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Saudi war drags on in Yemen

While Saudi Arabia continues military operations in Yemen through allied forces, it could face severe political risks.

Saudi-led coalition forces have achieved a military victory that has changed the balance of power in Aden, following the July 14 landing operation. Trained and organized Yemeni and Arab forces were able to expel the Houthis from most of the city’s neighborhoods in a day.

The victory was expected, as the fresh ground forces faced jaded Houthis who were drained by the battles that have raged since their March 23 invasion of Aden, and by the high temperatures that reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). It is noteworthy that Houthis hail from mountainous regions initially, and many of them have died from dengue fever since March.

The victory of the Saudi-led coalition won’t last unless the forces supporting them succeed in toppling Al-Anad air base — which fell into the hands of the Houthis on March 25 — and expelling the Houthis completely from Aden and its surrounding Lahij and Abyan governorates.

While battles between the coalition and the Houthis are still raging in Aden and its surroundings, there have been increased deliberations to reach a new political settlement. Aden also has seen a recent influx of ministers from the government in exile in Riyadh, thus making the Yemeni port the new headquarters of the internationally recognized authority. After the coalition’s victory in Aden, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis sent delegations to Russia and Egypt to discuss a political agreement, knowing that these negotiations have been ongoing in secrecy and away from the media. The Saleh-Houthi team is currently showing readiness for compromise, feeling drained and at risk of more military losses.

The new situation created a new military balance, and it is the second opportunity for a settlement. The first opportunity came at the beginning of the war, on March 26. During the first week, the Houthis and Saleh were in a state of shock and fear that could have been exploited to reach a compromise. But as a result of slow political and international action to hold negotiations, nothing much was done until the Geneva Conference on June 15. Neither of the warring parties seemed interested in a special settlement. Saudi Arabia was seeking a military victory, while the Houthis and Saleh relaxed under war circumstances that had turned in their favor, with the Houthis winning the battles on the ground and taking control of most of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia refused to make concessions to the Houthis and Saleh, who were gaining ground in Yemen. The Geneva conference between the exiled government and the Houthi-Saleh team thus failed to reach an agreement.

On the ground, Saudi Arabia is encouraged by this recent victory. Since the start of the war, it has been seeking a final military settlement, not just a better negotiating position. Indications such as the intensifying air raids on Yemen’s western coast, mainly in Mocha port and Hodeidah city, point to a repeat of the operation in Mocha, close to Taiz province, where the Houthis have suffered losses. However, it is hard for land forces to reach Taiz, because it is a mountainous region 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Mocha.

According to Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi writer close to the royal family, Saudi Arabia is seeking a complete military victory that carries far more dangerous political risks than possible military failures. Suppose the kingdom succeeded in supplying Taiz with organized forces. It would then settle its battle in Lower Yemen, where most of the citizens belong to the Shafi’i sect, which is close to the kingdom. Three options would be left for Saudi Arabia in such scenario:

  1. The division of Yemen and isolation of the Zaydi region and its capital, Sanaa. Here, Houthis would remain a source of danger along Saudi Arabia’s southern borders, and this the kingdom won’t accept.
  2. A settlement with the Houthis and Saleh in return for concessions that the kingdom does not want to make, including a political agreement that would reinforce the Houthi-Saleh team’s military role and presence at the expense of other Yemeni parties.
  3. Military expansion toward Sanaa. If this battle happens, it will be bloody and involve a huge military risk because the Houthis have a wide support base in the city.

Still, Saudi Arabia might succeed for many reasons, although Sanaa and its surroundings fall within Saleh and the Houthis' sectarian and regional circle of affiliations.

First, decades of Wahhabi preaching has converted some of the tribes in these regions to Salafism. In general, tribes fight for pragmatic reasons. Therefore, through its old and well-known communication network with the tribes, Saudi Arabia can buy the loyalty of some with money, or it can capitalize on the Houthis' presumptuous behavior and oppression of any voice that differs from theirs — not necessarily opposite to it — to lure some tribes.

Second, the Houthis’ morale will be weak for two reasons:

  1. The Houthis and Saleh mobilized forces excessively beyond their normal military means. They do not have huge liquidity. The large armed groups did not earn fixed wages, but rather rewards. As the Houthis controlled the situation on the ground, they imposed taxes on people and took control of the aid supply areas and importation facilities to sell goods for double their price. Their military defeat will entail a loss of fighters for financial reasons. Normally, the Houthi forces would then return to their villages, just like what happened in Aden.
  2. The nature of the moral mobilization that the Houthis practiced relied on the idea of a holy victory. They said they would not be defeated because God was with them. The numerous military defeats will only weaken the credibility of this idea for the fighters. 

Third, Sanaa's citizens are no longer only Zaydis. It is the capital of Yemen, which is home to mostly Sunni Shafi’is. Some of these people own a house or earn their living in Sanaa, and they might have never left.

Therefore, if Sanaa remains in the Houthis’ grip after the rest of Yemen (and its Shafi’is) spiral out of their control, the Houthis would expel the people who are originally from Lower Yemen, thus turning Sanaa into a Zaydi city. As a result, there would be a sectarian-regionalist split in the country, and Sanaa would no longer be a capital for all Yemenis. For this reason, civilians would fight against the Houthis, as they did in Aden and Taiz. This is where the danger lies.

Saudi Arabia has the capacity to achieve complete military victory in Yemen, but doing so will only increase its political losses. Arming civilians in big Yemeni cities is a dangerous game because it would lead to the formation of chaotic, undisciplined armed groups like the Houthis, thus facilitating the emergence of jihadis. What’s more, such groups are made of citizens driven by their most savage human instincts and feelings such as hatred and revenge. Formerly peaceful civilians would behave in a ferocious way that goes beyond the barbarity of militiamen. The murders of Houthi captives and other violations in Aden strongly suggest the danger of these groups.

A total military victory means that the communities of big cities in Yemen — like Aden recently, Taiz currently and Sanaa possibly — would be armed, and weapons chaos would be hard to control. Communities in these cities, like their tribal and rural counterparts, do not have adequate means of social control and conflict resolution in the absence of the state.

The landing operation in Aden coincided with the conclusion of the nuclear agreement with Iran on July 14. This move seems to be a direct Gulf reaction to the agreement, challenging the regional aspirations of Iran, which could further expand after the sanctions are lifted.

This nuclear agreement may have pushed Saudi Arabia to bring closure to Yemen on the military level. The victory in Aden may tempt the kingdom to further expand its war and use trained Yemeni and/or Arab ground forces to control more cities and regions. This move may be a successful one militarily, although it will entail massive bloodshed and destruction in Yemen. However, the real danger lies in the chaos that might be generated by the possible expansion of the war, with armed and jihadi groups growing.

The neighboring Gulf countries would pay the price of this potential turmoil, as Saudi Arabia and Oman share a long border with Yemen. A fence is not enough to protect such borders. Iran, on the other hand, has nothing to lose from political disorder in Yemen. On the contrary, it would invest in the escalating hatred toward Saudi Arabia, capitalizing on the latter’s destructive airstrikes.

Iran still has groups loyal to it in south and central Yemen that are now dormant as local communities are united against Houthis currently. But these cells will probably resume their activities after the potential expulsion of the Houthis and the resulting chaos. Iran would then increase its financial support to its allies in Yemen with its increased financial liquidity after sanctions are lifted.

The scenario of a Saudi victory in Yemen is possible, especially since the kingdom has the financial means to keep this war going for as long as it wants, unlike the Houthis. But the political repercussions of such a scenario would cost it heavily.

The battle of Aden created a new military balance in the Yemeni scene that ought to be used to reach a political settlement. This settlement would reduce the political dangers Saudi Arabia may face during the postwar period and would put an end to the humanitarian crisis currently plaguing Yemenis.

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