Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Attack on Aden

A ground offensive in conjunction with the aerial and naval operations in Yemen is underway but uncertainties remain, writes Medhat Al-Zahed

Al-Ahram Weekly

Has the ground offensive begun? What is actually happening in Aden? Questions such as these were triggered by reports of clashes between Saudi-led Coalition Forces and the Houthi militias in the vicinity of Aden airport, purportedly to regain control of that facility preliminary to driving the Houthi militias out of Aden. But neither the Coalition Command or any of its components have said that they were taking part in that engagement. Nor are there available facts that enable us to ascertain that Storm of Resolve, which had vanished as quickly as it started only to resume again just as suddenly, has now turned into a ground offensive. What most of the evidence does suggest is that an operation was launched in the vicinity of Aden airport in which some elite forces are fighting alongside troops loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Hadi. The results of this assault are not yet certain.

Can we indeed conclude from this news that a ground war has begun after some 2,500 aerial sorties failed to attain their objectives, namely to prevent the Houthi advance on Aden and other governorates?

Prior to this development, the hostilities centred around the port in Aden, in Khor Makassar and Al-Mualla quarters near the main commercial port, and around an army camp in the northern part of the city. Fierce fighting raged in these areas for three days, according to Yemeni sources. But on Sunday the battle arena and conflict sites changed. According to most international news agencies and Arab and Gulf networks, a limited number of troops from the Arab coalition landed the southern port city of Aden in order to “support the forces of the people’s committees” that are fighting the Houthi former president Ali Abdallah Saleh alliance. A source from the pro-Storm of Resolve people’s committees told Al-Ahram Weekly that the troops from the Arab coalition amount to no more than a few dozen and that they are members of the Saudi and the United Arab Emirates armed forces even though they are of Yemeni origin. It is uncertain whether the stated nationality of the elite troops is true or a form of camouflage.

According to Ali Al-Ahmadi, spokesman for the southern popular resistance, a special force consisting of southern Yemeni fighters was trained for the purpose of staging the offensive at Aden airport. He retracted a previous statement in which he said that 40 to 50 special forces from the coalition had deployed alongside his group. Saudi Arabia, for its part, has denied that a ground offensive has begun or that non-Yemeni troop are on the ground in Aden.

What is certain, according to reports from Yemen, is that the groups that are fighting against the Houthis in Aden stormed areas in the vicinity of the airport on Sunday in an operation that was overseen by the Saudi-led coalition which offered air cover. On the other hand, unconfirmed news reports relate that a marine landing from a Saudi vessel near Aden had been blocked.

Aden has become the major locus of the war that began on 26 March when the coalition launched its offensive against Houthi fighters opposed to Hadi who had performed his presidential duties from Aden for a few weeks before moving to Riyadh. Aden is a port city that occupies a strategic position at the juncture of the Bab Al-Mandab and the Gulf of Aden. Large segments of the populace of this region opposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh and his regime which, according to the Southern Yemeni Movement, funnelled the resources of the south into the pockets of the north. With respect to Egypt, Aden at the entrance to the Bab Al-Mandab represents the southern gateway into the Red Sea and Suez Canal which, in addition to its critical importance to national security, is a major source of national revenue.

Because of such reasons, the port city has become a flashpoint in the conflict. Due to its topography and demographics it also offers better opportunities for naval intervention, logistic support and special forces operations. But all of this does not make Aden an appropriate city for a potentially highly risky ground war.

It is in this context, perhaps, that we can understand why Major Ahmed Asiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis, denied reports that a coalition ground force had landed in Aden province. Al Arabiya news channel cited him as saying, “The popular resistance is performing all the tasks in Aden.”

But Asiri’s denial is not entirely convincing. There are too many contradictions. For example, he said, “No ground landing took place [on Sunday] in Aden” but then he added, “I can not comment on the current operations” and “the coalition forces are keeping all options open in order to support the resistance and obtain the desired results on the ground.”

Whatever one makes of such statements, it is clear that Storm of Resolve achieved little. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Yemen has grown from bad to worse.

Furthermore, to “rub more salt in the wounds”, as a Human Rights Watch report put it, there is video and other tangible evidence that cluster bombs have been used in the raids undertaken by coalition forces in recent weeks against the province of Saada, the Houthi stronghold in northern Yemen near the  border with Saudi Arabia. Cluster munitions have been banned by most countries because, like land mines, they can pose dangerous risks to civilians during and long after attacks.

On 24 April, the UN reported that more than 1,000 people have been killed since the aerial bombardments began. Of these 551 were civilians and, according to UNICEF, 115 were children.

The deteriorating humanitarian conditions have become a powerful source of pressure on the Storm of Resolve command to halt this operation as soon as possible and to lift the blockade on Yemen. The Weekly has published a cry for help from a Yemeni writer to King Salman bin Abdul- Aziz, appealing to him to allow 4,000 Yemenis, who had gone to India for medical treatment and have since been stranded there and forced to survive on alms, to obtain transit permits through Saudi Arabia in order to return home. Certainly, there are untold numbers of refugees experiencing similarly dire circumstances in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and elsewhere.

Amidst the haze surrounding developments in Yemen, leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries met in Riyadh on Tuesday. The “consultative summit” comes at a critical time for the Storm of Resolve as it has reached a juncture where some firm decisions need to be taken regarding an exit to the crisis or mobilising a ground force to tip the scales of the battle to the pro-Hadi camp.  GCC leaders are due to meet President Obama next week which adds to the pressure of clarifying their course of direction.

If the reports are true regarding the Yemeni origins of the elite troops that are allegedly taking part in the combat in the vicinity of Aden Airport and that they are preparing for more extensive engagements, it should be mentioned that Yemeni recruits in the Saudi and Emirati forces would not be sufficient in number to resolve the conflict on the ground.

That is if deploying them does not somehow backfire.  In 1990, Saudi Arabia asked Pakistani forces to guard Saudi borders against an Iraqi attack at the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Saudi command was taken by surprise when, no sooner had the Pakistanis arrived than many of them headed off to pray and perform the rites of worship in Shia holy places in Iraq. The Saudis had to ask then prime minister Benazir Bhutto to withdraw all the Pakistani troops after he had refused to withdraw just the Shia ones.

The countries of the Saudi-led Arab Coalition have to make some tough choices. Calling off the aerial bombardments will ultimately lead to an expansion of Houthi control.

Continuing them will increase the human tolls while sending in ground forces is highly risky and the results are unpredictable. In all cases, Iran should not be omitted from the calculations. Not only has Iran been working to neutralise Saudi Arabia’s allies and potential supporters and to propel them towards a diplomatic course, while providing logistic and moral support to the Houthis, recent reports indicate that Tehran is making preparations for an intervention by its Republican Guard forces and its allies in Iraq via the Saudi and Kuwaiti borders if the conflict in Yemen drags on. In addition, spreading the fire into the Saudi home remains an option and all the more so in light of the resentments stirred by the reshuffling in the Saudi royal house. This raises the question as to whether it would have been possible to achieve to major tasks at once at a time when neither Saudi Arabia nor Yemen were at risk of an outside military invasion. Threats should be addressed in accordance with their actual nature, degree of severity and the regional and international environment. At the same time, the cloudier the political aims of a war are, the more confused the military operations become.

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