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Yemen: Saudi Arabia's Lost Cause

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May 2021 Scott Ritter


Saudi Arabia's war with Houthi rebels in Yemen is entering its eighth year. Those who believed that the conflict would be short and result in a decisive Saudi victory must now face the harsh reality that the Saudi-led coalition is not winning the war and is even in danger of losing it outright. While a Saudi victory can only occur with a Houthi capitulation, the Houthi win simply by not losing. The Houthi, however, appear to have their eyes on an even greater victory, one that reclaims part or all of three Yemeni provinces lost to Saudi Arabia in 1934, positioning the Houthis' Yemen as part of an Iranian-backed regional grouping that redefines the geopolitical balance of power in the Middle East. The longer Saudi Arabia allows this conflict to drag on, the more it has to lose. At some point, the Saudi leadership will need to cut its losses and sue for peace on terms that are acceptable to both the Houthis and Iran, implicitly acknowledging Saudi military and political defeat. This is a hard pill to swallow, but the alternative is relentless military losses at huge financial and humanitarian cost with no path to victory, threatening the survival of the 89-year-old kingdom.

Saudi King Abdulaziz, the founder of the kingdom, is purported to have told his sons at his death bed in 1953 to “keep Yemen weak.” One of the primary reasons for this was the perceived need to maintain a compliant regime in Yemen so that the terms of the Treaty of Taif, which was signed in 1934 and gave Saudi Arabia control over the three northern Yemeni provinces of Asir, Jizan and Najran, could be successfully renegotiated every 20 years, as required by the treaty.

While the Saudi-Yemeni border was ostensibly finalized in 2000, many Yemenis still view the three provinces lost in 1934 as part of Yemen. Suppressing this sentiment has been a critical Saudi national security objective. Thus, when the government of Yemen President Abed Rabbu Mansur Hadi was kicked out the capitol of Sanaa in 2014 by Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia opted to intervene militarily. Not only have the Saudis failed to re-establish the rule of their hand-picked Yemeni leader, the corresponding failure to defeat the Houthi rebels has revived Yemeni nationalist sentiment calling for the return of Asir, Jizan and Najran. Since 2019, Houthi forces have been partly realizing this objective by operating deep inside Najran province, engaging and defeating Saudi forces and threatening Saudi cities.

Many Dimensions of Conflict

The scope and scale of Houthi gains over the Saudi-led coalition that has opposed them since 2014 make the situation in Najran only a small part of the picture. The war in Yemen currently involves three main aspects: the humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people, the battle for Marib, and the ongoing Houthi missile and drone offensive against targets inside Saudi Arabia. In all three, both the narrative and actual on-the-ground momentum are working in favor of the Houthis, leaving Saudi Arabia and its allies scrambling to come up with a new strategy, which has so far eluded them.

While the Houthis were originally seen by the West as little more than an extension of the Iranian-led “axis of resistance,” this narrative has largely been blunted by the horrific images of starving Yemeni children, victims of a famine induced by the ongoing conflict and sustained by both US and UN economic sanctions on the Houthis.

The humanitarian crisis is not a simple exercise in pro-Houthi propaganda. The International Rescue Committee lists Yemen as the country most at risk of a humanitarian catastrophe in 2021. Millions of Yemenis are at risk of starvation and disease due to a critical lack of food, clothing, shelter and medicine. The crisis is so severe that US President Joe Biden took the unusual step of removing the Houthis from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to Houthi-controlled territory more easily. The Saudis, who hailed the earlier designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization by former US President Donald Trump, see Biden's reversal as a diplomatic defeat.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen has also prompted a closer look at Saudi Arabia's objectives and the military means it is using. The result has been widespread international condemnation of what appears to be indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets by the Saudi Air Force. The Saudis suffered another embarrassing diplomatic defeat when the Biden administration announced that it would no longer provide support for offensive airstrikes carried out by the Saudis in Yemen. While the application of this policy has not meaningfully impacted Saudi air operations over Yemen, the political optics point to eroding support for Saudi Arabia's coalition. 

While the Saudi air campaign against the Houthis has proven spectacularly unsuccessful, that setback has been eclipsed by the disastrous performance of Saudi-backed ground forces inside Yemen. The failure of troops from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to capture the Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah in 2019, combined with a series of other battlefield reversals, helped convince the UAE to withdraw its forces from the Saudi-led coalition last year. Sudan, which at one time deployed as many as 15,000 troops to Yemen in support of Saudi Arabia, also withdrew after suffering heavy casualties. The Saudi Army has suffered a series of battlefield reversals, resulting in thousands of troops killed or captured.

The Meaning of Marib

The most recent example of the seeming impotence of the Saudi-led coalition is the ongoing fight for Marib, a city of 1.8 million. Marib, Yemen's primary oil-producing region, is the capital of the northernmost enclave in Yemen still controlled by the Saudi-backed Hadi government. For the moment, the Hadi government and its Saudi allies have the support of local tribes, who have provided troops to thwart the Houthis' advance. While the ultimate outcome of the battle for Marib remains uncertain, that fact that the Houthis are on the offensive is a stark reminder of how far the military narrative has changed since the Saudis first intervened in 2014.

The battle for Marib has put ongoing peace talks brokered by Qatar on hold as both sides vie for a battlefield advantage that could influence the outcome of any negotiations. While many Western observers believe that the Houthis are counting on the capture of Marib before seeking peace, the Houthis actually are more focused on regional politics than specific territorial gains. Marib may hold great significance for Saudi Arabia and its coalition. But the Houthis have become an extension of an Iranian-led “axis of resistance,” which includes Iran's pro-Shiite militias in Afghanistan and Iraq, its forces in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon -- all providing a broad, centrally controlled regional pushback against Saudi and Gulf Arab regional hegemony.

The importance of the Houthi for this Iranian coalition stands out in the impact of the sustained missile and drone campaign on strategic Saudi infrastructure, including oil-production facilities, airports, and military targets. Even with the concerted support of the US, which has provided Saudi Arabia with advanced Patriot surface-to-air missiles, and the Saudi missile/drone shield that has claimed significant defensive success, Houthi missiles and drones have penetrated the Saudi-US defenses in numbers sufficient to cause serious physical damage to targets inside Saudi Arabia. Such is the capability of the Iranian-provided missiles and drones that the current commander of US Central Command, responsible for all US forces operating in the Middle East, recently testified before Congress that the US no longer enjoys the presumption of air superiority in the Mideast Gulf.

The Houthis are firmly entrenched as a vital part of Iran's “axis of resistance.” As such, the conflict in Yemen has been subordinated to a broader regional geopolitical struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The role of the Houthis in this wider struggle is to maintain pressure on the Saudi-led coalition operating inside Yemen, making the price for the Saudis of continuing to back the Hadi government too high when viewed in the context of Saudi Arabia’s broader regional interests. The Saudi-Houthi conflict in Yemen can only be fully resolved as part of a resolution of Saudi-Iranian regional tensions. By intervening in Yemen in 2014 and failing to secure a rapid victory, the current Saudi government headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seriously underestimated its opponent. Houthi-led Yemen is no longer weak. Having sown the wind of conflict, the Saudis are now compelled to reap the whirlwind.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98.

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