achieved their aims on the ground and who no one really controls,” said Peter Salisbury, associate fellow at think-tank Chatham House.

The international community has also become concerned about the ability of Sunni militants al-Qaeda andIsisto consolidate control over tracts of southern Yemen amid the chaos of the fighting.

Riyadh has also faced sharp criticism over civilian casualties caused by bombing raids. The Houthi-controlled state news agency said on Tuesday that two air strikes on a market in northern Yemen left at least 65 dead and another 55 wounded.

Saudi Arabia, facing a 15 per cent fiscal deficit because of low oil prices, can ill-afford the expensive military campaign. Rebuilding Yemen will also cost billions of dollars.

Saudi officials say tribal mediation is taking place between Saudi officials and Yemeni tribes, including Houthi representatives, in a bid to “bring calm” to the Saudi-Yemen border, where Houthis have been launching offences into Saudi territory. Western officials say the incursions have been causing significant, unreported casualties among Saudi forces and civilians.

The mediation is also aimed at securing relief convoy’s access to northern Yemen, in order to deliver much-needed supplies and to carry out mine clearance on the border.

Courtesy: Financial Times

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