Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

After Decisive Storm

While various political initiatives could explain the sudden end of the Saudi-led aerial campaign in Yemen, there may be more to it than initially meets the eye, writesMedhat Al-Zahed


Al-Ahram Weekly

Just as suddenly as Operation Decisive Storm was launched and then called off, Operation Restoring Hope struck. As for the names of these campaigns, they could hardly be less appropriate. The “storm” was more in the nature of whirlwinds that ultimately proved to lack any resolve,while “hope” is about the last description that one could apply to a country decimated by those whirlwinds and civil war.

 Although Al-Ahram Weekly had anticipated a shift from “storm” to diplomacy, there had been indications of a drive to escalate the campaign before Ahmed Al-Asiri, spokesman of the operation, announced an end to Decisive Storm after it had “achieved Saudi Arabia’s safety and security,” as he put it.

The advocates of escalation were frustrated by the fact that the operation had not achieved its stated aims or the provisions of Security Council resolutions. The Houthis had not surrendered, the militias had not withdrawn from the cities and surrendered weapons and camps, and the legitimate president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had asked for the suspension of Decisive Storm, had not been restored to power. Nor had there been an announcement of a start to negotiations in Riyadh (where the operation command wanted them held) or in the Arab League (where the Yemeni parties insisted they be held),or in UN headquarters in Geneva or New York. The ceasefire had been declared unilaterally, just as the operation had been launched unilaterally.

Shortly before the ceasefire declaration,King Salman had instructed Prince Mutaib Bin Abdullah, commander of the National Guard, to prepare to take part in a ground offensive and to secure the situation in eastern Saudi Arabia where there is a significant Shia minority. Also, only hours before the ceasefire, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers lashed out against UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s statements urging a ceasefire and more efforts to seek a political solution under the auspices of the UN. The ministers had insisted that the operation had to continue until it achieved its objectives. Then, a few hours later, it was announced that the “storm” had attained its objectives and the bombardments suddenly stopped, after having killed more than 1,000 civilians and wounded more than 4,000, among whom at least a hundred dead and wounded children.

A haze continues to envelop some of the causes of that sudden shift that the Iranians were, perhaps, the first to anticipate in spite of all the outward evidence only hours earlier. Just before the ceasefire, Tehran had sent a letter to Ban Ki-Moon outlining a four-point peace plan calling for an immediate ceasefire, an end to all foreign military offensives, urgent humanitarian relief, and the resumption of an extensive national dialogue and the formation of a national unity government. Then, immediately before the announcement of the end of Decisive Storm, commander of the Iranian ground forces,Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan,issued a statement saying that Iran had no desire to enter into a dispute with Saudi Arabia. He accused Saudi Arabia of waging a war of attrition and warned that if it persisted it could expect crushing blows, which some have taken to intimate that the war could spill over into Saudi Arabia.

Also on the eve of the declaration of a ceasefire, Cairo received Yemeni delegations and was working to open channels for dialogue with the main players in preparation for an initiative that, according to reports, would have taken place in coordination with Jordan and Algeria. According to available information on that initiative, Khaled Bahah,the Yemeni vice-president who had been sworn into office in the Yemeni embassy in Riyadh, could succeed President Hadi in the framework of subsequent arrangements. However, the Egyptian initiative, according to the information, was contingent on a linkage between Operation Decisive Storm and civil warfare,both of which had to cease.


Aerial strikes and the ground offensive: What is certain is that the Decisive Storm, due to its inherent problems, had exhausted its purpose. As long as aerial strikes had not weakened the capacities of the Houthis and the forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and as long as they were not associated with a ground offensive, their result would be nothing but scenes of destruction. Moreover, not only would they bring no end to the conflict,the crisis could expand regionally and internationally.

Internationally, the Houthis were not portrayed, in general, in the Western press as another version of Daesh (the Islamic State) or Al-Qaeda. Also, it did not appear that Western capitals were ready to sacrifice their relations with Iran at a time when the ink on a framework agreement had barely dried and a final agreement was only months away.

Initially, therefore, a rapid operation could be accepted, from their perspective, as it would reassure Saudi Arabia and, at the same time, be used to pressure Iran by demonstrating an ability to clip the wings of its regional allies. Also, it could serve as a kind of diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the agreement between Iran and the P5+1, but without taking matters too far.

But a ground offensive began to slip out of reach the moment that the Pakistani parliament refused to allow its army, the most equipped for mountain warfare, to take part in the war in Yemen and the moment that Ankara also refused to respond to the Saudi call in spite of King Salman’s inclination to build a Saudi-Qatari-Turkish axis.

Meanwhile in Egypt, where reports had begun to circulate to the effect that such and such a number of Egyptian forces would take part in a ground offensive, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stated that Egypt’s intervention in the war would be restricted to aerial and naval operations. He also denied rumours that Egyptian soldiers had begun to return from Yemen in coffins, along other such fabrications.

In a gesture of moral and material support that was calculated to stop short of any involvement in a ground offensive,Egypt agreed to take part in a major military manoeuvre staged in Saudi territory and air and marine space. News agency reports of the movement of Egyptian troops to Saudi Arabia furnished face-saving cover for the anticipated announcement of a ceasefire.

So who is left to fight the ground offensive?

A mystery continues to surround the fact that it was the Saudi National Guard, as opposed to the army, that was tasked with securing the situation in the east of the country and preparing for engagement in a land offensive. Some observers see in this a scheme to weaken and sideline Prince Mutaib,who complied with instructions without embroiling National Guard forces in confrontations in the eastern province where unidentified groups attacked several security facilities and personnel. Naturally, his forces did not take part in a land offensive that has become more in the nature of a mirage. It appears that Prince Mutaib possesses some of the shrewdness of the late King Abdullah that has enabled him to remain afloat under the new king and defy efforts to undermine his strength.

Meanwhile, it was not just Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt that balked at involvement in a ground war in Yemen. The armies of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, too, were not keen on embroiling themselves in a war abroad against armed groups that were proficient in guerrilla style warfare and in rugged mountainous territory such as that in Yemen. It is well known that the Houthis are seasoned combatants who engaged in six wars against government forces under the regime of former president Saleh. This expertise was among the factors that enabled the Houthis to seize control of most of Yemen’s major governorates, such as Sanaa, Aden and Taiz. Saudi forces, whether the army or National Guard, lack that kind of expertise. Indeed, they have not been involved in any real land war for 40 years.


No winners possible: Perhaps a major factor that led to the unilateral halt to the “storm” was that operation commanders realised that it could be classed as a war of attrition, or a war in which there would be no winners or losers from protracting the attrition. While Yemeni airspace may be open and defenceless, the terrain is laden with mines because of the Houthis’ guerrilla fighting expertise and their capacities to redeploy rapidly. If air strikes were preliminary to a land offensive, this would be prelude to an endless quagmire of the sort that could not be settled in Iraq or Syria,let alone the mountainous terrain of Yemen.

Indeed, this has always been the chief problem with the original plan: what is the political objective of the war and what are the coalition armies’ strategic aims? Is it to wipe out the Houthis? To restore a legitimate authority that evaporated after having handed over arsenals, camps and ministries? What are the military instruments that best serve to achieve these aims? Will aerial bombardments suffice or is ground intervention necessary? In the event of the latter, can the desired results be guaranteed? Which countries would be willing to take the risks and pay the costs?

What forces inside Yemen can be relied on to support such an intervention? A tribal alliance headed by the Hashed? A regional alliance resting on the southern autonomy drive? A tribal/political alliance led by the Islah (Reform) Party? Would it be right for Egypt, in particular, to take part in an alliance headed by the political wing of the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood?

And once in Yemen, which way should ground forces turn and what exactly should their mission or missions be? What should they do about Al-Qaeda? Should they pursue the Houthis all the way into their strongholds or just drive them out of the areas into which they have expanded? Where is the war theatre exactly? Where are the battlefields and how will the direction of fire be determined? Will strikes accomplish their objectives given Russia’s experience in Afghanistan and the US experiences in Afghanistan and Vietnam, or even the Pakistani experience in ridding its own territory of terrorism?


Reordering the house: The questions above led some observers to draw a link between the war in Yemen and the new arrangements in the Saudi royal house following the death of King Abdullah. King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz succeeded in engineering a comprehensive coup at the pinnacle of the Saudi order within seven days after having come to the throne. That coup exceeded all predictions and expectations. Encompassing key posts in government and security agencies, it virtually put paid overnight to the King Abdullah era and especially those leadership positions that had been filled by moderates. This has led some to conclude that the seventh Saudi monarch intends to keep a tight control over affairs and exclude from power members of the royal house whom he did not relish seeing successful in their posts. In brief, the predictions are that the kingdom is heading towards even more conservative policies domestically.

It is particularly noteworthy that ministers that the late king had brought in,in order to introduce an element of liberalisation,were replaced. The most important of these were the minister of education, a ministry that has been merged with the Ministry of Higher Education, and the minister of awqaf (religious endowments) and Islamic affairs.

Prince Khaled Al-Faisal had taken over the Ministry of Education with the purpose of eliminating the influence of Islamists who had controlled it and the educational curricula  for decades. The late king had also appointed the moderate Islamist Suleiman Bin Abdullah Aba Al-Kheil as minister of awqaf and Islamic affairs in order to stem the influence of conservatives and their control over mosque pulpits.

Only a handful of senior officials are left from the previous king’s era and this is probably only in order to demonstrate some respect for “custom” and to maintain the image of a “united family”.So, for example, Prince Mutaib Bin Abdullah has been retained as minister of the National Guard (a position in which his father had served for 40 years) and Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah still serves as deputy foreign minister. On the other hand, Prince Turki Bin Abdullah and has brother Prince Mushaal Bin Abdullah have been dismissed as governors of Riyadh and Mecca respectively. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan was dismissed from his post as special royal envoy and secretary-general of the National Security Council,that was abolished entirely, and Prince Khaled Bin Bandar Bin Abdul Aziz was dismissed as head of General Intelligence (in which he had served for only six months) and replaced by General Khaled Bin Ali Al-Hamidan.


Farewell to arms: In fact, the declaration of an end to Decisive Storm was the only wise action undertaken by the operation command since the beginning of that war. A further delay would have only caused greater damage. The Houthis and the forces loyal to Saleh had redeployed and reduced their presence in the areas in which they had previously been concentrated with the result that civilians who had nothing to do with the conflicting groups were the ones who were paying the toll. Damage to infrastructure was mounting and international humanitarian agencies were crying out against the carnage while the ongoing aerial bombardment had the effect of strengthening Houthi influence and enhancing Saleh’s popularity among large segments of public opinion. The continuation of the aerial offensive in the absence of a ground war serves no other purpose than to compound the destruction and add to the image of “war for war’s sake”.

Politicians are currently searching for a place to hold negotiations. Cairo, as noted, has stepped forward with an initiative.The Saudis want to host talks in Riyadh,while the Arab League has refrained from offering its headquarters. It appears that in the end Ban Ki-Moon will determine the venue.

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