BEIRUT, Lebanon – Months after a rebel movement aligned with Iran took control of Yemen’s capital in 2014, Saudi Arabia assembled a military coalition and unleashed a hail of bombs to drive the rebels back to their mountain homes .
It did not work.
Instead, it sparked an escalating cycle of violence that severely damaged Yemen’s cities and killed untold numbers of civilians, while posing new threats to global oil supplies and maritime traffic around the Arabian Peninsula.
Seven years on, victory for Saudi Arabia, which receives extensive military aid from the United States, remains elusive. Now the kingdom is looking for a way out of the war by backing a ceasefire and a new presidential council to lead the Yemeni government, announced Thursday.
Here’s a look back at how the war spiraled into a grim stalemate that shattered communities, sent starving children to depleted hospitals and spread diseases like cholera in Yemen in what United Nations officials consider to be one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
How did the war in Yemen start?
The conflict began as a civil war in 2014, when the Houthis, who wanted to take over the country, took control of the northwest and the capital Sana and sent the government-in-exile to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-led coalition soon intervened, but the Houthis remained seated as the coalition’s bombs fell, often killing civilians and destroying factories and infrastructure in what was already the poorest country in the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, also supported several Yemeni militia groups in the fight against the Houthis.
What went wrong?
Initially, the coalition heavily bombed Saada province, the Houthis’ ancestral homeland, angering residents and raising accusations of committing war crimes by failing to distinguish between civilian and military targets.
Elsewhere, Saudi bombs repeatedly fell on civilian gatherings, including weddings. An attack on a high-profile funeral in Sana in 2016 killed more than 100 people, including political figures who may have helped bridge the divide between Yemenis to end the war.
Those and other strikes made the war wildly unpopular in Washington and other Western capitals whose governments had sold the Saudis many of the weapons used to kill civilians.
The Saudis and their allies said they had adopted protocols to ensure better targeting.
But in 2018, they bombed a school bus, killing at least 44 people, most of them young boys on a field trip. That renewed the question of whether the Saudi Air Force had poor shooting skills or simply didn’t care enough to take the necessary precautions.
The harshness of the bombing and the imposition of a blockade that hampered the economy and made more Yemenis dependent on limited international aid made the Saudis deeply unpopular in parts of the country and increased support for the Houthis’ idea of fighting injustices. aggression.
“First they gave them morale by attacking civilians, then they enabled the Houthis to recruit by applying economic sanctions that impoverished the population and made enlistment in the Houthi forces the only survival option,” said Abdulghani Al. -Iryani. , a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.
How did Iran get involved?
Iran, the regional nemesis of the Saudis, had a relationship with the Houthis before the war, but dramatically increased military aid to the movement after the fighting started.
Understand the war in Yemen
A divided country. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has been fighting for years in Yemen against the Houthis, a Shia Muslim rebel group that dominates northern parts of the country. Here’s what you need to know about the conflict:
It was a win-win for the anti-Saudi team.
The Houthis needed help to fight back against a much richer and better equipped enemy, and Iran found a new way to threaten Saudi Arabia and weaken its defenses without attacking the kingdom directly.
Over time, the Houthis progressed from targeting spots along the Saudi border with short-range missiles to targeting the Saudi capital Riyadh, using large ballistic missiles and using exploding drones to attack Saudi oil facilities deep in the kingdom.
“When we talk about the Houthi movement, the biggest inflection is military capability, which has allowed them to have an inordinate effect on the region and put them in the position of being the gatekeepers to peace in Yemen,” Katherine said. Zimmerman. , a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Does this mean the war will end?
Saudi officials have argued they had no choice but to fight the Houthis and often asked what the United States would do if a violent militia took control of the territory over the border and started firing missiles at American cities. Wouldn’t it bomb them too?
The Houthis are also accused of committing war crimes, including the use of child soldiers, and they rule their territories with an iron fist that leaves no room for disagreement with their policies.
The Yemeni government’s new presidential council, announced on Thursday and backed by the Saudis, should lead peace talks with the Houthis, and a two-month ceasefire that went into effect on Saturday would also open an opening for can offer negotiations. Both are indications that Saudi Arabia is stepping up its efforts to find a way out of the war.
But some analysts question whether the Houthis want to end a war that has so vastly expanded their power and cost Saudi Arabia so much to pursue.
“It’s expensive for the Saudis, and it’s definitely more expensive for them than for their enemy, which is always a problem even if you’re the rich man,” Ms. Zimmerman said.