As the military intervention in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition enters its second week, Abdel Bari Atwan says the conflict there could be heading for major escalation.
There have been three major recent developments in Yemen:
• First, the fall of the city of Aden to the Houthi forces, backed by military and security personnel loyal to the ousted formed president Saleh. The “legitimate” President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi had been living in Aden following his flight from the Houthis in Sanaa earlier in the year. Hadi resurfaced in Riyadh last week.
• Second, heavy exchanges of fire on the Saudi-Yemen border during which one Saudi border guard, Salman Ali Yahya al-Maliki, was killed have continued since Tuesday, suggesting that an escalation into a ground war is imminent although not in the location, or in the way that the Saudis would have planned it.
• Third, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters stormed the prison in the coastal city of Al-Mukalla, capital of the Hadramaut province (home of Osama bin Laden’s ancestors), releasing of its 300 prisoners, including two senior figures of whom Khalid Batarfi, leader of the group’s Abyan section, is one.
As a prelude to the jail break (for which AQAP is notorious) fighters also attacked the Presidential Palace, the port, the Central Bank, and the General intelligence headquarters, and the local administration. Jihadist groups are always quick to exploit chaos and anarchy and things don’t get much more chaotic and anarchic than Yemen these days.
The fall of Aden
The fall of Aden to Houthi-Saleh forces is a major setback for the Saudi-led counter-offensive which has, to date, been entirely conducted from the air.
Meanwhile, AQAP’s jail break and overrunning of State institutions in Mukalla is a heavy blow to the US-led “war on terror” which has focused on Yemen, mostly by drone strikes, for three years.
The US has long considered AQAP to be the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise, not only for its military successes and relative popularity among the citizenry, but also because the influence of the late Anwar al-Awlaki (who had lived in the US for many years and created the English language al-Qaeda magazine, Inspire) made the group a magnet for foreign recruits who migrated to Yemen over the years to be trained before moving on to other battle grounds.
Yemen’s official foreign minister, Riad Yassin, who has fled with Hadi to Riyadh where the exiled government is now based, addressed the Saudi Shura council on Wednesday and called for a ground invasion by coalitions troops.
Yassin said that “Operation Decisive Storm” as the Saudi-led air initiative is code-named (deliberately reminiscent of America’s own Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1991) was not destroying the Houthi rebellion but rather the State’s own institutions such as airports, harbours and Government offices.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, said that Operation Decisive Storm would continue until Yemen is “stable and unified” but did not commit to a ground invasion which could prove to be disastrous for them. While the coalition enjoys vastly superior air power, Houthi soldiers are experts in guerilla warfare and might prevail on the ground.
Military pressure on the Houthis is undoubtedly escalating, despite their having seized Aden, but pressure on the Saudi-led coalition is also increasing, especially from international humanitarian institutions, who have been increasingly critical of the dangers to civilians from the air bombardment which, the UN says, has claimed 520 innocent lives.
A ground intervention might prove suicidal to the Saudis and their Egyptian, Jordanian and Gulf allies. None of these governments are likely to risk massive casualties among their troops.
Former President Saleh may be the one to benefit most from the current crisis, even if his loyalists split from a demoralized Houthi army they are likely to fight until death for this is the Yemeni way. If he is victorious he will be restored to the presidency; if he loses he will meet a similar fate to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons, or Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, his old friend.
Saleh will be prepared to take this gamble because most Yemenis prefer death to surrender.
AQAP is also likely to benefit as it thrives in chaos and the security vacuum caused by civil strife.
The elephant in the room remains how Iran will respond to the escalating crisis in Yemen where it has been supporting the Houthis. Tehran has been absorbed by negotiations with Washington over its nuclear ambitions but these have now drawn to a relatively successful close.
Certainly the Iranians will be closely monitoring the situation and will not be quick to reveal their intentions. They may well be banking on the Saudis backing off from a ground war but at the moment the Saudis are surprising us all with their unprecedented hawkishness.
Saudi Arabia has become the new hawk in the region under its new King, Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, taking the opposite path entirely to the one pursued by his predecessors which sought to exercise soft power in the face of threats to the kingdom of which the most serious were the Iranian revolution (1979) and the invasion of Kuwait (1990-1) when it called in 100,000 US troops to fight its corner.
Prince Faisal also spoke out against Iran, saying it had made Baghdad the capital of the new Iranian Empire, and the Assad regime in Syria, describing its leader as the butcher of Damascus.
What are the reasons for this shift in rhetoric and practice?
The Saudi leadership feels that it is facing an unprecedented threat, largely because of the recent US-Iranian rapprochement and the nuclear deal which seems to be making good progress and which will restore Iran to the position of regional influence and power that it enjoyed before the revolution made it an international pariah.
Iran has managed to achieve its present status due to its enduring self-reliance and ability to survive, despite three decades of sanctions, economic blockade and sabre rattling from the West and Israel. It was not intimidated by US battle ships air and naval fleets and in an international game of chicken neither budged nor screamed first.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, followed a policy – which we believe to have been mistaken – leaving not even a hair’s breadth between Riyadh and Washington, stalwartly endorsing and helping America’s hegemonic zeal, funding its wars in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq… only to discover that the United States did not hesitate for a second when the time came to stab it in the back and side with its powerful in stabbed her in the back, and has sided with its powerful regional rival, Iran.
Banging the drums of war
There is a great deal of historical irony in this new situation and in Prince Saud al-Faisal describing Baghdad as the “capital of wounded Arabism.”
We have not forgotten statements made by the Saudi regime during the war against Saddam Hussein to liberate Kuwait and during the years of unjust sanctions imposed on the capital of Arabism which followed. However, we do not want to open all wounds so let this suffice.
But let us be honest and admit that Saudi Arabia is banging the drums of war. It has sent 185 aircraft to prevent Houthi forces seizing Aden where the “legitimate” Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is holed up. (Like Libya, Yemen is now a country with two rival governments with the person who is meant to be President unable to enter the seat of governance, his country’s capital city!).
Since the Houthis have not fired a single bullet on Saudi territory, this air invasion is immensely provocative and clearly in breach of international law.
If Yemen’s security is an “integral part of Saudi Arabian and the Gulf in general’s security,” as Prince Faisal claims, we fully agree. Why then did it leave Yemen and its people facing hunger, deprivation, poverty and unemployment, all those years while its oil-rich neighbours enjoyed decades of plenty?
What a shame that the Saudis and their Gulf allies did not implement a policy for the regional common good, along the lines of early European Common Market policies, which saw massive investment in the “poor men of Europe” – Portugal, Spain and Greece – to boost their economies as a prelude to membership. But Prince Faisal, a political veteran, has made no mention of the obvious economic aspect of the current crisis in Yemen.
Helping Yemen and pumping billions of dollars into its economy would be far more effective than bombing the populace in order to return President Mansour Hadi to the capital. Surely that should be the business of the Yemeni people; shouldn’t they be deciding who is the boss?
There is growing clamour for a ground invasion by Saudi Arabia and its regional (token) allies; the Yemeni foreign minister himself has demanded it in order to restore the legitimate government.
There are rumors and reports about fierce artillery clashes on the Yemeni-Saudi border and we have great cause to fear escalation and expansion of this conflict which is essentially sectarian. On a local level, tribal feuding will become more vicious and harder to control, whereas regionally the sectarian fault lines continue to widen.
The Houthis are not a superpower and are poorly equipped – they will be looking to Iran for back-up. And whatever happens, nobody should forget that the real victims will be the citizens of Yemen. Bombing by coalition aircraft near Sanaa killed scores of Yemeni refugees rather than Houthi fighters.
We are surprised that neutral regional actors like Oman and Algeria have failed to produce an initiative which might lead to a ceasefire and create an atmosphere for dialogue.
To return to the beginning of this article – the real threat to Saudi Arabia is not the Houthi rebellion, even if the Iranians support them as they probably will. The biggest danger to Saudi Arabia is US treachery, and we hope that Riyadh will wake up to this reality and revise its policies towards the White House, and end its unconditional love for America.