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A Shift in the Battle for Yemen

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By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security

Prosecuting a war in Yemen is difficult, but fighting an insurgency in the country is doubly so. In contemporary history conflict within Yemen involving the British, Saudis, Egyptians, the U.S., and the drawn out Yemeni civil war all demonstrate the difficulty of pacifying such a fractious state, and yet, we are back discussing another conflict. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperative Council decided to back ousted Yemeni President Hadi in a war against the Houthi takeover of much of the state due to concerns Iranian influence would follow.Yemen

Riyadh expected its military commitment to last days, or perhaps a few weeks, not the months that it has taken to make even the smallest of gains. That said, a turning point may have been reached with coalition forces retaking the al-Anad air base just north of the port city Aden. Houthi forces seized the base not long after U.S. Special Operations Forces left in March of this year and have maintained a hold on the installation ever since.

Retaking the base was an important objective of coalition forces as the main road to Aden runs through the area, but it also allows ground forces to land in the port city and push northwards toward other areas under Houthi control with air support. If the coalition can maintain its foothold in the south, then it is conceivable that a secure logistics chain in this newly acquired area will go a long way in supporting ground forces in greater numbers with heavier equipment.

The use of ground troops with armor and air support should help in removing Houthi fighters from areas where the rebellious faction doesn’t have indigenous support. This could backfire against the coalition, however, if civilian casualties continue to mount. Not that civilian casualties would drive local Yemenis to support the Houthis. The Houthis hail from the Zaydi tribe of northern Yemen near the shared border with Saudi Arabia. As the Zaydi are Shia it is difficult to find sympathy for their cause beyond their territory in the north. As such, their push into South has not been viewed as popular.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the Houthi rebels begin a tactical retreat back toward their territory, but that is predicated upon the coalition actually demonstrating that its untested ground troops are capable of engaging in prolonged combat. If the recent battle for Aden is used as a bellwether, then it is certainly possible that coalition ground forces could make decent headway. Naturally, this is all speculation as actual combat isn’t as linear or predictable as we would like, but analyzing the parts in play do seem to indicate that the Houthis are in a bit of trouble in a conventional sense. From the Houthi perspective it is possible to embrace a nonconventional approach – one that has worked well for numerous insurgents in Yemen in both the distant and much more recent past.

Regardless of how this new dynamic in the current Yemeni war plays out, hammering out a peace deal will be a necessity for all parties involved. The military forces of the current coalition don’t have experience in long term occupations, thus they’ll want to extricate themselves from Yemen as soon as they can. For the Houthi’s part, they’ll want some sort of guarantees from the exiled Hadi government to ensure that they are equally represented in government otherwise they could easily turn back to an armed struggle and start this process all over again. Other possibilities include a prolonged insurgency – something the Houthi’s are well acquainted with.

Saudi Arabia fully understands the threat Yemeni based insurgents can pose within Saudi borders. In fact, a suicide bombing occurred August 6 in Abha at a mosque frequented by internal security forces. The bombing may not have been carried out by Shia insurgents, but the vulnerability is clear. The Islamic State has carried out several suicide bombings this year in Saudi Arabia further demonstrating the problem. Because of this threat both from Yemen and Syria, Riyadh has a vested interest in handling the Houthi problem quickly so that it can deal with other matters.

The war in Yemen is hardly over, frankly the end isn’t quite in sight regardless of coalition gains, yet the inclusion of these ground troops will change the calculus. All involved will want the hostilities to end quickly because of the high cost and numerous threats spawned by a changing region, but whether they can meet come to a political solution where all parties interests are addressed is another matter entirely.

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