Saudi’s proxy war
Anthony Tucker-Jones reports on the security implications of growing international intervention in Yemen
Since the launching of Saudi Arabia’s proxy war in Yemen earlier this year, the Saudis face a mounting financial and leadership crisis. Many hold 30-year-old Saudi Defence Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, responsible for Riyadh’s costly and futile military adventure in its southern neighbour. Rumours abound that his father the ailing King Salman and heir Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef are not fit to rule as the country faces worsening economic prospects.
While the world is preoccupied by the intractable conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, the fighting in Yemen has continued unabated for the last nine months. Already teetering on the brink of complete chaos Yemen has now been pushed into the abyss. The UN estimates that around 13 million Yemenis are facing food shortages and that the relentless fighting has displaced 1.5 million.
The Northern Shia rebels known as Houthis, backed by ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalist troops, seized parts of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, and forced pro-Saudi President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile in March. Supported by Saudi-led air strikes, soldiers loyal to Hadi and Southern militias battled to reassert control of the port of Aden in July. They also secured the neighbouring Lahj and four other provinces as part of a Southern offensive. Taiz to the North-West of Lahj has become a particular focal point for the conflict with the Houthis.
In the meantime Houthi rebels along with Saleh’s forces still control Sanaa and continue to contest Aden and Taiz. To date there is no sign of Saudi Arabia conducting a ground offensive against the Houthis Northern stronghold on Saudi’s southern border. This could be conducted by attacking between Jizan and Najran or indeed from the Empty Quarter further East. In April there were reports that the Saudis had started removing sections of their border fence indicating a ground incursion was imminent.
By the autumn, the Saudi-led coalition fighting against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels was entering a new phase. Saudi Arabia and its allies know that if they do not act soon the resistance against the Houthi rebellion could become shanghaied by Sunni Islamist groups – such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State. If this happens then Yemen will go the same way as Iraq and Syria. At the same time the Houthis have granted Iran a foothold in the country to add to their presence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force plus Lebanese Hezbollah fighters were sent to support the Houthis in early May. It has been estimated that up to 5,000 Shia Iranian and Iraqi fighters may be in Yemen. Certainly the Quds Force Deputy Commander, Brigadier Esmail Ghani has confirmed that the IRGC is training Yemenis. The growing numbers of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters in both Syria and Yemen is a worrying trend and shows that the civil war between the two stands of the Islamic faith – Shia and Sunni – is spreading. If Tehran gains permanent basing rights in Yemen this will give it a presence near the strategically important Bab-el-Mandeb – a key international trade route.
While the Saudis have stayed their hand to the North, in Southern Yemen the ground war is escalating. During October the Sudanese government deployed a division of troops to Aden in support of the coalition’s operations. The coalition’s growing ground presence in Yemen means that it will inevitably come into increasing contact with forces from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon who are backing the Houthi. Saudi and Emirates personnel have already suffered casualties in Aden while trying to reinstate President Hadi.
According to Khartoum-based media sources two Sudanese contingents initially arrived in Aden as the vanguard of 6,0000-10,000 soldiers. This brought the total number of coalition troops in Yemen to at least 20,000. While their stated role is to secure Aden, they will almost certainly be involved in offensive operations in the months to come.
In early September, Qatar sent 1,000 soldiers and 200 armoured vehicles to Yemen’s central Maareb or Marib province. More were to secure the Jawf or Jouf province just to the North. These formed part of a force of 10,000 coalition troops. It was also reported that up to 800 Egyptian soldiers arrived in Yemen to assist the Saudis. These included men from the Egypt’s tough A-Saiqa commandos. Senegal pledged to deploy 2,100 troops to Saudi Arabia, but it is unclear if these are for use in Yemen. In response to this foreign intervention, the Houthis launched attacks on the Qataris in Marib and raided Saudi military bases in Jizan.
Among the Sudanese units are special forces who are experts in mountain warfare. Khartoum may have also despatched elements of the 9th Airborne Division. The Sudanese Armed Forces most recently gained combat experience during the Heglig crisis when fighting broke out with South Sudan. It is likely Sudanese forces will assist with the liberation of Taiz and Ibb. Sudan took part in the opening phases of Operation Decisive storm providing a handful of Su-24 fighter-bombers to conduct raids on Houthi targets.
It should be considered that even if the Saudi-led coalition has 20,000 troops in Yemen, only a third of these are actually combat troops, the rest are logistical and support units. Such numbers are simply insufficient to reassert control of the whole of Yemen for Hadi. At the most they may be able to secure the South-Western provinces that surround Aden. It seems that Yemen once again faces partition.
Loyalist and coalition forces have recaptured several areas of Taiz province, including those leading to the Red Sea coastline, the strategic Bab al Mandeb strait and the city of Dhubab. They have also been seeking to take Mokha up the coast from Dhubab. In late October, Houthis and forces loyal to former President Saleh abandoned their positions in Sanaa rather than face Saudi air strikes. To the South the security situation in Aden remains tense with ongoing attacks on Saudi and UAE military personnel. The UAE has been playing a leading military role – coalition ground forces in Yemen until the arrival of the Sudanese consisted mainly of soldiers from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.
Saudi Arabia is keen to see coalition boots on the ground, because it is very reluctant to fund and arm the resistance fighting the Houthi. The worry is that Sunni Islamist groups will take over. Saudi concerns are well founded as the war against the Houthis has led to some unlikely bedfellows. In the city of Taiz, al-Qaeda has joined the resistance. While the latter supports tribal leader Hamoud al-Mekhalfi, the al-Qaeda fighters are led by Qassim al-Rimi. Al-Qaeda holds the Soukal-Samil area of Taiz, but its fighters have to rely on captured Houthi weapons due to the lack of outside help.
Reportedly hardliner Salafists constitute some 40 percent of the resistance and are the second largest group after Yemen’s Islamist Islah party. This has had a detrimental impact on the resistance in Taiz, their leader claimed only 10 percent of their forces are involved due to a shortage of ammunition weapons and money.
The war in Yemen is not universally popular in Saudi Arabia. The significant fall in oil prices is hurting all the major oil producers. The International Monetary Fund has forecast the Middle East faces a colossal $1 trillion loss over the next five years. Low oil prices and the cost of being involved in Yemen and Syria means that at some point Saudi Arabia will have to curb its spending. The Royal Saudi Air Force has maintained its air strikes since March at great cost.
Britain and America’s support for Saudi’s proxy-war remains contentious. Both countries have provided the Royal Saudi Air Force with technical support and in July Britain provided laser-guided Paveway IV bombs. The international Arms Trade Treaty that came into force last year prohibits the export of weapons if there is evidence they will be used in war crimes. Saudi air strikes have inadvertently killed pro-Government troops and civilians. According to UN figures at least 4,500 civilians have been killed since March 2015.
To compound matters Saudi Arabia is facing an internal power struggle largely because King Salman, his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his nephew the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef are unpopular. The 79-year old King Salman who came to the throne earlier this year is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In April his son Mohammed bin Salman was elevated to the new post of Deputy Crown Prince as well as being made Defence Minister.
It was Prince Salman who launched the proxy-war in Yemen and who is now widely regarded as the power behind the throne. Nothing reaches his father without going through him first. Saudi princes and leading clerics are keen to install Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, 73, as king. This may not sit well with Prince Salman who feels that the time is ripe for Saudi Arabia to have a much younger and dynamic ruler. The only brake on Salman’s aspirations is the lack of support from Saudi’s religious leaders.
It may be that Riyadh hopes the application of air power in Yemen will force the Houthi to the negotiating table. There is little sign of that and the continuing air strikes have simply made the Gulf States very unpopular with the Yemeni population. In the meantime, the arrival of Sudanese ground forces at least means Aden can be secured before any campaign is conducted against Sanaa to the north. The Saudis could also push South through Sadah toward Sanaa, catching the Houthi and their supporters in a pincher movement – but such an operation would mean all-out war. This is clearly why air strikes have continued against targets in Taiz and Lahj provinces. Nonetheless, a Libya-style solution to the conflict in Yemen using only air power looks a long way off.
Anthony Tucker-Jones is intersec’s Terrorism and Security Correspondent. He is a former defence intelligence officer and is now a widely published defence commentator specialising in regional conflicts and counter terrorism.