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Saudi Arabia resumes airstrikes in Yemen

Hours-long halt shows challenge of diplomacy

Yahya Arhab/EPA

Houthi supporters shouted anti-Saudi slogans during a rally Wednesday demanding an end to Saudi-led military operations on Houthis and their allies, in Sana, Yemen.

By Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon New York Times 

WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia’s resumption of airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen on Wednesday, only hours after abruptly declaring a halt to most military operations, reflects the difficulty of finding a political solution to the crisis. It also showed the challenges facing the Obama administration as it increasingly relies on allies in the Middle East.

Senior Saudi officials made clear on Wednesday that they had not formally declared an end to bombing. Rather, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, said the campaign was shifting to a new phase — one in which Saudi airstrikes would be more limited and come only in response to Houthi attacks, such as the assault against Yemeni troops in Taiz.

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“The decision to calm matters now rests with them,” Jubeir told reporters at the Saudi Embassy here. He asserted that Saudi Arabia was curtailing its nearly monthlong strategic air campaign because it had ostensibly destroyed Houthi missiles, heavy weapons, and aircraft that posed a threat to Saudi Arabia and the region.

The ambassador did not mention the intensifying international pressure, including from the Obama administration, to stop airstrikes that medical and relief organizations said were killing hundreds of civilians, and to lift an embargo on food, fuel, water, and medicines that was contributing to a growing humanitarian catastrophe. But US officials and Middle Eastern diplomats privately acknowledged that was clearly a factor in the Saudi calculation.

For an array of senior US officials engaged with senior Saudi officials in recent days — including Secretary of State John Kerry and John O. Brennan, the director of the CIA — the challenge has been advising a crucial Middle East ally how to carry out a complex military campaign whose results were starting to undercut larger political goals.

For now, the answer the Saudis have come up with is to recast the air campaign by putting the onus on the Houthis for provoking any further airstrikes and delaying any deal to end the fighting.

“They’re worried about their own security. And of course we’ve supported them with their actions,” Jen Psaki, the White House communications director, said Wednesday on CNN, referring to the Saudis. “But, again, we’re trying to redirect this to a political discussion here.”

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The administration has increasingly sought to work with and through allies — in counterterrorism operations from West Africa to the Middle East — rather than put a large number of US troops on the ground to quell crises. But the Saudi insistence on continuing to wield airstrikes as a cudgel, if necessary, to batter rebel Houthi leaders to the bargaining table, illustrates the limitations of that strategy.

“Once your clients have a quasi-independent military capacity, you lose some control over them,” said F. Gregory Gause III, a Middle East specialist at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

The Houthis issued a statement declaring that they were ready “to resume political dialogue” under United Nations auspices, but only after “a complete end to the aggression against Yemen and the lifting of the blockade.”

It was unclear whether the Saudi strikes represented a resumption of the original operation under a different name — the Saudis are now calling it “Renewal of Hope” — but it seemed clear on Wednesday that the fighting was not near an end.

And despite the shift in the Saudi air campaign, one of the country’s principal goals remained unfulfilled: the return to power of the Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was ousted by the Houthis and driven into exile in Saudi Arabia.

In several areas of Taiz, fierce clashes erupted between the Houthis and their allies, mostly militias allied with the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and militiamen loyal to Hadi, according to Mohamed al-Haj, a member of the local council. The Houthi forces tried to advance on a base of a military brigade loyal to Hadi.

The warplanes struck the Houthis in the morning. “There are many deaths on both sides,” Haj said.

Houthi fighters captured the base later Wednesday afternoon, residents said.

Jubeir said that the Saudi airstrikes had been carried out in Taiz on Wednesday after Houthi forces attacked Yemeni troops in the areas. He warned that Houthi forces were moving toward Aden from three directions, adding, “These are not the actions of a party that wants peace.”

In Aden, where weeks of urban warfare have destroyed neighborhoods and killed hundreds of people, there were exchanges of tank fire between the Houthis and their adversaries, mainly local fighters who favor an independent southern state, residents said.

“The Houthis are still bombing and still sniping people,” one local fighter said. “They have not started moving away from Aden.”

Nearly 1,000 people have been killed in more than three weeks of fighting since the bombing campaign began, while more than 150,000 have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Many who have fled the violence have ended up in the East African country of Djibouti, a short boat trip across a narrow waterway separating it from Yemen.

International humanitarian organizations operating in Yemen have increasingly been caught up in the strikes. This week, Oxfam, the relief organization, said the Saudi-led coalition had bombed one of its storage facilities in northern Yemen, a warehouse that “served no military purpose,” the group said.

On Tuesday, the International Medical Corps said that a coalition airstrike this week in Sana, the Yemeni capital, had wounded six of its workers. Its staff members, the group said, “now find themselves on the front lines of this fight.”