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Saudi miscalculated, so what now?

April 17, 2015 at 2:26 pm

Civilian casualties in Yemen are increasing daily; the entire population is at risk of starvation; and internal displacement is at a very high level. Some lucky ones have managed to cross over to Africa, but by doing so they risk the one precious thing that they’re trying to save – their lives. Strategically, the Houthi rebels are not giving any indication that they are ready to retreat and the conflict has overstretched its own context, by creating a situation that increasingly reflects a guerrilla war. Tribes are starting to take up arms, children are being forced to fight for reasons they don’t understand and the foundations of Yemen’s civilian infrastructure continue to deteriorate. Yet, in his latest interview with the BBC, Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri stated that the operation is currently going “so far good [sic]“; when asked if the Arab coalition would need ground forces, he responded by saying that it has reached its goals in the air campaign, but will consider using ground forces when it is the right time. Yesterday, in the daily briefing, he contradicted that statement and said that it is unlikely that ground forces will be deployed as the Saudi army is content with the efforts of the anti-Houthi, anti-Saleh tribes; this, despite them lacking unity, communications and a united strategy to push forward their mutual interests.

In some ways, Asiri has a point. With the recent decision by Pakistan to stay out of the coalition’s current offensive (“Operation Decisive Storm”) and urging a diplomatic solution to the chaos, they cannot employ their experience in tackling non-state actors on the ground; despite Asiri’s claim that the coalition is ready to take on the Houthis, the turbulence of the fighting in Yemen needs all-encompassing counter-terrorist capabilities and experience in the field. The wider scheme of the conflict itself shows that Asiri is not only exaggerating the coalition’s success, but also ignoring the deteriorating context that comes as a direct result of the airstrikes. Taking the classic “sweeping the problem under the rug approach”, the Saudi envoy to Washington, Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir, has recently rejected the UN’s criticism of the significant number of civilian casualties caused by the airstrikes and reiterated that his government is trying to ensure as much humanitarian assistance to Yemeni civilians as possible. He ignores the fact that one of Yemen’s largest food storage centres was destroyed by a coalition airstrike.

The Saudi-led air forces’ current tactic of striking and isolating northern Yemen can in some way appear to make sense; added to a naval blockade to stop Iranian arms from entering the country and starving the Houthis until they see no other alternative but to go to the negotiating table could be a masterstroke. However, the current context in Yemen makes this almost unachievable. A country that currently imports 90 per cent of its food and has irregular water supplies, as well as an already high poverty rate, faces mass starvation with such a strategy. Shopkeepers are profiteering by holding on to their stock, waiting until prices rise before selling; petty crimes which hit at the heart of civil society, such as looting, are also on the increase; and the displacement of civilians and the destruction of their infrastructure is widespread. If the coalition persists with this tactic, the Saudi government risks wiping out a huge proportion of the Yemeni population through its attacks and containment before the Houthis are pressured to sit and negotiate.

Thus, an alternative is needed to contain the Houthis and bring them to the negotiating table. From the beginning, the airstrikes were miscalculated as the coalition went in with a mind-set that the operation will be quick and surgical; thinking that the 2010 victory is comparable to 2015’s power dynamic. Instead, it took Yemen into even more chaos and wrecked the remains of its fragile civilian infrastructure. Furthermore, dwelling on a strategic error and complaining that the airstrikes were not right to begin with is futile, as it is now crucial to analyse the situation and find a competent strategy within the deteriorating context.

Given that the main goal of the operation is supposedly to ensure that Saudi Arabia’s borders are secure against the Houthis and to isolate the Yemeni rebels from Iran to halt Tehran’s proxy power grab, the only way to achieve this is through two means. For a start, power should be handed back to the anti-Houthi and anti-Saleh Yemenis, uniting and mobilising Yemeni tribes to fight more efficiently on the ground. Secondly, not only should it be accepted that the airstrikes to begin with were counterproductive, but it should also be admitted that Saudi Arabia has created a situation in which it’s too late to pull back from Yemen as it risks further insecurities on its borders. A retreat after failing to ensure a Houthi pullback and causing devastating damage to the Yemeni infrastructure will be seen as a sign of weakness and could put Riyadh in a vulnerable position. As such, the Saudi government needs to form a new ground coalition with armies that have experience in countering non-state actors, which means that the expertise of Pakistan and Turkey has to be employed.

The Muslim Brotherhood also has an important role to play in Yemen and the Saudis must allow the movement to be involved in the operation. Political power rivalries must be set to one side as there is potential for a very successful strategic alliance because of the almost identical mutual interests. The Brotherhood is embedded deeply in Yemeni society, and has played a major role in underground politics through both diplomatic and military means; this would be very useful in a ground operation.

Containing the Houthis through a combined force of Yemeni tribes aided by competent ground troops is likely to be the only way to put enough pressure on them to negotiate. Putting the solution back into the hands of the Yemeni people should be the top priority; at this point it’s too late to utilise any diplomatic sentiments that may have been an option three weeks ago. The military option is now necessary, but the more that the Saudi army stalls, the harder that the situation will get in the next few weeks. Simultaneously, the more that the Saudi-led coalition lies to itself about the success of starving northern Yemen in order to put pressure on the Houthis, the more it is heading for strategic meltdown and the more that a lengthy guerrilla war looks likely.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.