Saudi Arabia to shift from heavy airstrikes to 'political process' in 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 on 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. The president took refuge in the Saudi capital after fleeing by sea.

Last year, the Houthis, northern-based adherents of the Shiite offshoot Zaidi sect, took over the capital, Sana. Significant elements of Yemen’s military supported the insurgents, at the behest of deposed strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In 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 during the night — 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 destruction of homes, mosques, hospitals and factories in the air raids. On Monday, an airstrike on a missile storage site in Sana 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 Qaeda 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 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 sectarian overtones, with Shiite Muslim Iran supporting the Houthis — though not, Tehran has insisted, arming them — and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia fearing that Yemen would be 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.

"We continue to have concerns about Iran's support for the Houthis, including supplying them with military equipment and even arms," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday. "The conflict there has led to significant violence and an urgent humanitarian situation."

Some analysts questioned the Saudi claims of success in the bombing campaign.

Allen L. Keiswetter, a former U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia and Yemen who is with the nonpartisan Middle East Institute in Washington, said the Saudi airstrikes destroyed many of the Houthis' weapons, but they did not push the insurgents to the negotiating table.

"I have seen no indications that they're ready to sit down to negotiations," he said. "From that perspective, the Saudis did not accomplish all that they set out to do."

The airstrikes "put a dent in the military capabilities of the Houthis in Yemen," he said. "Whether or not they ever posed a serious threat to Saudi Arabia in the first place will remain in question."

Special correspondent Al-Alayaa reported from Sana and Times staff writer Hennigan from Washington. Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Berlin and staff writer Laura King in Alexandria, Egypt, contributed to this report.