April 7, 2015

Yemen - do the Houthis want to talk?

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15S of 92 Squadron takes off for a sortie in Yemen

For the last two weeks, a Saudi-led coalition of the air forces of ten nations has pummeled targets of the Houthi group in Yemen, hoping to force the group to accept the return of elected - and deposed - President 'Abd Rabuh Mansur al-Hadi to power, or to at least establish some form of a power-sharing government. The Saudis have repeatedly asked/demanded that the Houthis enter a dialogue with the president about the future of the governance of Yemen.

The Saudis view events in Yemen as in their direct sphere of influence. As the largest, wealthiest and most powerful country on the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regards events anywhere on the peninsula as affecting its national interests. That view is especially critical with Yemen, which over the decades of the existence of the Kingdom, has often been a source of conflict. The 1960's civil war in Yemen drew in military forces from Egypt and Jordan, as well as those of Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis make up between 30 to 40 percent of the Yemeni population - accurate figures are hard to obtain. After they seized power - surprisingly easily - earlier this year, the Saudis' concern for the stability of Yemen caused them to approach the Houthis and offer to negotiate or mediate the future of the country. There was some initial hope that a diplomatic arrangement could be reached since the Houthis indicated they did not seek to govern. That hope ended when the Houthis reversed that stance and began governance of the country.

After the Houthis installed themselves as the de facto government, they refused all offers of dialogue, mediation, negotiation, etc. After the president escaped from house arrest and fled to the southern port city of Aden, the Saudis became concerned that the country was entering a new civil war, this time between the Houthis and their ally former President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih on one side, and the forces loyal to current President al-Hadi on the other.

The Houthis were very effective in routing the loyalists and forcing them to withdraw to the south. It appeared that the loyalists were on the verge of collapse, and rumors began to circulate that President al-Hadi had fled the country under cover of darkness. As to be expected, the Saudis' apprehension of instability on their southern border grew.

In the early hours of March 26, aircraft from several Arab air forces, led by the Royal Saudi Air Force, began airstrikes on Houthi targets across Yemen. The initial targets were well chosen - military installations in and around Sana', as well as high-value installations in Ta'izz and the al-'Anad air base. The al-'Anad air base was the location used by American special operations forces to conduct drone strikes against the leadership of the Yemen-based group known as al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), before the Americans were evacuated along with the U.S. embassy staff.

Given the target selection and the seemingly accurate strikes, it has been my assessment that much of that targeting data was provided by the United States. None of the air forces comprising the Saudi-led coalition has the intelligence, surveillance or reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to develop that comprehensive of a target list. I am not saying that the United States provided the exact target list for this particular series of attacks, but at some point in the past, as part of our military and intelligence cooperation with the Saudis and other Gulf Arab allies, had shared that information.

Although the Arab coalition was fairly accurate in its strikes, there were a large number of civilian casualties - for several reasons. First, many of the targets were located in fairly built-up urban areas. Striking these targets with large weapons resulted in a lot of collateral damage - including civilian casualties. The Arab air forces do not possess the smaller bombs used by the U.S. Air Force developed for just these types of attacks, and there may be less concern in these air forces about collateral damage. Secondly, as the airstrikes continued, the Houthi leadership moved more and more of its command and control operations into civilian residential areas, hoping to force the Arab air forces to reconsider hitting targets in these areas.

The airstrikes continued, and civilian casualties mounted. At one point, Sunni Yemenis began to complain about the casualties, accusing the attackers of killing the very citizens they were supposedly defending. The coalition scaled back its attacks, allowing the Houthis to begin a relentless and effective ground campaign, moving south in a series of assaults that has taken them all the way to the port area of Aden.

The Houthis and their allies now control most of the western area of the country - the east is still largely controlled by AQAP. In fact, AQAP, probably the major benefactor of the chaos in Yemen, is virtually unchecked in its operations. As an example, they attacked a poorly defended prison and freed hundreds of imprisoned AQAP fighters.

Despite media reporting and analysis to the contrary, there are reports that the Houthis are in fact suffering from the Saudi-led coalition's airstrikes. The objective of the "ineffective" (as described by the media) air campaign is to force the Houthis to the negotiating table where a political arrangement can be worked out that addresses Saudi Arabia's legitimate security concerns, and if possible, restore the government of President al-Hadi to some form of power-sharing or caretaker government. Note that I said "if possible" - if forced to make a choice, the Saudis will go for an agreement that addresses their national interests.

Perhaps the air campaign actually has had its intended effect and the Houthis are willing to talk about the future governance of Yemen if the Saudis halt the bombing. That said, keep in mind that the Houthi official that indicated that his group is amenable to talks is Salih 'Ali al-Samad - the same official who said months ago the Houthis had no desire to run the country.

There are also reports that the Saudis - possibly with Egyptian and Pakistani assistance - are preparing for a ground incursion into Yemen. Tanks and other military equipment are being moved to the Saudi-Yemeni border and all units are on heightened alert. I believe this to be posturing on the part of the Saudis. They have tried ground incursions into Yemen before - it has always met with only limited success.

I believe the air campaign will continue and probably intensify until the Houthis are serious about sitting down at the negotiating table. The Saudis and their coalition allies can maintain the pace of the airstrikes almost indefinitely.