August 26, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: A Looming Quagmire in Yemen

• As the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition pushes toward Sana’a, it is encountering stiff resistance from the Houthi rebels

• The mountainous terrain surrounding Sana’a, as well as the rugged terrain of the Houthi heartland, poses a serious tactical challenge for the coalition

• As the northern push becomes more difficult and costly—both in terms of lives and resources—divisions within the coalition are likely to worsen

• If the will of the coalition falters, there is a higher chance of a negotiated settlement to the conflict.


Historically, military adventures into Yemen have not ended well for foreign powers. Between 1539 and 1547, the mighty Ottoman Empire sent nearly 80,000 troops to conquer the territory, of which only 7,000 men survived. This led an Ottoman official in Egypt to proclaim, “we have seen no foundry like Yemen for our soldiers. Each time we have sent an expeditionary force there, it has melted away like salt dissolved in water.” In the following centuries, the Ottoman experience in Yemen remained fraught with rebellion, and they encountered particular resistance from the Zaydis of the northern highlands. During the North Yemen Civil War from 1962-1970, Egypt learned the same hard lesson, as its forces were drawn into an eight-year protracted guerrilla war in the same northern mountains that swallowed so many Ottoman soldiers. Many Egyptian historians refer to the conflict as “Egypt’s Vietnam.”

As it stands, the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition has reached the edge of the mountain ranges that lead to Sana’a. Already, forces that ventured north have faced stiff resistance from Houthi rebels, who have spent months fortifying defensive positions on the routes to the capital. Videos have emerged claiming to show the charred remains of Emirati armored vehicles ambushed by Houthis in a narrow mountain pass. While airstrikes and tanks gave the anti-Houthi coalition a distinct advantage in the southern lowlands, that advantage is diminished in the rugged terrain of the north.

Along with the tactical challenges of the northern advance, there are clear signs that the cohesion of the coalition is fraying. The Southern Resistance Movement—known as al-Hirak—has played a central role in the campaign against the Houthi rebels. However, the interests of al-Hirak forces—most of which fight under the flag of South Yemen—primarily lie in the liberation of the southern territories, rather than the retaking of Sana’a and the north. Indeed, there is increasing evidence that al-Hirak and the Houthis are actively collaborating to position the country for repartition, with the Houthis voluntarily pulling out of cities such as Taiz and Ibb, ceding them to coalition forces. Al-Hirak is also likely to become preoccupied with solidifying their hold over southern territories, where they are already facing challenges from the likes of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—which has held the port city of Mukalla for several months, and is even reported to have seized parts of western Aden over the weekend.

If the leadership of al-Hirak refuses to advance north, the strategic objective of the broader anti-Houthi coalition becomes less clear. As the coalition begins to lose its Yemeni partners, it also loses its legitimacy. Saudi and Emirati troops cannot advance to Sana’a without Yemeni proxies, otherwise the remaining international support for their military intervention will inevitably evaporate. Tensions between international partners—and particularly between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the only nations to supply combat troops—are also likely to damage the strength of the coalition. While Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in eliminating the Houthi threat on its southern border, the motivation for the Emirates is less clear. If Emirati troops continue to die—and casualty figures are likely to increase with any movement into the mountains—public support in the UAE will erode fairly quickly.

All of these combined factors ultimately provide hope for a negotiated settlement. If it becomes clear to the Saudi-led coalition that a military solution to the conflict would simply be too costly, Saudi leadership is significantly more likely to come to the table. While peace efforts led by Oman have accomplished little to date, the support of powerful international partners, particularly Saudi Arabia, will fast track the negotiation process. However, if the anti-Houthi coalition continues its push into the mountains, it risks slipping into the same quagmire that has mired invading forces for centuries.


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