No end in sight: the GCC intervention in Yemen

A UAE warplane

A UAE warplane

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which began on March 2015, continues unabated, with no clear exit strategy in sight. The intervention force, which at this point mainly includes the Gulf Cooperation Council (with the exception of Oman) as its central active participants, has significantly ramped up its presence in Yemen in the past few days.

Although an intervention into Yemen’s chaotic civil war seemed good on paper, considering Saudi Arabia’s historic interests in Yemen and Yemen’s close proximity to the Gulf countries, the intervention has been mismanaged from the beginning. The current failure of the intervention in Yemen is not surprising considering this is the first such case where Saudi Arabia has spearheaded a coalition military campaign in a foreign country. A new, younger leadership in the Gulf is managing the intervention with the most prominent figure being Mohamed Bin Salman, the 30 year-old Saudi defence minister. Although the handling of the intervention has been shambolic, such as the unproductive and damaging Saudi naval blockade, which has caused a humanitarian crisis, the Saudi-led intervention force has been strategic enough to avoid significant military failure.

Recently however, the coalition decided to commit troops to help anti-Houthi fighters secure Aden and recapture lost ground, meaning they are likely involved in ground fighting against the Houthis. The risk of casualties naturally increased because of this move, and on September 4th, a single Houthi missile attack on a weapons storage depot in Ma’rib province killed 60 soldiers from the GCC, 45 from the UAE, ten from Saudi Arabia and five from Bahrain. These losses are highly significant; the casualties from the UAE alone constitute the country’s heaviest loss of life in a military operation, far eclipsing the six losses suffered during the 1991 Gulf War. Furthermore, the losses from the Saudi side confirmed that Saudi ground troops were operating in Yemen, something that hasn’t been confirmed up to this point.

The response by the coalition to these losses was swift, but mishandled. Coalition warplanes conducted its largest ever bombing campaign on the 6th of September, attacking Houthi positions and Houthi command centres across Yemen, but with significant civilian casualties reported. Moreover, contrary to a climb-down of Gulf troops in response to the tragedy, the campaign in Yemen has ramped up. According to an Al Jazeera report, 1,000 Qatari troops, supported by 200 armoured vehicles and 30 Apache helicopters, crossed the Saudi-Yemen border on the 7th of September. Although Qatar has mobilised a handful of warplanes for the intervention, this is the first such case of Qatar committing ground troops in Yemen. The Qatari contingent is headed towards Ma’rib governorate, the same area where the Houthi missile attack occured. More Qatari troops are expected in the coming few weeks to bolster the coalition forces, signalling an important shift in the Yemen war.

With an increase in coalition troop numbers in Yemen and with no signs of the war ending soon, the Arab coalition will have to be prepared to sink in even more money and blood into the Yemen conflict. The insistence of the collective GCC leadership to commit to even more potential troop losses indicates the mind-set of a new, more hawkish leadership in several Gulf capitals.

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