Saudi-style cease-fire.

Photographer: Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Saudis' New Yemen War Looks Like the Old One

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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When Saudi Arabia announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen Tuesday evening, the Barack Obama administration breathed a sigh of relief. Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, had privately urged the Saudis to stop bombing Houthi rebel positions, as data mounted that the aerial campaign was wreaking havoc among civilians, with some estimates as high as 1,000 casualties.

And for a few hours it appeared the air campaign was over. But like almost everything else in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, it did not go according to plan. By Wednesday Washington-time, Saudi jets were back to pounding Houthi positions in and around the Gulf of Aden. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington even acknowledged that his country was arming "popular committees" in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, an area currently under Houthi control.

Yemen's Fault Lines

Obama and his administration have a delicate task ahead in Yemen. They have to persuade their traditional Gulf allies including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that a nuclear deal now being negotiated with Iran will not diminish American security commitments to Sunni Arab monarchies, which see Iran's support for insurgents and terrorists in the region as a dire threat. At the same time, Obama doesn't want the new proxy war in Yemen -- where Iran supports the Houthi forces being bombed by Saudi Arabia and its allies -- to scuttle his negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

In practice, this has meant that U.S. officials in public have expressed strong support for Saudi Arabia, announcing logistic and intelligence support for its anti-Houthi coalition. Behind the scenes, however, the Obama administration has urged allies to end the bombing and move quickly to peace negotiations. Unfortunately for Obama, the enemy gets a vote.

At a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia's ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, said of the Houthi rebels: "We are seeing movement in the city of Aden where we see skirmishes and movement into Aden from three different directions, they will be entering Aden within hours." He added: "We are determined to provide assistance to prevent this from happening."

According to Mohammed Albasha, the Yemeni government’s spokesman in Washington, Houthi forces took two military bases over the last 24 hours, the 35th Brigade base west of Taiz and the Kufahl Army Base in Mareb Province. Saudi airstrikes are now pounding those positions and Houthi forces in Aden and Lahi.

Recent days have seen a remarkable series of shifts.  At the beginning of the week, it appeared the Saudis were all-in for Yemen. The elected president and Saudi ally, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, remained in exile. The Houthi rebels still controlled the capital. And Iran had sent new arms shipments to the Houthis, who had yet to agree to negotiations. On Tuesday, the Saudis called up their national guard in what appeared to be preparations for a ground invasion.

But then the Saudis announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm and the beginning of Operation Renewal of Hope, which was going to focus on providing humanitarian relief and getting back to a political negotiation for a unity government in Yemen. On Wednesday morning, U.S. National Security Council Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan praised the end to fighting: "We look forward to a shift from military operations to the rapid, unconditional resumption of all-party negotiations."

Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador, also announced his support for the political negotiations. But he noted that Houthi forces were nonetheless continuing to launch attacks. Speaking of those rebels, he said, "We have made it clear we will not allow them to take Yemen by force."

Kerry and other top U.S. officials had been urging a halt to the bombing campaign through a series of interactions with Saudi and Emirati leaders. Kerry spoke with Jubeir several times, including calls on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, according to U.S. officials. A senior State Department official told us that during these calls, Kerry argued that the collateral damage from the airstrikes was too high and the humanitarian situation inside Yemen was deteriorating too rapidly.

Also part of the administration calculation in calling for an end to the mission was the impending showdown between the U.S. warships entering the Gulf of Aden, led by the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, and an approaching flotilla of Iranian cargo and military vessels, the official said. When asked on Tuesday if the Roosevelt would interdict Iranian arms shipments into Yemen, White House spokesmen Josh Earnest declined to say. On Wednesday, Jubeir said Saudi ships in the gulf would be inspecting the cargo of all vessels heading into and out of Yemen.

While the Saudis were stopping the air war in Yemen, the UAE sent a delegation, led by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, to Washington. Obama himself on Monday met with the prince, and Kerry and other cabinet officials held consultations with the UAE delegation on Tuesday.

According to one source familiar with the discussions, the meetings were in preparation for a summit next month at Camp David among U.S. gulf allies, in which the U.S. is expected to offer new long-term security guarantees ahead of the scheduled conclusion of the Iran nuclear negotiations.

So what effect will the resumption of Saudi strikes have on all this diplomacy? State Department officials note that when it announced the new mission Wednesday, the Saudi government made clear that some military activity might still be necessary to respond to any continued advance by Houthi forces. But the U.S. government was surprised, officials acknowledged, by the rapid resumption of widespread fighting and bombing in and around Aden so quickly after the Saudi announcement.

American assistance to the Saudi-led air campaign will continue, officials told us. That assistance has included intelligence, aerial refueling and logistical support. With the Houthis continuing their march on the ground, America's quiet diplomacy to urge an end to the fighting will also likely continue, even if the old war now has a new name. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net