The infosphere is alive with the sound of “World War III!” – but it’s actually more likely that the bigger nations will try to cobble together some kind of ceasefire and consultative approach in the days ahead, than it is that a Saudi-led coalition will wage a decisive war to retake and pacify Yemen.
The ultimate reason for this is that no one with a stake is currently ready to have “the” decisive fight. The world has been conditioned to decisive fights, waged by American-led coalitions, for a long time now. But indecisive and protracted conflicts are much more the historical norm, especially for Asia and its perimeter. It’s frustrating and hard to keep straight, but that’s what the future holds for us, now that America is no longer the sheriff.
In the case of Yemen, at least some nations expected the U.S. to put up more of a fight for the recognized government of Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The fact that we didn’t – that our last remaining military contingent quietly pulled out a week ago – is what opened the gate for the swift push of the last few days by the Houthis toward Aden, the southern port city from which President Hadi fled by sea on Thursday, 26 March.
The Houthis and their patron, Iran, hoped to capitalize quickly on the abrupt U.S. pullout. But the Houthis themselves are in no position to hold the territory they’ve been overrunning in the last few weeks. It will be hard enough holding it against their Yemeni tribal and Sunni jihadist opponents (e.g., Al Qaeda, Islamic State) in the south. If they have to fight a foreign coalition of conventional ground troops with air support and control of the local seas, the Houthis’ situation will go from tenuous to dire.
That said, however, the Saudi-led coalition is nowhere near ready for prime time. It is capable right now of conducting air strikes and patrolling the waters of the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (although by no means capable of locking those waters down). Mounting a ground operation to retake territory is another proposition altogether.
I’m seeing a lot of speculation that Egypt – the most populous Arab nation, and the one with by far the largest army – will contribute the infantry for such an operation. But Egypt has her hands full already dealing with insurgents in the Sinai, and the border threat from jihadi-encouraged insurgencies in eastern Libya. Egypt’s own security is at considerable risk right now, and is pulling her forces in opposite geographic directions, which dilutes Cairo’s ability to achieve mass and force concentration. That problem has to be al-Sisi’s first priority.
Sudan (see link above) and Pakistan have also reportedly committed to the Saudi coalition. Again, however, there will be limits to what they can contribute, and certainly limits to the level of proficiency at which they can conduct joint combat operations in the near term. Deploying small contingents for peacekeeping and disaster relief is very different from deploying troop formations large and skilled enough to be effective in ground combat.
The Saudis might well be able to achieve significant goals with their own ground troops. But driving the Houthis out of towns or provinces is not the same thing as securing those territorial gains for a sustainable political future. There will need to be an occupation, with counter-insurgency and peace enforcement operations. That’s a tall order, one that experience tells us can only be reliably filled by an overwhelmingly superior occupation force. The members of the Saudi coalition are nowhere near being able to field such a joint force.
One of the practical problems with backing President Hadi is that he doesn’t have the kind of armed, ethnic/tribal base that the Houthis have, or that his rival, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, has. Hadi doesn’t come with an automatically loyal, internally cohesive militia base to turn the task of peace enforcement over to.
The Saudis would understandably see deploying their own troops into Yemen as “getting bogged down” in a fight they may not be able to afford over the long run. They have to be concerned about Iraq and Syria to their north, and the threats not only from Islamic State and other Sunni radical forces, but from Iran and her proxies.
The minimum Iran actually needs
Iran, meanwhile, has to be concerned about Iraq and Syria as well, where the Iranian Qods Force is increasingly stretched, running multiple operations. It would not be an ideal situation for the mullahs to have to prop up the Houthis in Yemen, against a Saudi-led ground war, at the same time they are supporting major ground fights in Syria and Iraq.
It’s one thing to back the Houthis in sowing chaos and grabbing territory. It’s another to throw in with a fight for the political future of Yemen, which is harder and entails the possibility of absorbing a major geopolitical loss.
And Iran doesn’t actually have to do that, to be able to make use of territory held by the Houthis. Keep that in mind, because it’s very important.
For the Saudis, it’s essential to eject Iranian influence from Yemen, as entirely as possible. That means securing a political outcome that immunizes Yemen against Iranian encroachment.
For the Iranians, however, the ultimate fate of Yemen can be decided at some future date. It doesn’t even really matter; Iran has no commitment to the status quo anyway, but has in view a caliphate that will obviate the importance of today’s UN-recognized borders. Iran’s main interest today is to be able to use Houthi-held territory.
The models for that already exist – and in Lebanon and Syria, have existed for years. Iran has outposts in the territory of both. She is building an outpost in eastern Iraq, along the approaches to and in the environs of Baghdad. For now, Iran has no need to call these patches of territory by a name that reflects her sway over them. She just has to be able to use them. The same will be the case in Yemen, if the radical mullahs have their way.
…and what Russia wants
The final key piece of the puzzle is Russia, which isn’t anxious for a decisive outcome either way – i.e., an Iranian victory or a Saudi victory. Either outcome would create a rallying point for hemispheric forces which Russia would rather have remain diffuse.
The American profile of propping up the status quo has been a convenience for Russia for some time now. It has held those hemispheric forces in check, by at least setting limits on the borders they could breach. But we’ve signaled very clearly with our pullout from Yemen that we are no longer in that business. So now Russia has to bestir herself to deter the development of crises that could provoke inconvenient decision points.
Yemen would be one of those, if it’s allowed to go ahead as a hot war for the nation’s political future. Russia doesn’t want that at all, and that’s why she has been calling repeatedly in the last 5-6 days for a ceasefire and a national dialogue. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, met with the Iranians on Wednesday (25 March) to discuss Yemen, and reportedly met with his Saudi counterpart and other Arab League members convened this weekend in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Iran has a strong motive to back any Russian effort to freeze the internal factions in Yemen in place and promote a “dialogue.” Iran wins, as long as her Houthi clients don’t lose territory decisively. (They could even afford to give a little up, as a way to gain general agreement to a ceasefire.) For Iran’s purpose, endless talks and serial ceasefires would serve very well.
The Saudis are the ones Russia will have to convince. But the Saudis aren’t in a position to take decisive action right now in overt defiance of Russian opposition. A freeze in place may be the best they can get for the moment, while the Saudis decide how to go patron-shopping. Would France be of any use, for example? Even Britain? Is now the time for another aspiring kingmaker to flex its muscles; e.g., Turkey, China, even India?
The turgid near future
Islamic State will presumably continue doing what it can to provoke chaos and major reactions from the stakeholders, because that’s what Islamic State does. Where it has local superiority, it consolidates control. Where it doesn’t, it foments chaos. We can expect that in Yemen.
Iran reportedly has Hezbollah jihadis, and even fighters from the Iraqi Shia militias, deployed in Yemen – a credible possibility, certainly. But Iran’s ability to achieve a decisive outcome, even with these forces present, is limited. Assuming they remain, they will help hold the territory the Houthis already have against their internal opponents in Yemen.
Fighting will continue, even if Russia can get the sides to agree in theory to holding in place for a while. What Russia would be able to forestall is a major push – by the Saudi-led coalition – for a politically decisive outcome. The ceasefire would be a convenient fiction allowing all sides to avoid a decisive confrontation.
The Russian media are decrying the Saudi air attacks today as a proxy action backed by the United States; it’s clear Moscow doesn’t want Iran to lose this one. But the Russians and Iranians both understand that the Houthis don’t have to gain recognized political control over the whole nation of Yemen for their purposes to be served. We can even assume they are looking down the road to a day when they can negotiate an agreement acceptable to the Saudis – through intimidation and bribery over time – that will be to their advantage.
The Saudis and Egyptians are looking down the road to a different future in which they have greater power and discretion. But that is not their current reality. They’ll probably have to pick a point at which to freeze and compromise for a while. They’ll continue to treat with the Russians – with whom they are cooperating on a lot now (including buying arms, and, for Egypt, signing on to joint nuclear-power projects) – for what they can get out of them.
This is high Eastern geopolitics, and now that America is sidelined completely in this situation, it’s back with a vengeance. Basil H. Liddell-Hart’s earnestly defined concept of a “better peace” – a decisive end to armed conflict – is the one we have had lurking in our minds for the last 70 years, and it still haunts our thinking. It won’t stop doing so, although in the days ahead it’s going to look less and less feasible.
But it’s a very Western goal for the end of war; even perhaps a silly idea, in the Asian East and Middle East, where conflicts never really end. They just hibernate, sometimes for a very long time. And they’re about to have their day again.