Friday, March 31, 2017

The Saudi-led coalition's strategy in Yemen is entirely counter-productive

A poster reads "two years of aggression that achieved nothing but destruction, devastation and killing of innocents" at a protest in Sana'a, March 26th, 2017. 

*It has now been two years since the Saudi-led coalition began waging its war in Yemen against the rebel group, the Houthis.

The coalition's military operation was intended to "save the people of Yemen from a radical group (the Houthis) trying to take over the country," as expressed by Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir in a news conference on the day the military operation began - 26 March, 2015. So far, the coalition's military strategy has not reduced Houthi "radicalism", rather it has become completely counter-productive, and instead of weakening the Houthis, it is strengthening them.

For many Yemenis, 26 March signifies not just the beginning of all out war, but one of the chapters in the violent unrest the country has been witnessing since the 2011 uprising. Indeed, many regard September 2014 - when the Houthis stormed into the capital city, Sanaa - as a turning point in the country's chain of armed conflicts. Following the Houthis taking de-facto control of Sanaa, the general sentiment in Sanaa was one of a refusal of what the Houthis represented. One anti-Houthi protest after another crystallised into a peaceful anti-Houthi movement named "Refusal". The capital witnessed many anti-Houthi protests raising slogans, such as "no for coup" and "no to armed militias".

Yemenis' peaceful resistance was quickly interrupted by the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, which not only ended their spirit for peaceful resistance to the Houthis, but also turned millions of Yemenis against the waning legitimacy of the government. Today, there is no room for peaceful resistance against the Houthis under the Saudi-led coalition's military operations, as Yemenis today are barely able to survive the war.

Extremist groups such as IS are the only ones to thrive in Yemen's war. Moreover, in light of the devastation, Yemenis repeatedly question how President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his leadership could have allowed their people to slip into one of the world's most tragic humanitarian tragedies – all in the name of restoring legitimacy.

To continue the current military policy in Yemen, would be counter-productive, turning the Houthis - who Yemenis used to perceive as tyrants - into national heroes. The strength and resilience of the Houthis, and their refusal to surrender, are perceived by many Yemenis as heroism in today's harsh reality of war. Some of my own family and friends in Yemen, some as young as teenagers, are joining the Houthis in the fight against the "enemy".

To continue the war and achieve nothing but further destruction, would shatter any trust the Yemenis might have had in President Hadi, turning the Yemenis against the Saudi-led coalition. Had the situation in Yemen been dealt with more wisely, it might have been possible to avoid conflict with a militia group which has known nothing but fighting for years, and avoid getting into an unwinnable war. One might have predicted that the war could only plunge Yemen into even greater instability, and destroy the legitimacy the Saudi-led coalition is working so hard to restore.

It's now been two years since Yemen slipped into one of the world's worst humanitarian tragedies. About 20 million people are on the edge of famine and need some kind of humanitarian assistance. About 10,000 have been killed and it's very likely the death toll is higher, as many are dying of starvation and lack of medicine. The coalition's strategies such as targeting civilian areas and infrastructure, and the air and naval blockade imposed on a large part of Yemen, have all sparked a blowback reaction.

Today, people who were not previously allied with the Houthis are actually joining them in a knee-jerk response that allows them to rise up against the suffering caused by the Saudi-led coalition. With every household effected by the bombardment or the starvation tactic in the war, the Saudi-led coalition's war is actually making new enemies, and the "legitimacy" becomes less convincing by the day.

This is not to say that the coalition must abort the mission in Yemen immediately, but rather re-think its approach to the Houthi threat and find new ways eliminate its counter-productive strategy. The coalition must work more closely with the resistance movement in Yemen who can effectively confront the Houthis before it's too late, and work more seriously at containing the humanitarian crisis.

*This op-ed piece was written for and published in The New Arab on 30 March 2017.