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Saudi calls time on Yemen bombing campaign: Time for politics?

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Hani Mohammed/AP

(Read caption) Smoke rises after a Saudi-led airstrike hit a site where many believe the largest weapons cache in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, April 21. The Saudi-led coalition pounded Shiite rebels in Yemen on Tuesday, killing at least 19 in a city in the country's west, officials said.

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Saudi Arabia called it quits on its "Decisive Storm" campaign against Yemen's Houthi rebels Tuesday after a month of airstrikes that left hundreds dead. The Saudi Defense Ministry said in a statement that the campaign's objectives "have been achieved," but certainly nothing decisive has been a result of its involvement. 

Yemen's future is as muddied as when the shooting began. The Shiite Houthi movement remains intact and powerful, Saudi Arabia's preferred ruler of Yemen, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, remains in exile in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. A few weeks ago Saudi Arabia implored Egypt and Pakistan to commit troops to the fight in Yemen, recognizing that air power from afar was not going to settle control of Yemen on the ground. Both those countries demurred.

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Absent a capable invasion force – something Saudi Arabia's own military isn't up to – a political settlement has looked more and more like the best option for all concerned.

Meanwhile, social media and satellite television stations have been filled with images of the civilian toll of the Saudi bombing campaign. Humanitarian agencies have been warning that famine could become a reality in Yemen – the Arab world's poorest country – given that ports have been shut, the country's limited infrastructure is being damaged, and banditry has been on the rise on the roads between major population centers. Even in the south of the country, whose residents have no interest in being ruled by the northern Houthis, there's been fury at the campaign.

Earlier Tuesday the World Health Organization warned of an "imminent collapse" of the country's health services.

"Over the past 4 weeks, national disease surveillance reports show a doubling in the number of cases of bloody diarrhea in children below the age of 5, as well as an increase in the number of cases of measles and suspected malaria. High rates of malnutrition among women and children below the age of 5 have also been reported,” Ahmed Shadoul, WHO's Representative for Yemen, said in the statement.

New Saudi effort: 'Restoring Hope'

That has left Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council on the hook in the public eye for a looming catastrophe. While that might be a price worth paying for victory, no victory is in sight. The Saudis announced a new name for their efforts in Yemen "Restoring Hope," that would focus on border security and finding a "political solution" to Yemen's woes.

The absence of a clear strategy has been apparent since almost the moment the bombing began. In recent days US officials have privately claimed that they've urged the Saudis to reduce their airstrikes, particularly in cities, and have also said they're mystified at what the kingdom has been hoping to accomplish. At the same time the Obama administration has been assisting the Saudi effort, helping with target selection and seeking to interdict potential Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis. The US announced it was sending a carrier group to the coast as well. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was in Washington last week appealing for more US aid for his own war effort against the Islamic State, lashed out at the Saudi campaign. “There is no logic to the operation at all in the first place,” he said. “Mainly, the problem of Yemen is within Yemen.”

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There is some hope now that the problem will remain so. The Houthi offensive began out of dissatisfaction over a promised new constitution and power-sharing arrangements, particularly between the country's north and south, which were separate countries for decades prior to reunification in 1990. In 2011, the Saudis helped broker a transition that saw longstanding Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh replaced by Mr. Hadi. Mr. Saleh and Yemeni army units that remained loyal to him have since thrown their lot in with the Houthis.

A deal is always possible

Yemen is a tribal society. Government control outside of cities like the southern port of Aden and the northern capital of Sanaa is usually notional. Alliances of convenience are often forged, and just as easily can be broken. But the good news is that a deal is always possible if there's a willingness to compromise.

While the Houthis were declaring victory Tuesday, they've been badly bloodied by the campaign, and a prolonged war is certain to have a horrific toll on all the country's people, whichever political factions they support. That provides strong logic for a negotiated settlement, though whether that begins remains to be seen.

The US has been something of a reluctant Saudi partner in all this. While the Sunni Saudis hate the Houthis as a Shiite movement, the major US concern in Yemen has been confronting the Sunni JIhadis of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has been responsible for a number of failed attacks on the US in recent years. The US drone campaign to kill AQAP leaders has been largely suspended during the country's civil war, and AQAP has benefited from the chaos.