Today marks the start of the fifth year of the Anglo-American bombing campaign against Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world.
Since then, the war has been as devastating as it has been futile. While it was supposed to defeat the rebel Houthi movement, today most of the major population centres remain under Houthi control, with the “coalition” assembled by the Saudi unable to retake either the capital, Sanaa, or the countrys most important strategic asset, the port city of Hodeidah.
Instead, it quickly plunged Yemen into the worlds worst humanitarian crisis, a position it retains today, as critical health, sewage and transport infrastructure was destroyed, triggering the worlds worst outbreak of cholera since records began in 1949, with over one million infected.
And the country now stands on the brink of the worlds worst famine in 100 years, as a gratuitous and arbitrary naval blockade and the apparently wilful targeting of food supplies takes its toll.
Tenacity and resilience
Western support continues, regardless. Last June, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that the number at “imminent risk of famine” in Yemen had reached 14 million, over half the population.
That same month, the US and UK worked together to torpedo a Swedish resolution at the UN Security Council calling for a ceasefire.
That veto ensured that the Saudis could continue their attack on Hodeidah, launched days earlier. Aid agencies had long predicted that such an attack would be calamitous.
Back in March 2017, Oxfam chief executive Mark Goldring had warned that attacking Hodeidah port, where an estimated 70 percent of Yemen’s food comes into, would spark widespread famine. “If it is attacked, this will be a deliberate act that will disrupt vital supplies – the Saudi-led coalition will not only breach International Humanitarian Law, they will be complicit in near certain famine.”
Yet the tenacity and resilience of the Houthis had, as ever, been underestimated. According to intelligence analysts, the Jamestown Foundation, the initial bombing raids on the city were supposed to be “the first step towards an amphibious invasion of the port that would be supported by allied Yemeni troops once they had moved toward the port from their positions to the south.”
They never got anywhere close. Two months later, they had not even been able to capture the airport outside the city, let alone the city or the port itself.
No military advances
The ferocity of Yemeni resistance was astonishing. At least one Emirati naval vessel was hit, prompting others to back away from the shore, whilst a hit on a Saudi oil tanker on 25 July led the Saudis to temporarily halt oil shipments through the Red Sea altogether.
A war already costing the Saudis an estimated $200m per day was now threatening to prevent them exporting their oil. British special services were quickly dispatched to help prevent this doomsday scenario.
Unable to make military advances, the western-backed coalition, as ever, simply embarked on a killing spree. Some 258 airstrikes were launched in June alone, a third of them against non-military residential areas.
On 2 August, 55 people were killed in air strikes on a hospital and fish market, and a week later 43 children were killed when their school bus was targeted with a US Raytheon missile delivered by the Saudi air force, one of an estimated 50 air strikes on civilian vehicles that year.
By September it was reported that strikes on non-military targets had reached 48 percent of the total.
On 29 August, almost three months into the offensive, it was reported yet again that anti-Houthi forces were “on the verge” of taking Hodeidah airport. This was becoming embarrassing.
The fiasco of the attack on Hodeidah encapsulated the horror and futility of the war as a whole, characterised by a combination of military humiliation and infant corpses, torn apart by US and British missiles.
Even the establishment charity Save the Children began referring to the aggression against Yemen as a “war on children”, whilst former UK Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell told parliament that “Britain is complicit in creating a famine”.
The Hodeidah offensive eventually ground to a halt while the attackers regrouped. By the end of October, they were ready to have another go, with 30,000 troops in position south of the city. This attack, too, got nowhere.
War not over
This was the context in which the Stockholm agreement on 13 December was signed: finally, a ceasefire agreement and a halt to the attack on Hodeidah.
For the aggressors, there was little alternative. To have continued the offensive could well have resulted in a defeat so ignominious as to free not only Yemen, but maybe even Saudi Arabia itself, from the grip of the al-Saud family.
Despite the combined resources of the ten countries of the coalition, the financial muscle of the GCC, hundreds of billions worth of the most advanced weaponry money can buy, and the intelligence, diplomatic and military support of the western world, the aggression was not able to defeat a rebel movement in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Yemen has become the Vietnam of our generation.
Yet it is not over. History reveals that it is precisely when imperious aggressors are facing defeat that they are at their most desperate and dangerous.
Make no mistake, this fifth year will see the final defeat of the aggressors. The only question is how many more starving and charred infants the Saudis, Emiratis, Americans and British are willing to throw into the fire on the way.
The Article First Appeared In Middle East Eye on 26 March 2019