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Yemen war marks 5 years with no end in sight

Lewis Sanders IV
March 25, 2020

The conflict in Yemeni between Houthi forces and a Saudi-led alliance shows no sign of resolution. Amid war-induced famine and unending fighting, experts say "there's no going back to what was once in Yemen."

Man walks past destroyed mosque in Marib, Yemen
Image: Reuters/A. Owidha

Saudi jets darted across Yemeni skies on March 26, 2015, striking Houthi targets in what would mark the beginning of a protracted war over the strategic yet impoverished Middle East country.

That day, Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel al-Jubeir announced that a Saudi-led alliance would "do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling and from facing any dangers from an outside militia."

Al-Jubeir was referring to Houthi forces, which had managed to overrun Yemen's capital months before and assume control of the government. "We are in the process of overcoming tyranny," said Houthi leader Mohammed al-Bukhaiti at the time, referring to wider Houthi grievances against Yemen's government.

The Houthi offensive culminated in Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fleeing to Riyadh, where he requested military support in favor of his government just a day before the Saudi offensive would take place.

"This is a very dangerous situation and we must do everything we can to protect the people of Yemen and to protect the legitimate government of Yemen," said al-Jubeir, who went on to become Saudi's foreign minister.

Yemenis' struggle to make art

'Trapped' in Yemen

But five years later, the war has amounted to little more than death and destruction. More than 100,000 people have been killed, including 12,000 civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

The war has contributed to what UN officials have described as the world's worst humanitarian disaster, with an estimated 85,000 people having died as a cause of war-induced famine. A coronavirus outbreak would break the country's collapsing healthcare infrastructure, according to the WHO.

Read more: German doctor in Yemen: 'Every day I hear shooting outside'

The conflict has consequently tarnished Saudi Arabia's image abroad, due to the staggering civilian death toll and unrelenting humanitarian disaster.

"I think it's fair to say that Saudi Arabia is trapped in place," said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "They don't benefit from continuing the war, but they cannot afford to stop it either."

Strategic shift

Indeed, what was once a war aimed at shoring up Hadi's government to protect Saudi interests has turned into something else entirely. Even attempts to prevent Iran from gaining a larger foothold in Yemen have resulted in quite the opposite.

Since the beginning of the year, the Houthis - largely seen as being aligned with Iran - have made significant territorial gains near the Saudi borderlands, forcing Riyadh to shift its war strategy, according to Ahmed Nagi, nonresident scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

"Today Saudi's priority is no longer restoring legitimacy in Yemen as announced at the beginning of its military campaign," said Nagi. "It is rather securing its southern borders and maintaining links with its aligned local factions to guarantee its interests in Yemen."

No end in sight

With experts suggesting that little is likely to change in the near future, the Yemen conflict is bearing the hallmarks of a frozen conflict. Efforts to establish direct talks aimed at securing a political solution have floundered.

Read more: Yemen: has the suffering been for nothing?

"The question few are asking is what Yemen looks like in the coming years," said Katherine Zimmerman, resident fellow and critical threats project advisor at the American Enterprise Institute. "A national-level political resolution seems unlikely, and the current frontlines are continuing to normalize as the war economy matures."

"There's no going back to what was once in Yemen, only shaping what will be."

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