Vietnam for Americans, Yemen for Saudis; Will History Repeat?

Mon Nov 16, 2015 14:36:55

Saudi Arabia appears to have been trapped in a protracted and devastating conflict that is straining relations with its allies, intensifying internal power struggles.

Since March, the key U.S. ally has led a coalition of mostly Persian Gulf Arab countries and Saudi backed alqaeda militia in a military campaign to drive out Houthi Ansarullah Movement who seized the capital, Sanaa, and swaths of the Arabian Peninsula country.

"But the coalition appears increasingly hobbled by divisions and unable to find a face-saving way to end the costly conflict."

Houthis, still control much of Yemen’s north and because of their lack of presence in southern areas, lawlessness has spread as attacks linked to an ISIS affiliate wreak havoc.

“This war is draining the Saudis militarily, politically, strategically,” said Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemen analyst at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center. “The problem is, they’re stuck there.”

Hadi stepped down in January and refused to reconsider the decision despite calls by Ansarullah revolutionaries of the Houthi movement.

Saudi Arabia has been striking Yemen for 236 days now to restore power to fugitive president Mansour Hadi, a close ally of Riyadh. The Saudi-led aggression has so far killed at least 6,922 Yemenis, including hundreds of women and children.

Despite Riyadh’s claims that it is bombing the positions of the Ansarullah fighters, Saudi warplanes are flattening residential areas and civilian infrastructures.

Speaking by telephone, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asseri, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, claim that it “is too early to make judgments” about the campaign.

But as the conflict drags on, mounting civilian casualties and a worsening humanitarian crisis have drawn criticism from international rights groups and lawmakers in the United States, an arms supplier for the key oil producer.

Nearly 7.000 people have been killed since the intervention began, and U.N. officials warn of famine in the desperately poor country of 25 million people.

On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called for an investigation into whether the use of British weapons sold to Saudi Arabia had violated international law.

In October, 13 members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama calling on the administration to work with Saudi Arabia “to protect innocent lives and reduce the potential for backlash against U.S. interests.”

The United States has provided logistical and intelligence assistance to the Saudis in their campaign in Yemen. U.S. intelligence officials have expressed concern that the conflict has strengthened Yemen’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

The United States has also expressed concern about the civilian toll but has refrained from directly criticizing Saudi Arabia for its attacks, including one on the Yemeni port city of Mokha that killed 65 people in July, but in effective measures many times declares that help Saudi Arabia with intelligence in war against Yemeni people.

Although “The United States has no role in targeting decisions made by the coalition in Yemen,” the National Security Council said in a statement last month.

Royal power struggles

Inside Saudi Arabia, analysts say, the war has intensified apparent power struggles within the secretive and opaque royal family.

King Salman, who took power in January, has rattled the kingdom with shake-ups, including the appointment of his 30-year-old son to become deputy crown prince and defense minister, placing him in charge of the Yemen campaign. An economy battered by low oil prices has added to the friction. Dissenters within the royal family have released several open letters criticizing the king.

“It’s all somewhat murky, of course, but the war is generating this competition for power,” said Yezid Sayigh, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The relatively small number of Saudi troops fighting in Yemen — estimated at several hundred — signals Saudi rulers’ heightened concern about the potential domestic blowback over casualties from the war, Sayigh said.

Despite requests from Saudi Arabia, allies such as Egypt and Pakistan appear to have refused to send in ground forces. Several thousand UAE troops have taken the lead on the ground in Yemen.

“We haven’t received enough support from the coalition,” said Aref Jamel, a senior commander of a militia group that is fighting Houthis in Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city.

Anti-Houthi militias in the city, which is about 160 miles south of the capital, say they have been left on their own in the fight.

In Marib province, also within striking distance of Sanaa, coalition forces appear to be mired in withdrawal. In September, a Yemeni Army-fired missile killed at least 60 Saudi, UAE and Bahraini troops in the province.

But it is unclear whether a deployment of reinforcement troops from Qatar — reported by Qatari media after the missile incident — actually arrived, said Ahmed al-Zayedi, a pro-coalition tribesman in Marib.

“There isn’t enough support from the coalition” he said.

Chaos in Aden

Perhaps more alarming for Saudi Arabia is the lawlessness plaguing Aden, the key southern port city that coalition ground forces are there.

In October, an ISIS affiliate asserted responsibility for bombings that targeted coalition troops as well as an Aden hotel used as a headquarters for the fugitive Hadi illegal government. Government ministers fled the city after the attacks.

Meanwhile, extremist — including some who openly fly al-Qaeda’s flag — have stormed universities and markets in Aden to demand the separation of men and women in public spaces, residents say.

“It’s chaos here,” said Wadhah al-Yemen al-Hariri, 48, a civil engineer who lives in Aden.

Saudi and UAE troops in the city, he said, keep out of the public eye. “We don’t understand what their role is here,” Hariri said.

"It is unclear how Saudi Arabia can end its military involvement without coming off as the loser. A ground assault to wrest Sanaa and northern areas from Yemeni forces could produce many coalition casualties."



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