With the Houthis developing their missile capability and the US taking botched action against a resurgent al-Qaida, the war is taking new turns
Last week, I attended an off-the-record academic discussion of Middle East current affairs. The topic was the US presidential transition and Saudi Arabia, and one of the participants, a British academic, made a memorable observation while analyzing the Saudi intervention in Yemen: In 3,000 years, he noted, victory had eluded every foreign military power or empire which attempted to invade the country, and the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm is unlikely to prove an exception.
I recalled this when later the same day, news broke of a dramatic development in the Yemen war: an attack by Houthi forces on a Saudi frigate off the Red Sea port of Hodeida, damaging the vessel and killing two crew members and wounding three. The Houthis said they used a shore-to ship missile while the Saudis maintained the vessel was hit by a suicide bomber using a speedboat, and both sides released video recordings which appeared to confirm their versions.
Whatever the case, the Houthis succeeded in hitting their target, and in delivering what amounted to a warning to the Saudi-led coalition: they will do everything possible to prevent it from controlling access to Hodeida, source of two thirds of the country’s food and commercial imports. The coalition already controls Yemen’s airspace and air traffic, and wants to blockade Hodeida in order to prevent the Houthis from receiving food and military supplies by sea, in the hope of forcing them back up into their mountain heartlands.
One senior Houthi figure insisted to me that the defence of Hodeida was more important even than the defence of the capital Sanaa, and that the Houthi-led alliance would fight to the death to prevent it falling to the Saudi-led coalition, along with the port of Mocha east of – and first line of defence for – the city of Taaz. The Houthi naval warning was followed up by a fierce missile and artillery barrage against a Saudi border town.
Saudi King Salman meanwhile reaffirmed, in a statement in a statement read out on his behalf after he chaired a cabinet meeting on 5 February, that the ‘terrorist attack’ on the frigate would not prevent ‘the forces of the coalition supporting legitimacy in Yemen from continuing their military operations’.
The war meanwhile took another new turn when the Houthis announced they had launched a ballistic missile against an air base near the Saudi capital. No mention of this was made in the Saudi cabinet statement, in contrast to previous occasions when the Houthis fired missiles at targets in southwestern Saudi Arabia such as a military base in Taef and King Abdelaziz airport in Jeddah. When that happened, the Saudi authorities mobilized their media, and many of their allies, to denounce these attacks and claim that they were aimed at the holy city of Mecca. Perhaps the Houthis opted for a faraway target this time to avoid a repeat of such accusations.
But the missile strike also serves notice that the Saudi capital is now within their range. That may explain the official Saudi silence over the incident. Officials could want to play down the extent to which their Yemeni adversaries have developed their missile capabilities, not least to reassure Saudi citizens (beyond the southwestern border regions) that they are safe, and that the war in Yemen has not started being brought home to them.
It would be no surprise if Iran has been helping the Houthi-Saleh alliance to develop missile technology. It is the regional leader in the field, having been obliged to devote its attention to it as a result of the crippling of its air-force due to Western sanctions, and it has provided the technology to other like Syria and Hezbollah. Former president Ali Abdallah Saleh may also have made use of old connections in Russia and North Korea, with which he was on good terms, in this regard.
It may also be no coincidence that the targeting of Riyadh came after US President Donald Trump began beating the drum of sanctions against Iran and rallying Arab allies for a confrontation with it that could turn into a military showdown.
Trump served early notice during his election campaign of his hostility to Iran and his intention to scrap the international deal over its nuclear facilities and subject it to additional sanctions. Having accused the Obama administration of being soft on Iran, it was no surprise that he should seize on the first pretext – the perfectly legal testing of a ballistic missile within Iran’s own territory — to ratchet up tensions.
This entails rallying the Gulf states and rebuilding the axis of Arab ‘moderates’ to wage a new cold war against Tehran like that which preceded the nuclear deal. In their telephone conversation last week, Trump and the Saudi monarch were reported to have agreed to confront Iranian attempts to destabilize the region. Details of their 43-minute conversation are unknown, but reading between the lines and from subsequent statements, it seems to have covered two main issues: joining forces against Iran and investing in the US economy.
Upping the ante against Iran in itself provides an economic boost to the US, as it means selling yet more arms to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on the pretext of strengthening their capacity to defend themselves against Iran. Perhaps that is Trump’s way of pocketing the ‘protection money’ he promised to force the Gulf states to pay during his election campaign. The Saudi oil minister also suggested his country would increase its investment in the US oil and gas sector.
In Yemen, this may translate into increased US support for the Saudi-led war.
An early sign of this may have been the helicopter-borne raid mounted by US Special Forces on an al-Qaida camp in al-Bayda province which led to the killing of 41 people, many of them women and children, including the eight-year-old daughter of the Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awaqi.
If Trump is serious about eradicating Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth, as he repeatedly has tweeted, this was a bad start.
In military terms, the operation was botched. The American SEALS lost a helicopter and one of them was killed and two injured in a 50-minute gunfight, including with al-Qaida women fighters, and they obtained no useful intelligence.
Politically, it only demonstrated the al-Qaida’s growing power in Yemen, which it has been turning into its main official base in lieu of Afghanistan. It has established a presence in both the north and south of the country, has been increasingly active in Abyan province and even the city of Aden and is experiencing a resurgence. Being targeted by the US helps it gain sympathizers and recruits among Yemenis who are despairing after two years of bloody chaos and near-famine caused by the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade. And the latest massacre could prompt revenge attacks by the group or its supporters against American and/or Saudi targets, with or without the cooperation of their erstwhile enemies in the Houthi-Saleh alliance.
Nobody has explained what Trump meant when it was reported that he agreed with the Saudi king on the establishment of safe zones for refugees in Yemen as in Syria.
Pending such an explanation, I agree with the British academic quoted above: no foreign invasion of Yemen has succeeded in 3,000 years, and I venture to add that this will not change or another 1,000.
Operation Decisive Storm meanwhile marks its second anniversary shortly. I doubt anyone will be celebrating.
Abdel Bari Atwan