SANAA, YEMEN: Amid mounting civilian casualties, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday signaled a scaling back of its nearly monthlong campaign of airstrikes in Yemen, but said it would continue to act militarily against Shiite Muslim insurgents who have overrun much of the impoverished but strategic nation.
Through a military spokesman and an announcement via its official news agency, the kingdom declared a formal end to what it had dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm,” which began with an aerial offensive in the early hours of March 26 and pressed ahead with strikes across the country.
The air war was launched in response to the Houthi rebels’ advance on the southern port city of Aden, which had been the last redoubt of the country’s internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. Hadi took refuge in the Saudi capital after fleeing by sea.
Last year, the Houthis, northern-based adherents of the Shiite offshoot Zaidi sect, had taken over the capital, Sanaa. Significant elements of Yemen’s military supported the insurgents, at the behest of deposed strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Under its new Saudi-led campaign, “the coalition will continue to prevent the Houthi militias from moving or undertaking any operations inside Yemen,” Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri told reporters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. In the Yemeni capital, residents said there had been no strikes—which often take place late at night and in the early-morning hours—since midnight, the time of the previous operation’s declared end.
Aid organizations had noted with alarm the climbing civilian death toll in the Saudi-led campaign, pointing to damage and destruction of homes, mosques, hospitals and factories in the air raids. On Monday, an airstrike on a missile storage site in Sanaa set off enormous secondary explosions that rocked the city, flattening homes and businesses over a wide area. The Health Ministry put the death toll at 46.
Through its Washington embassy, Saudi Arabia indicated that the new phase of its operation would mark a shift in focus “from military operations to the political process,” including efforts to form a transitional government. Asiri, the military spokesman, said the campaign of heavy airstrikes would be scaled down, but did not pledge a halt.
“There might be less frequency, and the scope of the actions might be less, but there will be military action,” he said. The Saudi-led coalition has blockaded Yemen’s seaports and controls its airspace.
Although Saudi Arabia has characterized operations to date as successful, the Houthis still control large areas of the country, and have not been dislodged from Aden, Yemen’s commercial hub. Yemen’s branch of al-Qaida has also made territorial gains, capitalizing on the chaos generated by the fight between pro- and anti-Hadi forces.
Saudi Arabia insisted, however, that “the Houthi militias have lost a large part of their capabilities” since the start of the Riyadh-led offensive.
As the destruction has mounted, the Saudi-led campaign has galvanized public animosity toward the kingdom, which shares a long border with Yemen, and toward the United States, which has provided support. Cease-fire calls have come from various quarters, including the United Nations and Iran.
The fighting has taken on distinctly sectarian overtones, with Shiite Muslim Iran supporting the Houthis—though not, Tehran has insisted, arming them—and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia fearing that Yemen marked another venue for growing Iranian influence.
National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said the U.S. welcomed the conclusion of Operation Decisive Storm.
“We continue to support the resumption of a U.N.-facilitated political process and the facilitation of humanitarian assistance,” Baskey said in a statement.
The Pentagon has deployed nine warships and three supply ships to the region, including the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the guided-missile cruiser Normandy. Officials said they are conducting maritime security operations in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The Pentagon said nine Iranian cargo ships also are steaming in international waters in the Gulf of Aden. U.S. officials said they don’t know what the ships are carrying, but are watching the flotilla in case the vessels try to deliver weapons to the Houthi rebels on shore.
“We continue to have concerns about Iran’s support for the Houthis, including supplying them with military equipment and even arms,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday. “The conflict there has led to significant violence and an urgent humanitarian situation.”