Saudi Arabia claims a series of military advances this year shows it is making progress in its 2 ½ year war against ethnic Shiite Houthis.
For nearly two-and-a-half years, Saudi Arabia and its allies, equipped with American-built aircraft and precision-guided rockets, have prosecuted one of the most advanced airpower campaigns against one of the world’s poorest countries.
But the Saudi-led coalition’s overwhelming military superiority has brought them no closer to victory. Instead, it has furthered Yemen’s political fragmentation, deepened a humanitarian crisis that has brought the country to the brink of famine, and fed widespread public resentment in response to high civilian casualties, according to a confidential U.N. report reviewed by Foreign Policy.
“The Saudi Arabia-led coalition strategic air campaign continues to have little operational or tactical impact on the ground, and is only serving to stiffen civilian resistance,” according to a blunt verdict by a U.N. Security Council panel of experts. It is also helping to “consolidate” a military alliance between ethnic Houthi insurgents and Yemen’s disgraced former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who control 13 of the country’s governorates, including the capital of Sana’a.
The disarray has provided a rich breeding ground for extremists, including the Islamic State and al Qaeda, which, the panel believes, “is looking to launch terrorist attacks against targets in the ‘West.’” The report notes that al Qaeda may be bolstering its ability to carry out attacks on sea vessels, citing the seizure of water borne explosive devices and a marine radar scanner in the terror group’s former stronghold of Mukalla. Al Qaeda local leader, Qasim al-Raymi, recently released a video encouraging “lone wolf’ attacks against targets in the West, the panel noted.
Yemen’s internationally recognized leader, President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is on the ropes. His authority has been undercut by militias funded and controlled by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the very countries fighting to restore him to power.
Several of Hadi’s top ministers have broken ranks, establishing a separate transitional council with visions of governing the southern Yemen. The council, according to the U.N. panel of experts, enjoys sufficient support within the Yemeni military “to constitute a significant threat to President Hadi’s ability to govern in the south.”
“The authority of the legitimate government, already weak or absent in many parts of the country, has eroded significantly this year,” the report states. “The ability of the legitimate government to effectively govern the eight governorates it claims to control is now in doubt.”
Saudi Arabia’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. But in discussions with former U.S. diplomats in Riyadh last month, Saudi officials maintained that the coalition is “grinding out modest progress in several areas” — holding key parts of the strategic city of Taiz, seizing the Marib road east of the Houthi-controlled capital of Sana’a, within artillery range of the airport, and encircling the vital Red Sea port city of Hodeida, Stephen Seche, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, and Eric Pelofsky, wrote in Just Security following a visit to Riyadh.
And earlier this year, Yemeni forces, backed by the coalition, captured the Red Sea port city of Mokha.“The Saudis — now led by Major General Fahd bin Turki bin Abdul Aziz – are focusing on clearing the border and establishing a buffer zone inside Yemen,” Seche and Pelofsky wrote.
The authors, however, appear concerned that if Yemen and their backers mount a military offensive against Hodeida and Sana’a it could devastate the international effort to deliver humanitarian aid and result in a bloodbath in Yemen’s largest city.
In an emailed statement, Lana Nusseibeh, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United Nations, declined to comment, saying the U.N. report was confidential and had not been shared with most U.N. member states.
But she said that the UAE “continues to support the legitimate Yemeni government in its efforts to protect all civilians in Yemen, and to support U.N. and other diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict.”
“Since the beginning of the conflict, the UAE and the Coalition have provided and facilitated billions of dollars in direct humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Yemen, including into rebel-controlled areas,” she said. “Houthi forces have blocked or diverted significant amounts of aid leading the coalition to request the U.N.’s help in securing and managing the Port of Hodeida and the airport in Sana’a.”
Yemen’s opposition forces are not in great shape either. The panel cited mounting strains between Houthis and Saleh, who has seen his influence in the alliance gradually diminishing. But they predicted the alliance would remain intact in the absence of a major shift in the balance of power in Yemen.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s capture of Mokha, the Houthi-Saleh alliance still holds as much territory as it did a year ago, and it exercises control over 80 percent of the Yemeni population, providing it with extensive opportunities to extort money from local businesses and civilians. A critical concern, according to the panel, is the Houthis use of armed drones, which resemble Iranian models, and the laying of sea mines, which risk drifting into international shipping lanes. One version of the seam mine is “virtually identical to that of an Iranian sea mine first seen at an Iranian arms fair on 3 October 2015.”
The Houthis have also stepped up attacks on coalition naval vessels, including a March attack against a Royal Saudi Navy frigate by a remotely piloted explosive-filled skiff. They also likely attacked a UAE naval vessel with a land-based, anti-tank, guided missile in June.
Seche, Pelofsky and the Security Council panel members agree that there appears little prospect of achieving peace as belligerents on both sides of the conflict pull in and out of the U.N.-brokered peace process when they face a military gain or setback. Seche and Pelofsky would like to see a re-energized U.N. diplomatic effort, backed by the United States, to try to end the war.
But it has also provided an opening for international and regional powers, from the United States to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, to pursue their own political and military goals. American and Emirates forces have been prosecuting their own war against Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Since the start of the year, the United States has ramped up the number of airstrikes on al Qaeda targets in Yemen. U.S. warplanes and unmanned drones have conducted more than 100 bombing raids in the first half of 2017, up from 30 the previous year. The panel, however, expressed concern that political Islamists with no links to al Qaeda “may be mistaken for violent jihadists” by U.S. forces. It is conducting an investigation into the matter.
One powerful illustration of Hadi’s truncated power is a botched effort by his military commander to seize control of the airport in Aden. On April 27, Brigadier General Mihran al-Qubati, the commander of the 4th Presidential Protection Brigade, touched down at the airport with the intention of deploying his brigade to ensure security for the Yemeni leader. But the airport’s head of security, Saleh al-Umayri, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates forces based in Aden, denied Qubati entry into the airport.
Sheikh Abu al Abbas, a salafi militia leader in Taiz who receives direct financial and material support from the UAE, has refused to place his forces under the command of the Army Chief of Staff Major General Mohammed Ali al-Maqdashi. Other salafi leaders have created their own armed militia groups and are supported financially and militarily by members of the Saudi-Arabia lead coalition.
The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, has funded and trained numerous local security forces, including the Security Belt Forces, Hadrami Elite Force, which was established to challenge Al Qaeda military base in Yemen.
“The authority of the legitimate government is also being challenged by the proliferation of militia groups, many of whom receive direct funding and aid form either Saudi Arabia or UAE,” the panel reported. “The use of proxy forces, operating outside a government hierarchical structure, is creating an accountability gap for grave violations that may account to war crimes.”
The panel also confirmed reports by journalists and Human Rights Watch that the Emirates and its proxies, according to the panel, have established a network of clandestine prisons in Yemen. It claims to have “credible information that the UAE have forcibly disappeared two individuals in Aden over eight months” and abused detainees in Mukalla.
“The panel initiated investigations into a civilian location being used as a detention facility where a group of civilians, including an activist and a doctor, are currently being held in prolonged detention,” the report stated. “These individuals have been informed that they are being held solely to be used in any future prisoner exchange.”
But the UAE is not alone. The Yemeni government, as well as forces in the Houthi-Saleh alliance, continue to engage in illegal detention practices, including imprisonment without trial and forced disappearances, “which violate international humanitarian law and human rights law and norms.”
Photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images