Saudis to shift away from heavy airstrikes

Ye­men’s neigh­bor says at­tacks will be scaled back as the fo­cus turns to ‘po­lit­i­cal process.’

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Zaid al-Alayaa and W.J. Hen­ni­gan wil­liam.hen­ni­gan@la­times.com 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, Egy

SANA, 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.

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 U.S., which has pro­vided sup­port. Cease­fire 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 end of De­ci­sive Storm. “We con­tinue to sup­port the re­sump­tion of a U.N.-fa­cil­i­tated po­lit­i­cal process and the fa­cil­i­ta­tion of hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance,” he 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.

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

Allen L. Keiswet­ter of the Mid­dle East In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton said the Saudi airstrikes de­stroyed many of the Houthis’ weapons but did not push the in­sur­gents to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

“From that per­spec­tive, the Saudis did not ac­com­plish all that they set out to do,” he said.

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

SAUDI SOL­DIERS last week fire to­ward Ye­men. The Saudi-led air war against rebels in Ye­men that be­gan last month was launched in re­sponse to the in­sur­gents’ ad­vance on the south­ern Ye­meni port city of Aden.

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