Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

A New Stage in the War in Yemen: The Ground Assault

Coalition forces send ground troops in the war in Yemen
Yemeni Gen. Abd al-Rab Qassim al-Shadadi speaks to his troops at a United Arab Emirates military base near Saffer, Yemen, 14 September 2015. Photo AP/Adam Schreck

The Saudi-led aerial assault on Yemen, dubbed Operation Restoring Hope, which began in March 2015 after the Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies had ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was intended to remove the rebels—particularly ex-President Ali Abdallah Saleh—from power and subdue quickly the anti-government forces in Yemen. The Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states decided to intervene in Yemen after the expulsion of Hadi because they feared what they considered Iran’s growing regional assertiveness and influence and the dangers to Saudi Arabia’s southern borders from the increasing strength of anti-government forces.

After six months, however, it has become apparent once more that wars are not won by air power alone. Ground troops had to be committed, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain did so. In the early days of the war, the coalition suffered a severe setback, when Pakistan refused to send ground troops for an invasion of Yemen. They also reused to commit themselves to provide air and naval support. The Pakistani parliament, after debating the Saudi demand for ground troops to augment their air assault, instead resolved that, “the parliament desires that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis.”

So sure were the managers of the war that Pakistan would comply with their requests, that, when the rejection came, they were very displeased. The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, censured Pakistan for rejecting the call by the coalition in its hour of need. He tweeted on his personal account that, “The Pakistani Parliament’s decision which states Pakistan’s neutrality in the Yemen conflict while stating its support to Saudi Arabia is contradictory, dangerous and unexpected from Islamabad” and added that “Pakistan is required to take a clear stance for the benefit of its strategic relations with Arab Gulf states. Such contradictory and ambiguous stances in this crucial matter will have a high cost.”

The press in other GCC countries was no less critical. The leading Kuwait daily al-Seyassah editorialized that, “The Pakistani stance that was adopted through the parliament’s decision to remain neutral has dropped the blackmail masks about protecting sacred Islamic sites and sharing a common destiny with Muslim countries.… The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries do not need Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan needs them in various areas. The GCC can defend its security, particularly following the alliance with other countries such as Jordan and Egypt.”

Once the GCC realized that it was on its own, it reached out for support elsewhere. According to media reports, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Sudan are expected to send in ground troops. In the first week of September, a Qatari official confirmed that Qatar had designated 1,000 troops for Yemen, “ready to fight” as part of the Arab coalition against Iran-backed Shiite rebels. The source added that the Qatari forces were massing on Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Sudan refused to confirm that it had committed to sending 6,000 troops.

The alliance has, in the meantime, deployed more than 10,000 troops in Yemen, with the aim of seizing territory currently under Houthi control. In mid-September the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis constitute the bulk of ground troops being assembled for what some analysts believe will be a protracted war.

In the first days of September a missile attack by the Houthi rebels on a GCC coalition ammunition depot—in the Yemeni province of Marib, about 120 kilometres east of the capital, Sanaʿa—killed more than 60 of the allies. The missile assault brought home the realization that this war was not going to be won purely from the air.

Of the allies, the UAE, a federation of seven states that includes Dubai and the capital, Abu Dhabi, lost 45 soldiers, the Saudis ten, and Bahrain five. The attack stiffened the resolve of the GCC countries to carry on the battle. The Saudi minister of defence and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, vowed that the blood of “our martyrs will not go in vain,” and added that “the coalition will continue its operations with determination to defeat the rebels and their supporters who tampered with the future of the brotherly people of Yemen and who tried to destabilize the region.”

The UAE’s Sheikh Muhammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, assured visiting Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi that, “Our Armed Forces…are more resolved and determined to liberate Yemen and flush out the scum after the tragic incident.” All this talk spells a blood bath, the outcome of which is unpredictable.

According to reports, the coalition is preparing for a ground assault in northern Yemen with a three-pronged attack from the provinces of Saada in the north, Marib in the east, and Jawf in the northeast. Several thousand UAE and Saudi forces, along with battle tanks and other armoured vehicles, have been positioned for the assault.

It is expected that a successful assault on the Houthi stronghold of Saada would take the wind out of the sails of the anti-Hadi forces and would result in the recapture of of the capital Sanaʿa. But will they be able to overcome what will undoubtedly be heavy resistance? In their offensive, the Saudi-led coalition ground forces have increased their presence in Yemen, coming in from the northeast, and have reached oil-rich Marib Province, which provides Sanaʿa with electricity and fuel. It also borders al-Jawf Governorate, where Houthi forces have dug trenches and planted mines in preparation for a protracted ground battle.

Asharq al-Awsat, a daily controlled by the Saudi government, reported that Saudi-led ground forces have begun massing at the third strategic point of the ground invasion, moving troops into Saada province. The troops have dug into tribal areas outside of the city of Saada, while Saudi planes have dropped thousands of leaflets asking residents to support the movement to reinstate the Hadi government.

Meanwhile, the human death toll continues to rise. The UN reports that more than 4,500 people, many of them children, have been killed in daily bombardments by coalition aircraft. Yemen is also on the brink of a famine. With the full military support of the US and other Western allies, the coalition expects to forge a victory, but, if it fails, this war would become an “Arab Vietnam,” according to a defence analyst.

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