Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
It is never a good idea to fight a war based on pride and without either the moral justification to sustain popular support or a clear set of achievable goals. Unfortunately, the Middle East has become best known for “wars of confusion.” From the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the multifaceted fight against the Islamic State (or ISIS) today, wars are often launched as knee-jerk reactions based mostly on pride and misguided intelligence. The resulting confusion inevitably creates flames that sooner or later engulf all involved (albeit to various degrees). The latest example of this phenomenon is the war in Yemen.
Haste costs lives
The loss of 52 Emirati, 10 Saudi, 5 Bahraini, and 4 Yemeni soldiers at a military base in Marib province on September 4 serves as a harsh reminder of the real costs of war as the anti-Houthi coalition shifts gears from an air campaign to committing ground troops. For the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it was the most significant loss of troops since the country gained its independence in the 1970s. The tangible cost of human lives has now been felt by the UAE and the Arab alliance as a whole. It is certainly felt by the families of those soldiers, who must be asking why their children had to lose their lives in central Yemen and how many more might be sacrificed in the midst of this confusion.
Although President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government initially claimed that the deaths were the result of an accidental explosion of “badly stored munitions,” it has now become clear that the explosion was caused by a surface-to-surface missile hitting the munitions depot. However, rather than pausing to reevaluate, the coalition—clearly driven by pride—is rashly dumping in more troops. Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, asserted his country’s resolve to fight until it prevails, and Qatar has committed 1,000 ground troops.
These moves only compound the coalition’s initial mistake of advancing from Aden prematurely. By moving out of the southern port of Aden so soon after forcing the withdrawal of the Houthi and Saleh militias and without consolidating a system of governance there, the coalition took an enormous risk given its lack of counterinsurgency experience. The arrival of Yemeni Vice President and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah to Aden last week after months of exile may be too little, too late.
Warnings for the coalition
In such times of confusion, it is the moral responsibility of the Arab coalition’s friends to give candid and strategic advice based on a careful analysis of the circumstances on the ground and the history of conflict, both in Yemen and the region at large, to help them avoid being consumed by the flames of pride. Currently, the coalition risks the following:
Falling into the North/South fault line. The recovery of Aden a few weeks ago from the hands of the Houthis has given Southern separatists renewed hope that this is a war of “liberation” from the North, rather than a campaign to restore the legitimacy of a national unity government. Even though the Saudi king and President Obama were quick to point out that they are in agreement on the imperative of a united Yemen, the conflict is undoubtedly turning into a civil war between the South and the North.
Soon, Northern anti-Houthi leaders such as General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Abdul Majid Zindani will find themselves facing important dilemmas: by continuing to weaken the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, they are in effect strengthening the hand of Southern separatists. The longer the war continues, the more concrete the line of division will become. While Southern separatists seem to have (for now) forgiven Hadi for deserting them in support of Saleh in the mid-1990s, Northerners are less likely to pardon his more recent abuse of power and parliamentarian manipulation.
The concern for the coalition is that they may soon find themselves occupying a North-South fault line and end up being targeted by the very people they are currently empowering. The coalition may not have experienced this before, but it is a certain outcome of such conflicts, particularly in a political culture where alliances of convenience are the norm.
Being bled slowly in Yemen. Although one can argue over the extent to which the Iranian threat to the Gulf states is real or imagined, the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm in March to stop Iran from turning Yemen into another Iraq, where it enjoys significant sway over the government and can pressure its Gulf neighbors.
However, by deploying ground troops in such a fashion in Yemen, the coalition has blindly made itself vulnerable to the tactics at which Iran excels. While there has been little evidence of Iranian supplying weapons and fighters to the Houthis so far, the September 4 strike undoubtedly opened the eyes of those unsavory elements of Iran’s multiverse regime to the opportunity that is fast-developing to bleed the Gulf countries in Yemen, just as they did with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. The coalition must be reminded of how skillful and adaptable those elements of the Iranian government are at fanning flames.
Further exposing their internal fronts. So far, the UAE and Qatar have been particularly successful in foiling al-Qaida and other terrorist groups’ attempts to carry out large scale terrorist attacks in their cities, but pursuing this campaign in Yemen is likely to make that effort harder. The coalition’s excessive and indiscriminate airstrikes are sure to be used by extremists as a recruiting tool, and the dismantling of the state leaves them with more room to operate. Coalition troops face threats from al-Qaida and other militants on the ground in Yemen just as the participating countries put their homelands and citizens more firmly in those groups’ crosshairs. Whatever the Gulf countries do in Yemen, they must not let down their guard domestically.
The answer to the challenge of Yemen
Pride makes it hard to see clearly through the flames, and drives one into further wrong decisions. As the anti-Houthi coalition advances on Sanaa and faces the risk of further significant casualties, it would be prudent for its leaders to take a step back and make some hard choices.
First, the blind support of Hadi as president has got to be questioned, both on the grounds of his record and on his ability to maintain a workable level of legitimacy among Yemenis to hold the country together and avoid a separation.
The solution to the challenge of Yemen remains a genuine offer to its people of future membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
It is also time to admit that the Houthis constitute an important, nationally-rooted segment of Yemeni society that has legitimate grievances and cannot be defeated by outside intervention. As such, there is no alternative to a political process. The pride-driven assumption that ground troops will change the balance of power and force the Houthis into concessions could not be further from the truth, especially now that the coalition forces have proven to be vulnerable.
The solution to the challenge of Yemen remains a genuine offer to its people of future membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This would invert the pyramid of power in the relationships between the Gulf states and Yemen and give voice to the millions of Yemenis at the bottom of the pyramid, many of whom have family living and working in GCC countries already and share the aspiration of one day belonging to a prosperous regional structure. The concrete prospect of joining the GCC would work wonders in terms of driving forward constructive local politics, much as the prospect of joining the EU encouraged the Balkan countries to pursue alternatives to civil strife and local petty politics. This, in the long run, is the best path to sustainable peace in the country.