The Saudi Debacle in Yemen?

by Hooshmand Mirfakhraei

The second round of UN-sponsored peace talks to end the nine months of hostilities between the Saudi-supported government of Yemen and the Iran-backed Ansarullah (or Houthi) rebels started on December 15 in Switzerland. The warring sides had reportedly agreed in advance on a seven-day ceasefire that was supposed to begin December 14 at 11:55 pm, but both sides reported continued fighting on several fronts on Wednesday.

Indeed, a missile attack fired by Houthi rebels in Taiz Province killed dozens of Yemeni, Sudanese, and Gulf soldiers just hours before the ceasefire was to take effect may have contributed to the failure of the truce to take hold. An Emirati commander and a Saudi colonel who has been recently decorated by Yemen President Abd-Rabu Mansur Hadi are reportedly among the casualties of the Tochka rokets.

Three parties have been invited to participate in the second round of the peace talks: the Houthi rebels, the General People’s Congress (the party of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which supports the insurgents), and the government of Yemen. To enhance the chances of success, UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has decided to convene the talks at a secret location in Switzerland and observe a “press blackout.”

Even before they have taken place, however, the peace talks are greatly constrained by two factors: how the Saudis have conducted their military campaign in the Yemen and Riyadh’s misperception of Iranian-Houthi relations.

Saudi Military Operations

Houthi rebels ousted Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi  in the spring of 2015.  Beginning in March 26, and with the aim of restoring President Hadi to power in Sana’a, a coalition of nine Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia has conducted an air campaign against the rebels.

It has widely been reported that the newly appointed Saudi Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman is the architect of the coalition operation in Yemen. He is also the Kingdom’s deputy crown prince (hence, directly in the line of succession), and at the same time he presides over a newly formed 10-member board of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company.

Muhammad bin Salman is “officially” 35 years old, but he is rumored to be much younger, perhaps no older than 29. As the world’s youngest defense minister, he has no known military training or experience. His frequent appearances in the Saudi media while he is visiting various military facilities are designed to depict him as the day-to-day commander of the aerial campaign. But his approach to his official duties has already earned him the unofficial nickname of “reckless.”

When the coalition operation over Yemen started in late March, the current Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir was his country’s ambassador in Washington. At that time, Jubeir said that the aerial bombardment of “Operation Decisive Storm” was conducted to degrade and destroy the rebels’ “air force, heavy weapons and ballistic missiles.” Yet with the apparent reluctance of the coalition or its allies to launch a major ground operation, the aerial campaign has mainly led to military stalemate. Riyadh appears to have lost any hope of an unambiguous and definite victory in Yemen.

Close to 6,000 Yemenis (including 637 children) have died in the civil war. It has been reported that 93% of the dead and the injured are civilians caught between the two sides. According to the International Committee of Red Cross, more than 1.5 million people have been displaced, and International humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders have repeatedly reported on the depth of the human suffering and misery caused by these hostilities. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also declared that aside from the devastating damage to Yemen’s infrastructure that amounts to billions of dollars, the coalition’s aerial bombardment is responsible for “the majority of the civilian deaths.”

Before the war, Yemen was the poorest Arab country, and it is now a failed state. In light of this, Riyadh’s ignorance of the futility of the strategic bombardment is quite shocking. The former Soviet Union’s strategic bombardment of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the U.S. aerial bombings of Indochina during the Vietnam War proved time and time again that this type of military operation was largely ineffective when targeting an impoverished and destitute country.

After Israel, Saudi Arabia has the most modern armed forces in the Middle East and is the second closest ally of the U.S. in that volatile region. Considering the far-reaching American involvement with the Saudi military, the U.S. government did not likely miss the signals of an imminent operation by the Royal Saudi Air Force back in the spring. But Saudi Arabia intentionally kept the US in the dark until a mere hour before the first coalition jet fighter took off.

Tehran–Houthi Relations

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reportedly said that the Saudis “did not notify us…because they believe we are siding with Iran.” Riyadh had been alarmed by Iran-Houthi relations in the early months of 2015 and had been profoundly disappointed with the trajectory of the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Tehran that were underway at the time. According to a senior American officer with Central Command (CENTCOM), however, the United States was not officially informed “because [Saudi Arabia] knew we would have told them exactly what we think—that it was a bad idea.”

Although United States is supporting the coalition with “logistics and intelligence,” U.S. military officials thought that the operation would probably turn into a protracted quagmire for Riyadh. Moreover, the American media has been reporting that the White House is “increasingly frustrated” with its ally. Nonetheless, the Obama administration is proceeding with the expedited transfer of $1.3 billion in new arms, mostly bombs, to Riyadh to replenish its arsenal in a move denounced by human rights groups and that The New York Times called “baffling and disgraceful.”

In addition, some regional experts, including Michael Horton, say that Saudi Arabia has a distorted perception of the Iran–Houthi relations. Horton, a senior analyst for Arabian Affairs at the Jamestown Foundation specializing on Yemen and Horn of Africa, who was described by veteran Pentagon observer Mark Perry as “close to a number of officers at SOCOM [Special Operation Command] and a consultant to the U.S. and U.K. governments,” believes that the reports depicting Houthi insurgents as Tehran’s agents and operatives in the Arabian Peninsula are “nonsense.”

True, some Houthi leaders have spent time in Iran, Tehran has provided political and diplomatic support to the movement, and some of the Houthis’ tactics for gaining political and military ascendance in Yemen are similar to those used by the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Yet, the Houthis are historically and intellectually more independent and indigenous than Hezbollah in Lebanon and some of the Shia militias in Iraq.

Houthi rebels adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam. After the Arab Spring they emerged as a potent opposition front in Yemen and are the local adversaries of radical Sunnis, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the Islamic State. They may use a slogan or two in their street demonstrations that sound like those used by Iranian hardliners. But unlike Hezbollah, they do not share the geopolitical aspirations or an ideological affinity with the revolutionaries in Iran. In short, Houthi rebels neither subscribe to radical Islam nor are they “proxies of Iran.”

Future of the Talks

The first round of the peace talks was held in mid-June 2015 in Geneva. The main agenda was the implementation of Resolution 2216 (2015) of the UN Security Council that called for Houthis to withdraw from major cities, surrender arms confiscated from the military and “refrain from actions exclusively within the authority of the legitimate government of Yemen.”

Obviously, that was a non-starter. Houthi representatives refused to meet with their counterparts from the legitimate government of Yemen, and the first round of talks collapsed almost immediately.

For this second round, all three parties have already agreed in writing with the UN-proposed blueprint for the negotiations. This agenda has also been kept as a close secret. The outcome of the peace talks is all but clear. Considering the military facts on the ground and the dubious legitimacy of the embattled president of Yemen on whose behalf the Saudi-led coalition is purportedly fighting, however, would-be peacemakers will find it difficult to ignore Houthi demands for a real power-sharing agreement on how any new government will be constituted.

By asking Houthi rebels to follow the exact wording of the UNSC 2216 and leave all major cities and deliver all “confiscated” weapons—a perfectly legitimate but largely impractical demand—the entire peace process may come to a standstill. But this is highly unlikely. Houthi insurgents were not fighting to crush the coalition. The only thing they had to do was to survive, which they did.

On the other hand, Riyadh clearly wanted to defeat the Houthi on the battlefield, or at least deliver a decisive blow to militants, primarily to demonstrate its military might to Tehran. For the House of Saud, Houthi Yemenites are nothing but an extension of Iran’s influence into the Arabian Peninsula. Two years ago, the former Saudi Arabia ambassador to the U.S., Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, said that “Iran has been competing provocatively with Saudi Arabia for leadership in the Islamic world since 1979.” Prince Turki, who was the former director of Saudi foreign intelligence service, added that Iran’s leaders are attempting to create “an Iranian empire like no one had ever seen.”

Obviously, Yemen is not the sole source of the longstanding tensions in Tehran-Riyadh relations, and a peaceful settlement of hostilities would not necessarily lead to a meaningful détente between the two rivals. Yet such an agreement would lessen or eliminate a source of constant friction between the two regional giants, and it could set the stage for political negotiations on other thorny issues.

Photo: Mohammad bin Salman

Hooshmand Mirfakhraei has a Ph.D. in international relations from SUNY Buffalo. He is a news writer and producer for the television division of the Persian Service of Voice of America. The contents and comments are the personal views of the author and do not represent the views of Persian Service of Voice of America.

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  1. Saudis have used Saddam against Iran. Saudis are hurting Syrian to hurt Iran. Saudis are killing Yemenis to hurt Iran. Its time Iran target the royal criminals by exposing their true nature to the Sunni Muslim . They are real terrorist and will destroy Islam or world to serve their family interests

  2. Saudi is bad — as bad as, if not worse than Pakistan …

    US should treat it as a terrorist state and bomb it in the morning and bomb it in the afternoon and bomb it in the evening and bomb it at night …

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