April 22, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia Shifts in Yemen

• The Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen officially ended at midnight on Tuesday, April 21, though some strikes still continued afterwards; this was not simply because it was ineffective, there has also been considerable activity behind the scenes that contributed to the Saudi decision

• Russia and the United States both weighed in, but Iran was also involved in negotiations

• The immediate result is an empowered al-Qaeda, but the Houthis will now be able once more to attack the group

• Saudi Arabia may now decide to turn its attention more forcefully towards its strategy in Syria.

Knowing the right time to declare victory and stop fighting is a political-military skill that has been in short supply in recent years. Brief campaigns have become long wars and as the vaunted ‘knockout blow’ has proved more and more elusive, military victory has given way to public exhaustion as the most common way to bring fighting to an end. But the air campaign led by Saudi Arabia against the Houthi rebels in Yemen ended at midnight Riyadh time on April 21, barely four weeks after it had begun, and Operation Decisive Storm became Operation Restoring Hope. The coalition will now direct its efforts towards finding a political solution in Yemen while shoring up counterterrorism measures at home.

This cannot have been an easy decision for Saudi Arabia, but it was not reached simply because the air campaign had proved ineffective in slowing the Houthis' advance, let alone sending it into reverse. Nor were the mounting civilian casualties a decisive factor, nor even the damage to Yemen’s infrastructure that has made the poorest country in the Middle East poorer still. Saudi Arabia had already stepped forward with a pledge to meet the whole $274 million in emergency assistance for Yemen called for by the United Nations on April 17. Other factors likely proved more persuasive.

First, Saudi Arabia had found the limits of allied support for its war of choice. The air campaign had exhausted its potential, and with Turkey, Pakistan, and Sudan unwilling or unable to provide the ground forces that might make a difference, and Egypt’s offer to do so highly unlikely to be met, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies had few good options. Both President Obama and President Putin had also made clear that they favored a political solution, no doubt concerned at the possible escalation of violence by the move of Iranian warships towards the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait at the entrance to the Red Sea on April 8, followed a week later by a convoy of cargo ships—prompting the dispatch of U.S. naval assets to intercept them.

President Putin, more closely allied with Iran than any of the Gulf States, called Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on April 20 to urge an end to the fighting, and as a sweetener invited him to visit Moscow. Salman would be the first Saudi monarch to do so. President Obama had called Salman three days earlier, and had also made clear that the U.S. wanted the war to stop. Oman, the only Gulf Cooperation Council member not to have joined the Saudi coalition, played a behind-the-scenes role as an intermediary with Iran, as it had in the nuclear talks. So intensive were the negotiations that the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister was able to announce the ceasefire before Saudi Arabia did.

It is also likely that the United States and other close partners had challenged the premise of the war by questioning in private the Saudi Arabian assertion that the Houthis were acting as proxies for Iran. Apart from that discussion, all sides will have been very conscious that the greatest beneficiary of the chaos in Yemen was the more immediate enemy: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has made striking advances in Hadramaut since the beginning of April, including taking control of Mukalla, its principal city and port. Dealing with AQAP is an important objective for Saudi Arabia: while AQAP is based in Yemen, its main objective is to attack Saudi Arabia. Ironically, the most effective force against AQAP in Yemen has so far been the Houthis, and vice versa. Allies had therefore played on Saudi fears that weakening the Houthis would strengthen AQAP, and warned against giving into the temptation to support AQAP in an assassination campaign against the Houthi leadership.

However, despite agreement on the threat, there is little chance of making real headway against AQAP for so long as Yemen’s path towards political stability remains so strewn with obstacles. Jamal Benomar, the United Nations Special Advisor on Yemen, resigned on April 16 after almost three years of trying to coax the different Yemeni groups to agree on a way forward. The Secretary-General will appoint a successor, but he or she is unlikely to do any better than Benomar unless there is both national and regional will to find a solution. In the meantime, ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has denied rumors that he was seeking to leave Yemen, is likely to eat away further at the few structures that Benomar and his Yemeni allies were able to create.

Saudi Arabia will be conscious that its enemies will try to cast its decision to stop the bombing as a defeat, especially as Iran has been the most publicly insistent that it end the campaign. But the change in approach will prove a smart move if Saudi Arabia can argue that having agreed to end the fighting, it now waits for others to design and implement the political solution that it has been advocating. The end of the campaign in Yemen will also allow Saudi Arabia to pivot to Syria, where it may find a greater level of acceptance of its activism among its allies, and an opportunity to exploit its new confidence in the air and the domestic public support it has engendered for military action.


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