Six months into the gulf coalition’s war in Yemen, victory for the invaders, once believed easy, remains a fata morgana. The true goals behind their actions remain shrouded in mystery, increasing suspicions that the various “allies” may actually be pursuing very different strategies.
On March 25th, after the definite fall of Sana’a to the northern Houthi rebels in January and their subsequent rapid advance towards southern Yemen, the coalition started its bombing campaign. Very quickly it became obvious that the targets were not only military installations, but also public buildings, residential areas and infrastructure such as markets, food depots, power plants or water treatment facilities. Especially in northern Yemen the goal seems to be not to minimize, but to maximize the suffering of the civilian population. In mid-July the gulf coalition entered the ground war, capturing Aden before pushing north- and eastwards. After some early successes, their advance seems to have stalled near Taiz and Marib, while casualties are mounting. Is there still any realistic strategy by which Saudi Arabia and its allies could succeed – or was there ever one?
Stuck in an unwinnable war
Riyadh’s official aim is to defeat ex-president Saleh’s forces and the zaydite Houthis, presumably allied with shiite Iran, and reinstall the “legitimate president” – or rather Saudi puppet – Hadi as ruler in Sana’a. However, it was obvious from the beginning that the rugged, mountainous terrain combined with the civil war experience of the adversaries would make the mission of controlling the country basically impossible. The indiscriminate bombings, some of which amount to war crimes, have done little to increase Hadi’s popularity, and with the planned assault on the capital Sana’a not taking shape, victory seems more elusive than ever.
This poses huge problems for the Saudis in several ways. The costs of the campaign place further strain on the kingdom’s finances, already in the red due to the low oil price, and the risk of fighting spreading across the border increases as the war drags on. Worse still, the apparent strategic ineptitude means a terrible loss of face for the kingdom and could make its regional allies rethink their further participation. Even within the House of Saud, doubts are growing about the policies of King Salman and his son, youthful royal “shooting star” and defense minister Mohammed bin Salman. Whether or not he believed the propaganda about a “short and winnable war” is hard to tell, but given their own Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, his supporters in Washington must have known better.
So what’s the real strategy behind it?
Some observers of the Yemen war see the current de-facto split of the country as the actual aim: If the gulf allies control its southern and eastern parts, this would open up the long-discussed possibility of building an oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia to the Yemeni port of Mukallah. Certainly not an easy feat in a war-torn country, even if the regional branches of Al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” almost seem to act as additional ground forces for the coalition. Such a pipeline could however prove vital in the case of the Strait of Hormuz for “some reason” being blocked. So could the partitioning of Yemen be part of the preparations for a US-Saudi war against Iran? It’s not inconceivable that some in Washington and Riyadh had this in mind, even if a pipeline would take years to construct and would be useless if the oil production facilities on the gulf coast were destroyed.
So whether or not this was ever a serious consideration, it certainly isn’t any more after July 14th and the signing of the “nuclear deal” between the “P5+1“ states and the Iranian leadership. Presuming that the US government is not playing a double game and does indeed fully support the agreement, this rules out any future aggression against Iran and paves the way for the country’s fully returning to the “international community”. Both Riyadh and its staunchest supporters in Washington may have counted on a last-minute failure of the Vienna negotiations, their success thus being an unpleasant surprise for them. If indeed they were made to believe the “Yemen pipeline strategy”, they would feel more than just surprised: In their eyes it would be nothing short of treason – which could help explain their incredibly emotional opposition to the “Iran deal”.
In retrospect, this could give an entirely different meaning to the US government’s support of Riyadh’s war in Yemen: Was it actually a trap Washington set for its (former) ally, so as to keep him occupied and therefore “neutralized” during the crucial rounds of negotiations with Tehran? Saudi diplomatic obstruction might have been able to prevent the accord, but the ongoing brutal bombing campaign made them vulnerable to possible global public condemnation, thus tying their hands in other areas. Such a hidden strategy of the US government could also help to explain the rapid advance of the Houthi rebels: It was enabled mostly by the passivity of the official Yemeni army still loyal to ex-president Saleh, a long-time US ally. It is worth noting that even if Riyadh understood this double play, it had little chance of avoiding the trap: To let the fall of their ally Hadi in Sana’a go unanswered would mean a huge loss of face for the Saudis, and also their fear of encirclement by Iran’s strategic allies is most certainly genuine.
Towards the fall of the House of Saud?
With Washington’s Middle East shift marked by the “Iran deal”, Saudi Arabia is no longer a useful ally and the former strategic asset rapidly becomes a liability with which no politician wants to be associated. After being completely silent on the war in Yemen for months, media coverage is now gathering steam: The Saudi kingdom and its Wahhabism are increasingly harshly criticized since Thomas Friedman basically declared them fair game in the New York Times in early September. All that’s missing now is a hugely emotional incident that could become the catalyst of this shaming campaign and underlying policy change – the al-Saud’s “Aylan Kurdi event” so to say.
If the allegations of Russia supporting the Houthi rebels via Hezbollah are indeed true, the odds of success for the coalition drop to zero and its days are numbered. But even before that, the many cases of “friendly fire” and the reports of Al Qaeda executing fleeing coalition soldiers seem to indicate a lack of unity within its ranks. Would it be possible that Riyadh in fact has to convince its “allies” rather bluntly to continue fighting, while Qatar and the Emirates have adapted to Washington’s shift and would actually prefer negotiating a ceasefire? Should they indeed act as representatives of the US position within the “coalition”, this would also help explain why King Salman and other heads of state skipped the US-GCC summit in Camp David in May on short notice.
These apparent rifts mean that Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be too surprised by an upcoming sudden change of sides or separate ceasefire of its “allies” in Yemen. Unpleasant for sure, but Riyadh’s options at this point are extremely limited: It will have to choose between a bad one, i.e. a ceasefire, and one that’s even worse, i.e. a long and demoralizing mountain war. In the medium term, the Saudis will invariably see their kingdom’s regional role being greatly reduced, and the consequences of this humiliation will be dramatic. Without far-reaching internal reforms they may very well tear the country apart, and it is far from certain that the House of Saud is capable of this task.
While being partly speculative in nature, my approach to what’s happening behind the scenes of the Yemen war has the advantage of taking into account the broader changes in the world today, something that many observers fail to consider.
This article is part of a series on the ongoing geostrategic shift of the United States, epitomized by the Iran nuclear agreement, and its political and economic consequences. While most articles are in German, the following are also available in English:
Entering a new era: The Iran Deal and beyond – Examining the far-reaching geopolitical implications of the Iran „nuclear agreement“
Signs of a détente in Ukraine – Summing up and explaining the fundamental changes that have occurred in Ukraine since mid-July