Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Daily Times Editorial April 23, 2015

War by another name A military spokesman has announced the end of the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign inside Yemen, purportedly on the request of ousted president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whom Riyadh supports. The spokesman claimed that the objectives of the air campaign had been achieved, which he defined as removing the threat to Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries, including from heavy weapons in the hands of the rebel Houthis. Whether the rebels or their weapons actually posed any threat to the Kingdom or other neighbours remains an open question. A more realistic appreciation of the campaign might see it as necessary to turn the tide against the advancing rebels, who at one point threatened the takeover of Aden, signalling the collapse of Hadi and his resistance. To the extent that the air strikes have left the Houthis and their allies on the back foot and prevented the collapse of the Hadi forces, the claim of ‘mission accomplished’ may be accepted. However, as the spokesman’s statement goes on to make clear, such operations can be resumed if the situation requires it. The war therefore, is far from over. To replace Operation Decisive Storm, as the air campaign was dubbed, Operation Restore Hope promises better things. The ‘pause’ in bombing may be related to the efforts to get aid into Yemen to relieve the humanitarian crisis one month of bombing has created, apart from the civilian death toll of 900. Operation Restore Hope’s mission statement includes protecting civilians (which Decisive Storm failed to do), fight terrorism (al Qaeda has taken advantage of the turmoil unleashed by the bombing to capture for the first time large swathes of territory in Hadramaut province in the southeast, including its capital Mukalla), facilitate the evacuation of the remaining foreign nationals, and intensify relief and medical assistance (the UN has been pointing to a humanitarian crisis). Unstated, however, are Saudi Arabia’s plans to intervene in Yemen with ground forces, a speculation set off by King Salman’s ordering the mobilisation of the National Guard. The strengthening of domestic security measures also points in the same direction since they signal apprehensions regarding the repercussions of a ground intervention. It should be kept in mind that Pakistan so far is following its parliament’s resolution arguing for neutrality and a diplomatic rather than military role in the conflict. Whatever anger resides in Saudi hearts over Pakistan’s unwillingness to do Riyadh’s bidding, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is paying yet another visit to Saudi Arabia today to mollify the King. While scepticism still reigns about Saudi Arabia’s ground intervention, the southern sea approaches are being patrolled by Arab naval ships backed by the US naval fleet in the area (further proof that the reports that Washington has been supporting the air campaign are true). The purpose ostensibly is to deny weapons to the Houthis through this route. While Iran has welcomed the end of the air campaign since it accords with its call for a ceasefire and negotiations as a way out of the crisis, the UN too is emphasising a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds. Riyadh should take pause and think again about any boots on the ground in Yemen, since the Houthis enjoy a formidable reputation as tough guerrilla fighters, particularly in their traditional mountain strongholds in the north. Any Saudi ground foray into Yemen, with or without Egyptian and other Arab reinforcements, risks bogging down Riyadh and other Arab capitals in a protracted war that could spill over the border into Saudi Arabia itself, apart from inflaming regional tensions. Saudi Arabia may be better served by going with the diplomatic regional and international consensus to find a political solution through negotiations amongst the rival factions of Yemen. That path would also help to understand and appreciate Pakistan’s stance, which clearly is not only in the interests of Islamabad, but Saudi Arabia and the other regional players too.

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