by James Spencer
Far from being a “Decisive Storm,” the intervention into Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition is foundering. The coalition swiftly cleared the coastal region and advanced across the desert interior from the Saudi border. But when they hit the mountainous interior—not so co-incidentally, the refuge of the Zaydi Shi’a—their advance ground to a bloody crawl. After the failure of the December 2015 peace talks and the indefinite postponement of the next round, several signs suggest that the Saudi-led coalition may sensibly be looking for a face-saving withdrawal from the country that exhausted the Ottomans and Nasser in their day and now looms as the Saudi Vietnam, too.
The Saudis have many good reasons for wanting to withdraw. The Saudi-led coalition is spending an estimated $200 million a day on Operation Restore Hope (with the Saudis probably paying the bulk of it). At $6 billion a month, this expenditure equals about 1% of the country’s estimated foreign reserves, which have already been tapped on King Salman’s accession. In addition, there are the various financial inducements that assembling the coalition has cost Saudi coffers. As if that is not enough, the price of oil has collapsed over the past 14 months, and the current Saudi troika has instituted a major reform of spending, cutting subsidies and proposing taxes.
Although Yemenis are doing the bulk of the fighting on both sides, there have been lots of Saudi and Bahraini deaths, and many Emirati casualties within Yemen as well. Missile strikes and cross-border raids from Yemen into the former Yemeni provinces of southern Saudi Arabia have produced not a few Saudi casualties, both civilian and Border Guards. This is not the swift result that Decisive Storm was supposed to achieve, although the war is still popular among Saudi citizens. However, there is mounting disquiet among Saudi Arabia’s Anglophone backers and arms suppliers, who are grappling with their own culpability in supplying weapons being used to commit violations of the laws of armed conflict.
Aden, too, is becoming ever more unsafe, with the Salafi terrorist groups al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State engaging in close-quarters assassinations of Yemeni security, intelligence, and judicial figures and launching Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks against various important political figures. They have also mounted shows of force within Aden, in particular against locations with commingled sexes. Such an environment is more reminiscent of post-Saddam Iraq than the benign situation the Saudi-led coalition had hoped to create.
Reports of Potential Compromise?
Two relevant news reports came out of the recent meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The first report—citing “OIC Secretary General Iyad Madani, a Saudi”—described a call “for a de-escalation of tensions between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.” This reports suggests that a faction within Saudi Arabia was trying to save face by using the OIC as an impartial Islamic arbiter, suspending combat in Yemen at the OIC‘s “request.” The second, entitled “World Islamic body backs Saudi stance in Iran spat,” indicated that a more hard-line Saudi view had prevailed. At the same time, however, the Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General stated that the GCC is looking to restart the political process in Yemen and also floated the idea of an international donors’ conference to discuss reconstructing the country, both of which suggest that the GCC is preparing for a post-kinetic phase, both operationally and for public relations purposes.
There have been signs of military preparation for a compromise and coalition withdrawal, too. Although bombastic announcements of imminent assaults have continued, other reports suggest something different. Although Gulf News cited an Adeni paper saying that “a new batch of coalition troops backed by armed vehicles arrived in the city from the sea apparently to take part in a security campaign to clamp down on armed groups,” al-Masdar merely stated that the troops had arrived in Brega port to assist with Aden’s security, suggesting that the troops may have been withdrawn from the front lines. Previous reports of the Emirati withdrawal proved to be semi-accurate: although the rotation was in line with six-month operational tour lengths, the Emirati troops (who had already suffered unexpected casualties) seem to have been replaced by Colombian contract soldiers.
Politically, members of the Saudi-backed Yemeni side have been making statements that hint at a more realistic, Yemeni compromise coming to the fore, clearly with an eye to the future. Although President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has been mostly silent, Khalid Bahah, Hadi’s vice president and prime minister, praised Saudi Arabia’s intervention in early January, suggesting that he is positioning himself as a Saudi-compatible leader once they leave. At the end of January, there was a report that the director of the National Security Agency had resigned after being sidelined by the prime minister, which suggests that Bahah is trying to reinforce his own partisans against Hadi loyalists.
Further, although the leadership of the Saudi-backed side is reportedly resisting international pressure to compromise at the next Geneva talks, Yemen’s new foreign minister, Abd al-Malik al-Mikhlafi, insisted at the Arab League meeting that “Yemen is heading for a political solution, and negotiations towards a federal state will continue anytime and anywhere.” That the nature of such a federal state—and presumably its imposed boundaries, which is the key issue that sparked the Houthis’ putsch one year ago—are up for negotiation indicates that the Saudi-backed coalition is no longer confident of a military victory and is preparing to withdraw.
Former President Ali Abdallah Salih may also believe that the Saudis are looking for an excuse to leave and is thus trying to get a flying start on the next internecine bout—within his alliance of convenience with the Houthis. A Qatari newspaper carried a report about increased murders, mainly of Houthi commanders. Ali Abdallah Salih has a history of this: there was a similar rash of killings of Houthi commanders in Sana’a in September 2014, and the sudden withdrawal of his Republican Guard loyalists when the Saudi-led coalition invaded Aden left the Houthis vulnerable. The same newspaper also mentions that Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have targeted Houthi meetings—another favourite tactic of Ali Abdallah Salih.
Can the Saudi-led Coalition Leave Cleanly?
As with the Multi-National Corps in Iraq, the Saudi-led coalition needs to recast its original aims so as to declare them achieved and then withdraw swiftly before the security bubble around Aden collapses. (Establishing this latter may be the aim of the recent troop reinforcement in Aden.) Hadi is probably a liability. His support within the Yemeni polity, never strong, is now negligible. And restoring him to Sana’a by force is an unlikely scenario. It would not be surprising if Hadi were to die tragically—possibly in a Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device attack—since this would force a revisiting of the provisions of the maximalist UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and the establishment of a more realistic desired end state.
Bahah is clearly positioning himself as a candidate for president. Yet Salih has a long history of casting himself as the alternative to chaos. Although his return to the presidency would be unacceptable to virtually everyone inside and outside the country, he may be trying to install his eldest son Ahmad in the presidency, something the Emiratis at least may countenance.
A genuine compromise that represents all legitimate interests would make it more likely that Yemenis would reconcile—as they did after the last foreign Arab intervention in the 1960s—and work together to rebuild their nation and defend it against Salafi terrorists. Without such a genuine compromise, Yemen is likely to collapse into more civil war. If this proves to be the case, then the current two-sided conflict is likely to descend into a vicious multi-faction conflict. Existing tensions within both blocs would then break out into the open, fueled by advanced weapons imported by the Saudi-led coalition. To prevent such an outcome, the international community must be ready to step in to guarantee the peace and rehabilitate the country as soon as possible.
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.