It seems that the Yemeni rebels – the Houthis – have lost patience with Saudi bombs raining upon their heads, and have decided to launch a counteroffensive against Saudi Arabia by extending the range of their operations. On May 4 armed militias of the Bakil tribal federation attacked four military outpost on the Saudi border. These attacks were undertaken in response to the ongoing shelling of the northern regions of Yemen, which led to a massive civilian death toll. Militia units have manged to kill 12 Saudi soldiers, while the surviving troops retreated to the Jabal Jahfan mountain and the town of Ar Radif. In the meantime, Bakil tribal forces have managed to get hold of stockpiles of small arms and ammunition. Thus the Houthis and the Yemeni tribes that support them have moved this war to the aggressor’s soil. It should be noted that the Bakil and Hashid tribal federations have always been the backbone of the Yemeni regular armed forces. The former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh who supported the Houthi uprising was born in a Hashid tribe.
On the next day the Houthis started shelling the Saudi border city of Najran and its outskirts, which resulted in a massive power blackout. No information about the possible civilian casualties has been provided as of yet. Saudi authorities decided to shut the local airport and close all schools in the area. Several shells exploded near hospitals, government buildings and houses, while dozens of cars were destroyed by shell fragments. A stream of menacing statements that were made by Yemeni sheiks resulted in the exodus of civilians from the border regions of Najran and Jazan. Yet, those areas are mostly populated by former immigrants from Yemen that adhere to the Shia branch of Islam. There’s more than 1 million Ismaili followers that represent a major sect of Shia Islam in Najran, while up to 2 million former Yemenis reside in the Jazan Region are predominantly Zaidi sect followers. Apparently, those leaving border areas are Sunnis of Saudi origin.
In an attempt to seek vengeance, Arab coalition aircraft struck airports in Sana’a and Hodeidah, along with positions of Yemeni regular troops that are supporting the Houthis. Airstrikes have also been carried out in the “southern capital” of Yemen – Aden, where brutal street fights between the remaining forces of the “President in exile” Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi still trying to hold ground, and the Houthis continue on. Violent skirmishes have been reported in the outskirts of Aden, at the same time, rumors about coalition paratroopers being dropped off in the area have been refuted.
Arab coalition air forces have also bombed the city of Sa’dah along with the territories of Saada Governorate, leaving 20 people dead and many more injured. Saudi Air Force fighters launched more than 100 air-to-surface missiles over Yemen. Meanwhile, the President of Yemen “in exile” Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi appointed May 17 the date of a special conference on the situation in the country in an attempt to resume national dialogue. As expected this conference will bring together all the political parties of Yemen except for the Houthis and representatives of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. It’s believed that a total of 250 delegates representing various Yemeni political parties and movements will be gathered in Riyadh to discuss the situation. But the fact is that none of these parties have any actual influence in the country they try to represent. It is not clear of what use for Yemen these discussions may have in the absence of representatives of the two leading military and political movements. All of this is reminiscent of a feast in time of plague. It is curious that Mansur Hadi has explicitly demanded that the CCG states to hold this meeting in the Saudi capital back in March.
The barbaric bombings of the Yemeni capital – Sana’a – have resulted in the disruption of electricity, has shut down all means of communication, and has caused shortages of food and clean water. The estimated economic damage that has been inflicted upon Yemen by the bombing raids exceeds 32 billion dollars. In fact, Yemen’s economy is being utterly and completely destroyed by these daily attacks, yet the Houthis and those army units that remain faithful to Ali Abdullah Saleh are still holding their ground.
On the other hand, the supporters of Mansur Hadi have suffered one crushing blow after another. It is already clear that without a large-scale invasion by Arab coalition troops there’s no saving them. But Saudi generals have found themselves unable to launch an assault from the north as the border regions of the kingdom are occupied by Yemenis that enjoy full support of the local tribes. Moreover, they are bound to heed growing discontent in other regions of Saudi Arabia, especially in the oil-producing Eastern Province, home to some 2.5 million Shiites. The ruling royal family is torn apart by internal contradiction, and the fact that king Salman has recently changed a number of key figures in the government is not helping him contain the growing tension. The King’s entourage demands to stop the war against Yemen here and now.
To make matters even worse there’s been a number of reports published recently that hint that this disastrous military adventure is the doing of Washington, in an attempt to compete with Iran in Yemen, all while using Saudi arms and money. Indeed, in September 2014, Barack Obama named US cooperation with Yemen a successful example of his country’s struggle against Al-Qaeda. This outpost on the Arabian Peninsula was the testing ground for American technological innovations designed to combat terrorism, namely unmanned aerial vehicles. However, the civil war, which began in Yemen, showed that the idea of the White House combating terrorism using this technology alone is severely flawed, although its could have reduced US military casualties.
Another part of US strategy to wage wars “with the least loss of life” is the use of its regional allies to do all the fighting on Washington’s behalf. Under this approach, the United States would have never intervened directly, even if a situation demanded the use of force, instead Washington would have loved to limit its actions by providing support to its allies in the region. But less than a year after the announcement of this new strategy we are witnessing the catastrophic results of its application in the Arabian Peninsula. Characteristically, Washington would hope to have better luck next time. Saudi Arabia has taken the initiative in the Yemeni operation, while enjoying political, diplomatic and intelligence support from the United States, and failed. The example of this operation shows how the United States will be carrying out armed interventions in the future, but Iraq and Syria have proven that limited air operations lead to no political or military results that would be worth mentioning.
Saudi military aggression in Yemen is no mere attempt to suppress a Shia uprising near the borders of the KSA, it is nothing but the continuation of internal and external processes that were triggered by the “Arab Spring.” The new Saudi king is trying to turn the defeats of previous years into his future triumph. Riyadh’s intelligence activities are getting more noticeable in Iraq, Syria, and Libya as it tries to extend the anti-Iranian front. the King’s subjects are pushing hard to negate the political losses from the new US rapprochement with Iran, while trying to establish a broad military-political cooperation with Turkey, Pakistan, Qatar and Egypt. But there’s nothing to write home about in terms of results, especially in Egypt, which may soon be overrun by Islamists.
It’s not going to be long before Saudi Arabia realizes that expensive modern weaponry purchased in the US for tens of billions of petrodollars does not bring victory on its own. The war the KSA has launched against Shiites on all fronts is difficult to maintain due to its asymmetric nature and in these circumstance it’s almost impossible to score a military victory. It may take years and will surely require huge financial spending. And while oil prices are low there will be no means for the Kingdom of getting the necessary funding, especially in a situation where the Saudi budget has already been torpedoed by Al Saud’s short-sighted policies.
War in Yemen will show whether Saudi Arabia is able to respond to regional calls, by replacing the United States in its role as Middle Eastern gendarme. The criterion here is the ability to achieve a military victory without a call for direct assistance from US military troops, but it seems that the Kingdom is already going down in flames. No changes in the order of succession of the Saudi throne will save Riyadh if it doesn’t change its foreign policies, while ceasing attempts to bring down Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran. In the meantime, Salman plays exclusively in favor of Turkey and Qatar, stuck on a trail that was skillfully avoided by the previous king, Abdullah. But any resident of the Arabian Peninsula knows that once you start playing in favor of Qatar – you start playing against yourself and lose.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”