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Yemen: Operation Cross-Purposes

Saudi Arabia just stopped bombing Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. That’s making Obama’s life easier as the administration’s nuclear talks with Tehran reach their most critical phase.

BY YOCHI DREAZEN for FOREIGN POLICY —

Saudi Arabia’s decision to abruptly end its air war against Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen will reverberate in Middle Eastern capitals from Tehran to Cairo and on battlefields from Sanaa to Aden. Thousands of miles away, the move could also make U.S. President Barack Obama’s life a lot less complicated.

In the weeks since Saudi warplanes began bombarding Houthi positions in Yemen, the Obama administration has had to balance Riyadh’s requests for more U.S. aid in the effort against the White House’s desire to avoid doing anything that could upset its delicate nuclear talks with Iran. Washington and Tehran are racing to wrap up a landmark deal by July 1, and White House officials have been trying to beat back accusations from inside and outside the Middle East that they’ve essentially turned a blind eye to Iranian meddling in Yemen to keep the nuclear negotiations going.

The challenge was on full display in the White House briefing room Tuesday afternoon, April 21, just hours before the Saudis announced the end of what they called Operation Decisive Storm, when spokesman Josh Earnest insisted that Iran’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war is “not a reason to break up those negotiations — in fact, it is a very strong incentive for those negotiations to succeed.”

Simon Henderson, a Persian Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the notion that the nuclear talks can be kept separate from Iranian activity in Yemen or other countries rings hollow throughout the Middle East.

“The bits of sophistry that you get out of the White House might sound OK to U.S. ears, but they don’t have any authenticity to ears in the Middle East, where people really do regard Yemen as a Sunni-Shiite, Arab-Persian struggle,” he said. “The White House somehow thinks you can treat the nuclear talks as just a separate strand and that everything else can be ignored. But that’s not how things are seen there.”

Saudi Arabia announced its decision to halt the air campaign in a statement Tuesday that said its forces had “successfully managed to thwart the threat on the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries through destruction of the heavy weapons and ballistic missiles seized by the Houthi militias.” It said Saudi forces would now transition to a new mission called Operation Hope Restore.

The move came amid signs that the weeks of strikes had done little to push the Houthis out of the areas of Yemen they now control or slow their advance toward the key port city of Aden. Human rights groups have also been escalating their criticism of the campaign, accusing Saudi Arabia of bombing indiscriminately and killing large numbers of civilians. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization estimated that the fighting that began in March had killed at least 944 and had left 3,500 more wounded.

Saudi officials said little about what Operation Hope Restore would actually entail, but it is virtually certain to include a concerted push to use limited numbers of special operations forces from an array of Persian Gulf countries to enlist Yemeni tribes in the fight against the Houthis. The elite troops would be charged with funneling weapons and money to the Yemeni fighters and then helping them plan and carry out ground combat operations throughout the country, particularly in and around the capital, Sanaa. Persian Gulf officials think the combination offers the best chance of retaking the city and eventually reinstating a government that is friendlier to Saudi Arabia than to Iran.

Iraq — an ally of both Washington and Tehran — has already begun accusing Saudi Arabia of mounting a regional power grab. Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi used a roundtable discussion with Foreign Policy and a small group of reporters to rail against Riyadh and its military operations inside Yemen.

“The dangerous thing is, we don’t know what the Saudis want to do after this,” Abadi said. “Is that to build a regional power where they will intervene in any place they want? Is Iraq within their radar? That is very, very dangerous.”

“The idea that you intervene in another state and provoked [sic] just for regional ambition is wrong,” said Abadi, who was speaking in English.

For the White House, the Saudi operations inside Yemen could not have come at a worse time or offered a more complicated set of policy choices. U.S. and Iranian negotiators are trying to nail down the central elements of a nuclear pact, a deal that is viewed with skepticism and outright hostility by Saudi Arabia, Israel, and an array of other allies of America in the region. Administration critics such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have said the Saudis launched the operation without seeking much U.S. assistance because they had simply lost faith in the White House.

“These countries, led by Saudi Arabia, did not notify us nor seek our coordination or our assistance in this effort,” McCain said in March. “That is because they believe we are siding with Iran.”

White House officials have long denied that they have been willing to tolerate Iranian misbehavior in exchange for progress on the nuclear talks.

Still, Saudi Arabia’s decision to wind down its air campaign removes a potential irritant in the talks and means the White House may no longer face as many questions about how its desire for a deal may be impacting the situation on the ground in Yemen or its willingness to help out a close ally.

A foreign-policy advisor for a senior Democratic senator said the Obama administration had pushed for the Saudi-led bombing in Yemen to wind down to pave the way for a political resolution to the crisis there and to ease humanitarian concerns about collateral damage in the impoverished country.

“They recognized that the military operations … were not going to get the parties to the negotiating table,” the advisor said.

White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said the administration welcomes the end of the Saudi-led bombing, but declined to say whether the United States leaned on Riyadh to end it. He said the Obama administration is continuing to push for a U.N.-brokered political resolution in Yemen and humanitarian aid for its people.

A senior Mideast diplomat said the White House has made little secret of its discomfort with Saudi Arabia’s offensive in Yemen and worried it could destroy any chance for a peace deal that allowed for the creation of a functioning government in Sanaa. He said the military campaign should not be allowed to derail or otherwise impact the delicate negotiations to limit Tehran’s nuclear program.

“Yemen is a blip compared to the nuclear issue,” the diplomat said.

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