Arab alliance makes steady progress in Yemen
DUBAI - The Saudi-led Arab alliance is set on scoring a clear-cut victory in Yemen despite the difficulties and challenges ahead in defeating the Iranian-backed Houthis and restoring President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power.
Despite strong scepticism from Western officials and analysts about the capabilities of the alliance, it has been making progress — perhaps slowly, but still steadily.
Saudi Arabia and its allies are not taking any chances and are sparing no effort in making sure their military campaign achieves its objectives or at least most of them. The formidable airpower of the alliance has substantially degraded the capabilities of the Houthis and their allies — Yemeni military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The air campaign appears to have destroyed many of the arms depots of the Houthis and their allies and wrecked command-and-control centres, disrupting communications and logistics. This is apparent in the inability of the Houthis to mount serious attacks against the allies.
To make sure the land campaign is solid and strong, the allies sent in their own forces despite predictions that doubted direct involvement by Saudi or other Arabian Gulf troops. However, UAE and Saudi tanks and armoured vehicles are leading the land offensive sweeping through Yemeni towns and cities.
After capturing the port city of Aden, allied forces teamed up with the Yemeni popular resistance and Yemeni troops loyal to Hadi and started recapturing Yemeni southern provinces and making their way to Sana’a.
In recent weeks the Arab alliance helped Hadi’s forces liberate the provinces of Aden, Ad Dali, Lahij, Abyan, Shabwa and Taiz, at a time when the Yemeni resistance has intensified guerrilla attacks against the Houthis in central and northern provinces.
The key provinces the alliance will target in the next few weeks will be Hudaydah, Ibb, Dhamar and Al Bayda. Recapturing Hudaydah would deprive the Houthis of a major seaport overlooking the Bab el Mandab strait and hamper their supply routes from the Red Sea.
Occupying Ibb, Dhamar and Al Baydah would enable the allies to surround Sana’a, place the Houthis under siege and subsequently compel them to adhere to the Yemeni peace treaty that was brokered by the United Nations before the war and rejected by the Houthis.
The Yemeni operation has taken its natural course. Sceptics in the West who were not happy to see Saudi Arabia and its allies act alone remain doubtful of the outcome of the operation and emphasise the collateral damage.
However, alliance members and supporters of the offensive say Saudi Arabia and its partners were left with no option but to act after they felt that the West turned a blind eye to Iran asserting its influence in the north of the Arabian peninsula (Iraq) and spreading its influence in the south (Yemen) through its Houthi allies.
Shortly after the Houthis teamed up with Saleh’s forces and occupied Sana’a and other Yemeni provinces in September 2014, Iranian officials were quoted as saying that Tehran’s influence has reached Bab el Mandab and four Arab capitals.
After realising that Washington and the European powers were not going to do anything to stop Tehran, Riyadh and its Arab allies were left with two choices: Coexist with a neighbourhood controlled by Iran or act unilaterally to check Iranian expansion. Arab regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia, appear to believe that the Yemen offensive will be the means to re-establish a balance of power in the region in which Tehran is no longer as strong.
Now that the United States and the other world powers have reached a nuclear deal with Iran, Riyadh and other Arab states have a greater urgency to achieve their objectives in Yemen before Tehran starts reaping the rewards of the deal with the West and becomes too powerful to handle.
Although the Houthis have not been able to stop the offensive in the south, they have been able to pressure the Saudis with daily cross-border attacks against the Saudi towns of Najran and Jizan, inflicting casualties among the military and civilians.
Saudi Arabia seems to be avoiding land incursions in the north due to the tough mountainous terrain inhabited by supporters of the Houthis, especially in Sadah province. Such a land offensive would subject Saudi troops to vicious guerrilla warfare in a hostile environment. Besieging Sana’a and other Houthi strongholds in central and northern Yemen will be one means for Saudi Arabia to force the Houthis to seek a ceasefire and an end to the war.
As reports come of defections within the Houthi camps, Riyadh is betting on more Yemeni tribes abandoning the Houthis and Saleh and joining Hadi to bring about a quick end to the conflict.
Therefore, the alliance offensive still has strong momentum and is edging closer every day to victory. It might not be a total victory as the Houthis will continue to exist within the Yemeni power structure. But it will mark the first achievement of the Arab alliance against Iran and will possibly lead to the birth of an Arab intervention force that could confront Iranian proxies in other places such as Syria or Iraq.