September 9, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Endless Fight for Yemen
There is no geopolitical strategy or even a battle plan that can survive long on the ground in Yemen. Success in one part of the rugged country yields to losses in another. On September 4, 2015, the Houthi rebels fired a Russian-made Tochka missile into an anti-Houthi coalition base near Marib, hitting a weapons depot. The resulting explosion killed 45 soldiers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the largest loss of life for that country’s military since its founding in 1971. There were also ten Saudi soldiers killed as well as five from Bahrain, making the day the deadliest one so far for the coalition. However, the death toll of Yemeni civilians is beyond comparison; over 2,000 have been killed through inaccurate coalition bombing and indiscriminate Houthi shelling.
Hopes that the coalition's success in reclaiming the port city of Aden would lead to a cascade of successes—including the capture of the the capital Sana’a—have, like many hopes in Yemen, proved to be without substance. The reality of ground fighting in Yemen, where the ruggedness of the terrain is surpassed only by the fractious nature of the competing tribes and shifting alliances, is a tough one to overcome.
Officials in the UAE have stated that the missile strike only strengthened the country’s resolve to reach some semblance of victory in the campaign that started in March with airstrikes and has now turned into a ground campaign. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi (one of the principalities of the UAE) has said the UAE is ‘determined to liberate Yemen’ in light of the losses. The coalition—led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States—stated that its goals remain the removal of the Houthis and the subsequent restoration of exiled President al-Hadi.
In a sign of a deepening fight, Qatar, which until now had only participated in the air campaign, sent 1,000 soldiers to fight in Yemen. These troops are now at the Saudi-Yemeni border and are expected to cross into Yemen within days. These Qatari troops will bring hundreds of armored vehicles and heavy weapons to the already crowded battlefield. The air campaign—which has never truly slackened for any length of time, even during supposed cease-fires—intensified noticeably in the days following the Marib attack. While Houthi fighting positions remain the stated targets, the Yemeni civilians continue to bear the brunt of the bombing’s damage.
The impact of the Marib attack will likely be that all sides double down on their respective positions, with increased fighting and decreased focus on negotiation, at least in the short term. The Gulf countries are determined to be seen by their citizens as achieving tangible victory, while the Houthis and their assorted partners are fighting to remain in control of at least a part of the deeply divided country. The fight in Yemen is widely seen by Gulf Arabs as vital not so much because of Yemen, but because they view Iran—which the coalition claims is the primary supporter of the Houthis—as a true regional menace. They worry that, if not stopped in Yemen, Iran will destabilize Bahrain and other countries in the region. This rhetoric and sentiment will make a negotiated compromise unlikely in the near-term. The fate of Yemen and its vulnerable citizens continues to be determined in large measure by those outside the country; the resulting humanitarian catastrophe and geopolitical morass will only worsen as the fighting intensifies.
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