The Cable

Saudi Arabia Vows to Retake Sanaa if Peace Talks Fail

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly said the only way to resolve the year-long civil war in Yemen is through a negotiated political solution. But a Saudi general warned Wednesday that the oil-rich monarchy is prepared to launch a military offensive on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa if the current U.N.-brokered peace talks fail.

Smoke billows from buildings after reported air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition on arms warehouses at Al-Dailami air base, on September 29, 2015, north of the capital Sanaa.  AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows from buildings after reported air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition on arms warehouses at Al-Dailami air base, on September 29, 2015, north of the capital Sanaa. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly said the only way to resolve the year-long civil war in Yemen is through a negotiated political solution. But a Saudi general warned Wednesday that the oil-rich monarchy is prepared to launch a military offensive on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa if the current U.N.-brokered peace talks fail.

The implicit threat places new pressure on the struggling negotiations in Kuwait between Iran-allied Houthi forces and Yemen’s Saudi-backed exiled government to end a conflict that has killed more than 6,200 people and displaced as many as 2.5 million.

“We have two lines working in parallel —  a political process and the military operation. One of them will reach the end,” Gen. Ahmad Asiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, told reporters in Washington. “We hope that the talks will succeed. If not, we have troops around the capital.”

The Saudi-led forces are only kilometers away from Sanaa. The coalition is bolstered by several Arab and Western powers, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Turkey.

A U.N.-backed ceasefire was put in place last month to let diplomatic talks move forward. But both sides have accused each other of violating the accord and the talks have yet to produce a breakthrough.

Military and humanitarian experts fear an operation to retake Sanaa, a city of about 2 million people with large pockets of Houthi supporters, would incur huge casualties, including civilians. A senior Saudi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations, said that such a campaign would target Houthi militias to limit their ability to move and gather in groups. He cited the coalition’s liberation of Aden from Houthi rebels in July as a successful model.

In shambles after enduring an onslaught of airstrikes and tank shells, Shiite-dominated Houthi rebels were pushed from Aden last year by a mostly Sunni coalition of separatist militia members, Salafists, jihadists, and loyalist army units backed by coalition air support. The security situation remains fragile in the port city where about 50,000 to 65,000 militiamen patrol the streets. Sources of employment are reportedly scarce.

Seeking to dispel concerns about a military effort to retake Sanaa, the Saudi official said it would not resemble the Battle of Berlin, the infamous World War II contest that demolished the German capital and resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties. While noting that a political solution continues to be Saudi Arabia’s preferred outcome, he claimed that the operation could be clean and surgical.

Asiri, speaking Wednesday to a group of reporters at Washington’s Four Seasons hotel, said the goal is “securing Yemen” either diplomatically or militarily.

If negotiations fail, “Sanaa will be free soon,” he said, “We know what we are doing.”

Saudi Arabia could not tolerate Houthi rebels operating in Yemen, armed with ballistic missiles and threatening the border and the region, he said.

Previously, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir has said the only way to solve the Yemeni conflict is through political talks. “We still believe that the only way is a political solution, built on the foundations of the national dialogue,” Jubeir said last year.

On Monday, delegations representing the Yemeni government and Houthis met in Kuwait with U.N. special envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed to discuss a political solution.

“What I heard from both delegations is promising, but we shouldn’t forget that the challenges are enormous and the gap between them is large,” Ahmed said in a statement following the meeting. “There is no doubt that we are at a true crossroads. We are either moving towards peace or going back to Square One.”

A key sticking point in the negotiations is the Yemeni exile government’s demand that Houthis and their fellow allies of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh disarm and relinquish cities they sacked last year.

Meanwhile, the Saudi military intercepted a ballistic missile from Yemen on Monday, according to state news agency SPA. Riyadh called it a “serious escalation” by the Houthi militia and its backers, but said the Saudi coalition would maintain the tenuous ceasefire. A spokesman for Yemenis fighting alongside the Houthis, Brig. Gen. Sharaf Luqman, said the missile was intended to hit a military base in southwest Saudi Arabia.

A primary benefactor of the year-long conflict has been al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which took advantage of the chaos and consolidated its control of Mukalla, a southeastern port city in Yemen of 500,000 people. The city was recaptured by Yemeni, Saudi and Emirati forces in April after being under the control of al Qaeda forces for a year. 

Last week, the Pentagon acknowledged that a small “contingent” of U.S. forces are operating on the ground in Yemen to help Arab forces oust the al Qaeda affiliate from the port city. On Monday, Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook said the deployment would be “short term.”

“They are still in country, still providing that liaison role, particularly in support of intelligence sharing,” he said.

He declined to say how long the troops’ deployment would last. “It’s going to be a limited period of time, but I don’t have a particular deadline [for withdrawal].”

The U.S. has repeatedly expressed reservations about the Saudi-led intervention, but has continued supplying weapons, intelligence and aerial refueling to the coalition. The U.N. has said nearly 2,800 civilians were killed in the Yemen war by the end of 2015. Human Rights Watch says a majority of civilian deaths are from coalition airstrikes.

Asiri acknowledged that a “small team” of U.S. special operations forces were on the ground, along with a “small number” of Saudi special forces and 200-strong company of Sudanese troops.

Asiri insisted that al Qaeda had not benefited from the conflict in Yemen and accused Iran of smuggling arms to Houthi rebels and fomenting the war.

In response to Asiri’s comments, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said that the U.S. remains “committed to the peace talks” and the “U.N. effort,” but declined to comment on whether the U.S. would partake in a military intervention to retake Sanaa.

Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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