Finding a Way Out


The longer the Yemen war continues, the worse it will get for the Saudis and their allies

By Abdel Bari Atwan


Last week, the UAE announced that four of its soldiers were killed when their helicopter was downed in Yemen where they were deployed as part of the Saudi-led coalition. A few days previously, an Emirati warship was attacked in Yemeni waters in the Red Sea off the port of Mocha, apparently by Houthi forces.

These incidents suggest that for the first time in months, the war in Yemen is entering a fresh stage of escalation, this time at the hands of the alliance between the Houthis and the former ruling General Peoples Congress (GPC), deliberately targeting UAE aircraft and vessels. This may be a specific response to the UAE’s increasingly dominant role in South Yemen, whose succession it has been actively encouraging. But it does not mean that the forces of Saudi Arabia, especially along Yemen’s northern border, will now be safe.

The official account from UAE said the helicopter crashed due to a technical fault. But there have been reports that it was brought down by one of a new range of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles that have been acquired and/or home-produced by the Houthi-GNC alliance, which it is threatening to use against the Arab coalition, as demonstrated earlier in Mocha. These could amend the technological power-balance in the war somewhat in favour of the Yemeni side.

The longer the Yemen crisis has persisted, the stronger and more effective the Yemeni side targeted by Operation Decisive Storm and its missiles and warplanes has become – contrary to all the expectations of the Arab coalition and its generals and political leaders. Two and half years after the war was launched, it is clear that that the Houthi-GPC alliance has managed not just to absorb the initial shock and live with the on-going aerial bombardment and blockade, but also to go on the counter-attack: whether by confronting coalition planes and warships or firing missiles or making incursions deep into Saudi territory. 

The fact that Saudi Arabia has resorted to Sudan’s Rapid Deployment Forces to fight on its side in Yemen confirms this. The move exposes a real crisis in the ranks of the Arab coalition, which is unable to field enough troops to fight on the ground. The deployment of the Sudanese troops is unlikely to change this. It might even backfire, both on the battlefield and politically in the face of the Khartoum government which sent them there. It is already widely being accused of using them as ‘mercenaries’ in an immoral war, and the reputation and authority of the Sudanese military establishment could suffer irreparable damage as a result.

The despatch of Sudanese special forces to Yemen is an admission that the 5,000 regular Sudanese soldiers who were set there at the start of the crisis have proven ineffective.  They were reluctant to fight their Yemeni fellow Arabs and Muslims. They preferred to stay back from the front-lines, and some of them demanded to be sent home alive rather in coffins. Hence the decision to replace them with ‘elite’ forces at Riyadh’s request.

The member-states of the Arab coalition committed catastrophic mistakes in Yemen when they proceeded to tighten the blockade of the country, close down Sanaa airport, and target civilians in their airstrikes. That turned the entire Yemeni people against them, undermined the position of their ally President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his faction, and led to an increase in international sympathy for the embattled Yemenis as they face famine and cholera epidemics.

The Saudi-led coalition’s closure of Sanaa airport during the height of the summer, and its threats against any aircraft attempting to use it, without any legal or moral justification, amounts to a war crime and act of piracy. It is deliberately aimed at humiliating Yemeni civilians. Even UN representative Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who is accused of being in cahoots with the Saudis, changed his tune and openly called for Sanaa airport to be reopened.

Gen. Yahya Muhammad Abdallah Saleh, former president Ali Abdallah Saleh’s nephew and one his chief military lieutenants, has threatened to bomb airports in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in response to the closure of Sanaa airport. This should be taken seriously, because the Houthi-Saleh alliance has nothing to lose, and the consequences could be grave. Imagine if a missile were to target Dubai. Jeddah or Riyadh airport, even if it were intercepted or brought down, in the midst of an all-encompassing crisis in the Gulf that has already hit the economies of all concerned hard and seriously hurt regional airlines.

The Arab coalition’s blinkered attitude and policies in the war in Yemen need to be radically reconsidered before it is too late and their losses mount. The Houthi-GNC alliance will never surrender, and its popular support-base is expanding not just in Yemen but also in the wider region and internationally. That of Hadi and his allies is meanwhile shrinking fast. His name is rarely heard at all these days, nor the ostensible war-aim of restoring him to power in Sanaa.

The Saudis and their allies would be well advised to allow Sanaa airport to reopen, and to go back to the negotiating table to seek acceptable ways of extracting themselves from the crisis and of ending the drain on human lives and material resources. Obstinacy will gain nothing but tragic consequences.