A Saudi-led air campaign targeting Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen is entering its third month with little substantive military progress to show for relentless bombardment that has killed at least 1,800 people, ravaged an already impoverished country’s infrastructure and triggered a far-reaching humanitarian disaster.
Since the air offensive began March 26, the rebels, known as Houthis, have expanded their territorial gains, maintained control of the capital, Sana, and clung to strongholds in the strategic port city of Aden, although they suffered a setback Tuesday when anti-Houthi militiamen captured a southern town, Dali, according to residents and news reports.
The air campaign is aimed at restoring the rule of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who has taken refuge in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, along with other members of his government. But the offensive, overseen by an inexperienced Saudi defense minister, who is the son of King Salman, has been widely criticized as lacking clear military objectives, as well as for causing vast destruction and mounting civilian casualties.
Because so many areas are cut off by fighting, an accurate death toll has been difficult to compile. However, residents believe the figure is far higher than the more than 1,800 estimated by international organizations. At least 135 of those fatalities were children, the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, said this week.
The degree of human suffering enveloping what was already the Arab world’s poorest country is intensifying as well. The British aid agency Oxfam said Tuesday that at least 16 million Yemenis — nearly two-thirds of the population — now lack access to clean water and sanitation, setting the stage for a potentially catastrophic outbreak of disease.
Yemen has been under an air and sea embargo since the start of the Saudi-led campaign, which has triggered shortages of food, fuel and other crucial supplies, though a trickle of humanitarian relief has arrived. More than 500,000 people have been internally displaced, with many of them living in conditions of desperate hardship.
For some, despair is setting in.
“I hate the fact that my little sister can’t go to school, and my father can’t go to work,” said Aya Kaf, 22, who returned to Yemen not long before the war started after finishing her studies abroad. “I wanted to settle in my home country. Now our house is destroyed, and we are heartbroken. I don’t know if I can even keep hoping this war will end.”
The United States, long a close ally of Saudi Arabia, has been providing the Saudi-led Sunni Muslim coalition with logistical and intelligence support. But the Obama administration has for weeks been concerned about the rising number of civilian casualties in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia regards the Houthi advance as an emblem of expansionist ambition by its Shiite Muslim rival, Iran, and Yemen has joined a list of proxy Mideast battlefields that already included Syria and Libya. The Saudis launched the air war as the rebels closed in on Aden, where Hadi had fled after the fall of Sana.
The Saudis have put a consistently positive public spin on the campaign, though they halted daily military briefings more than a month ago, when the operation was rebranded as being focused on humanitarian concerns. Bombardment resumed within hours of the announcement.
The conservative kingdom, which keeps a tight lid on dissent, has shown little sign of domestic restiveness over the Yemen conflict. The lives of most Saudis have been unaffected by the war next door, though there is concern that the Sunni-based Islamic State militant group might rally more of a following on Saudi soil by targeting the country’s Shiite Muslim minority.
Islamic State claimed responsibility Friday for the bombing of a Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia that killed 21 people and injured scores.
And the operation has provided ammunition for the few who dare to publicly criticize King Salman, who ascended the throne in January, or his son Mohammad ibn Salman, the defense minister. One of those is disaffected Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, who told the German channel Vox last month that “Yemen is a morass for assaulting armies.”
Dali, the Yemeni city taken from the rebels, had been the scene of fierce fighting in recent weeks. The Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya on Tuesday showed images of jubilant-looking militiamen flying the separatist flag from atop a tank after they had routed the rebels from a major military base.
The city has long been a hotbed of southern separatism, but those militias have joined pro-government forces in fighting the Houthis.
Dali is a gateway to Aden, which was once Yemen’s main commercial center. Concerted Saudi-led airstrikes have failed to drive the Houthis and their allies from strongholds in the port city, which has been torn for weeks by close-quarters street fighting and accounts for a disproportionate share of the death toll in the conflict. Heavy weaponry wielded by both sides has wrecked whole neighborhoods in Aden, once known for its colonial-era architecture.
Other bitterly contested areas include the crossroads city of Taizz, where rebel gains have been reported in recent days, and Saada province, which borders Saudi Arabia. Houthis and their allies have launched occasional raids on Saudi frontier posts; a border strike late Monday killed one Saudi officer and wounded eight soldiers, Saudi officials said.
Yemenis had a brief respite from bombing, though not from ground fighting, during a five-day humanitarian truce this month, but longer-term prospects for a halt to combat appeared dim. United Nations-brokered talks were to have begun this week in Geneva, but Hadi’s government asked that they be postponed because the insurgents have rebuffed demands to pull back from captured territory as a condition for negotiations.
The conflict has also given cover to Al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for years the target of a U.S. campaign of drone strikes, last month took advantage of chaos generated by fighting elsewhere to seize a major port city, Mukalla, loot its local branch of the central bank and free hundreds of prisoners.
Many analysts believe the Saudi strategy, or lack of one, has left the kingdom painted into a corner.
The Saudis are “punishing the Yemeni people for decisions and choices made by the Yemeni political elite,” analyst Farea Muslimi of the Carnegie Middle East Center wrote this month. Saudi Arabia, he said, “has indulged in a military campaign with no clear vision on how the current conflict will be ended.”
Special correspondent Al-Alayaa reported from Sana and Times staff writer King from Cairo. Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Berlin contributed to this report.
Follow @laurakingLAT on Twitter for news out of the Middle East