How a Saudi-led alliance battling an Iran-backed militia devastated Yemen

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) – Months after a rebel movement aligned with Iran seized control of Yemen’s capital in 2014, Saudi Arabia pulled together a military coalition and unleashed a rain of bombs aimed at driving the rebels back to their homes in the mountains.

It didn’t work.

Instead, it set off an escalating cycle of violence that heavily damaged Yemen’s cities and killed an untold number of civilians while creating new threats to the global oil supply and maritime traffic around the Arabian Peninsula.

Seven years in, victory for Saudi Arabia, which receives extensive military aid from the United States, remains elusive. Now, the kingdom is searching for a way out of the war by backing a cease-fire and a new presidential council to lead the Yemeni government, which was announced on Thursday (April 7).

Here is a look back at how the war settled into a grinding stalemate that has shattered communities, sent starving children to depleted hospitals and spread diseases such as cholera across Yemen in what United Nations officials have deemed one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

How did the Yemen war begin?

The conflict began as a civil war in 2014, when the Houthis, seeking to take over the country, took control of the northwest and the capital, Sanaa, sending the government into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-led coalition soon intervened, but the Houthis stayed put while the coalition’s bombs fell, often killing civilians and destroying factories and infrastructure in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country.

Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, also backed various Yemeni fighting groups to battle the Houthis.

What went wrong?

Early on, the coalition heavily bombarded Saada province, the Houthis’ ancestral homeland, embittering its residents and providing an opening for accusations that it was committing war crimes by not differentiating between civilian and military targets.

Elsewhere, Saudi bombs repeatedly fell on civilian gatherings, including weddings. An attack on a high-profile funeral in Sanaa in 2016 killed more than 100 people, including political figures who might have helped bridge gaps between Yemenis to end the war.

That and other strikes made the war hugely unpopular in Washington and other Western capitals whose governments had sold the Saudis many of the weapons being used to kill civilians.

The Saudis and their allies said they adopted protocols to ensure better targeting.

But then in 2018, they bombed a school bus, killing at least 44 people, most of them young boys on a field trip. That renewed questions about whether the Saudi air force had poor targeting skills or just did not care enough to take the necessary precautions.

The harshness of the bombing campaign and the imposition of a blockade that hobbled the economy and left more Yemenis dependent on limited international aid made the Saudis deeply unpopular in parts of the country and increased support for the Houthis’ idea that they were fighting unjust aggression.

“First, they gave them the moral high ground by attacking civilians, then they made it possible for the Houthis to recruit by applying economic sanctions that impoverished the population and made enlisting in the Houthi forces the only survival option,” said Mr Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies.