If at First You Do Not Succeed

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(Julien Harneis, Flickr Commons)

(Julien Harneis, Flickr Commons)

In May 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) invited Morocco and Jordan, the two Gulf monarchies that are not formal members of the club, to apply for membership, creating a GCC+2 front that, for all intents and purposes, shores up the Gulf alliance by adding more advanced military skills and capabilities to their own fledgling, if very well-equipped, military forces. The Saudi-led air campaign launched against the Houthis of Yemen last March puts this alliance — which appeared to be merely a paper tiger four years ago — to the test.

Many in the Sunni world and in Yemen are glad to see someone take action against the Houthis, who appeared just before the launch of the air campaign to be well on their way to taking control of the country. Not everyone in the region is cheering, however. Hassan Nassrallah, the Secretary General of Lebanese Hezbollah, harshly condemned the Saudi-led airstrikes on Houthi locations in Yemen, in a speech that he gave in March. He stated, “You have failed in your way of dealing with Yemen for decades and now that the Yemeni people have risen to determine their own fate, you are attacking them. This time you will face defeat and humiliation unless you return to your senses and encourage dialogue instead of war.”

Nassrallah is wrong about the “Yemeni people” rising. It is clear from popular demonstrations and regional confrontations that at least half of the Yemeni population is against the Houthi takeover of Sanaa and their continued military campaign against the rest of Yemen’s regions. Nassrallah is right, however, in that the slide towards state failure in Yemen, which started in 2011 and culminated in the ongoing war against the Houthis, represents the failure of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the international community in mediating Yemen’s transition from an authoritarian cleptocracy to a modern democracy. The failure of the Yemeni state occurred despite at least two decades of international assistance and diplomatic effort to coax former President Saleh to put an end to corruption and to work with the international community in fighting poverty and developing his country’s economy.

The most recent failures, however, are diplomatic and military. The U.S. failed to directly engage the problems that plagued Sanaa’s relations with the North, where the Houthis rebelled in 2004, and the South, where southerners rose in 2009, demanding secession from the central authority in the capital. Militarily, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia failed to deter the Houthis from taking Sanaa and then from advancing south. Once the Houthis successfully advanced south, confrontation became a much more costly project.

On the diplomatic front, what began as a purely internal affair between the former president Ali Abdallah Saleh and the Houthis in 2004 has turned into a regional and possibly international one. It did not need to. In 2004, the Houthis had legitimate religious, economic, and political demands on Sanaa, such as the right to worship in their own mosques without Sunni proselytizing preachers imposing on them; they wanted their fair share of development money to build up their roads, schools, and hospitals, and they wanted the right to organize themselves politically without interference or objection from the central government. Had the Houthis been given some autonomy in their region at the time, relations could have been mended with Sanaa and the rebellion would not have grown. However, Saleh was not amenable to compromising with the Houthis, and neither the Saudis nor the Americans pushed him to do so.

Militarily, both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. seemed oblivious when the Houthis entered Sanaa in September 2014. Aside from a UNSC resolution that condemned the Houthis’ use of force and slapped economic sanctions on them, there was no hint that force would be used against the Houthis, if they did not desist. As a result, the Houthis waited for three weeks outside of Sanaa and, sensing no regional or international reaction, entered and occupied the city. The same held true when the Houthis started pushing south and east of Sanaa. The U.S. first pulled its embassy staff from the city, and soon after evacuated a small special forces contingent from the Anad airbase south of Ta’iz. Tactically, this left the Houthis with a clear path forward.

Options

Instead of pulling out, the U.S. could have augmented this base with a few hundred marines, essentially signaling to the Houthis that any advance towards Aden would be considered a move against the U.S. military, something the Houthis had no desire of doing.

Having failed to deter the Houthis, the U.S. and Saud Arabia are left with a few options, short of trying to press this air war to complete victory – something that would be extremely hard to do and would devastate the country completely.

Diplomatic: The Saudi-led coalition could announce a cessation of hostilities, a halt to the air campaign, and invite Abdelmalek al-Houthi to Doha or Muscat for a summit with Hadi and a small number of leaders from the country’s major factions. Such a meeting has not yet been tried, given that the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which was organized by the United Nations envoy, started out as a national conference with over five hundred delegates in attendance from all regions of the country. The size of the NDC made it unwieldy, and the conference only should have been held after reaching an agreement between the principal leaders on the broad outlines of a new constitution.

Military: Even at this late stage, the GCC+2 coalition, with or without Egyptian troops, might still be considering a small force on the ground interposed between Aden and Ta’iz. A full ground war starting from along the Saudi-Yemeni border would be risky and costly to all concerned and would likely lead to the long-term occupation of Yemen. The international community has a definite interest in protecting the Bab el-Mandeb entrance to the Red Sea from an unpredictable force that could, with or without Iranian provocation, decide to disrupt traffic through that narrow and strategic waterway. The force could be augmented as necessary, or removed entirely, if the Houthis accept a ceasefire and send their leaders to negotiate in Doha or Muscat.

Outlook

At this point, neither side seems willing to compromise. The Houthi, despite recent losses in Aden, are still energized by their newfound power, and confident that they can survive the air war being conducted against them and prevail in south Yemen or, failing that, hold on to power in Sanaa and wait out the Saudis. The GCC+2 force wants to maintain the pressure until the Houthis surrender, give up their weapons, and withdraw from Sanaa. Neither the Houthis nor the Saudis can achieve their optimal goals in the current situation. A protracted war of attrition would completely destroy the country’s infrastructure, already seriously damaged by the fighting, and bring civilian suffering to catastrophic proportions. In the meantime, Yemeni tribes in Ma’rib and Jawf, in addition to popular forces in Aden and Ta’iz, will continue mobilizing, organizing, and fighting to defend their tribal grounds from the Houthis, leaving AQAP and ISIS to take full advantage of the chaos and absence of central authority to form their own alliances and carve out a small emirate or Islamic state in the south.

The GCC+2, under a new and invigorated leadership in Saudi Arabia, has proven that it can put together a credible fighting force with potentially regional implications. This new force, however, has much to prove diplomatically. Saudi leadership will resonate with broader audiences in the Middle East, only if it can swiftly end the war in Yemen and bring peace to this troubled land.

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Nabeel Khoury is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for Middle East and a visiting professor at Northwestern’s Middle East and North African studies program. He spent twenty-five years as a diplomat in the U.S. foreign service, serving in various posts including: Director of the Near East South Asia Office of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (2008-2012). Overseas, Dr. Khoury served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. He has contributed to the Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, and Middle East Policy. On Twitter: @khoury_nabeel

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