Airstrikes might not win Ye­men war

Saudi-led coali­tion has wreaked havoc but made few gains.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Alexan­dra Zavis and Zaid al-Alayaa

JIZAN, Saudi Ara­bia — From their post on a rocky hill­top, a pair of Saudi bor­der guards man a .50-cal­iber ma­chine gun and use binoc­u­lars to scan the dry scrub­land that sep­a­rates this king­dom from its wartorn neigh­bor to the south, Ye­men.

The scene be­fore them ap­peared peace­ful Fri­day: The craggy peaks that rise be­yond a riverbed were spot­ted with goats, cows and fam­i­lies of ba­boons. But later that day, mor­tar rounds fired into Saudi ter­ri­tory from Ye­men killed three sol­diers and in­jured two oth­ers sta­tioned along the fron­tier, state me­dia re­ported Satur­day.

It was the lat­est in a se­ries of bor­der skir­mishes that have killed six of the king­dom’s troops since a Saudi-led coali­tion be­gan airstrikes March 25 against rebels known as Houthis, who have seized large parts

of Ye­men. The Saudi De­fense Min­istry said that its forces re­turned fire, and that 500 Houthi fighters have been killed in the clashes.

“Our bor­der is a red line,” said Lt. Col. Hamed Alah­mari, a spokesman for the In­te­rior Min­istry guards who pa­trol the highly por­ous fron­tier that stretches about 1,000 miles through moun­tains and desert.

Of­fi­cials in Saudi Ara­bia, the re­gion’s Sunni Mus­lim power, say the air cam­paign is deal­ing a de­ci­sive blow against the Houthis, whom they view as tools of ag­gres­sion used by Shi­ite Mus­lim­led Iran in an ex­pand­ing proxy war.

Coali­tion airstrikes have de­stroyed fighter jets, bal­lis­tic mis­siles, an­ti­air­craft guns and other mil­i­tary hard­ware held by the Houthis and their al­lies, who have taken con­trol of large parts of Ye­men.

How­ever, res­i­dents say the strikes have done lit­tle to re­verse the ter­ri­to­rial gains of the in­sur­gents and re­store ex­iled Pres­i­dent Abdu Rabu Man­sour Hadi to power in the quickly frag­ment­ing coun­try.

Se­cu­rity ex­perts ques­tion whether the coali­tion can achieve its goals through airstrikes alone. Saudi of­fi­cials have not ruled out send­ing in tanks, ar­tillery and other ground forces massed along the fron­tier. But Saudi lead­ers ap­pear wary of such a move against the Houthis, hard­ened guer­ril­las who be­long to an off­shoot of Shi­ite Is­lam known as Zaidism.

The last time the Saudis fought the Houthis in the rugged moun­tains of north­ern Ye­men, in 2009, more than 100 of their men were killed. Pak­istan’s par­lia­ment voted Fri­day to stay out of the con­flict, a blow to the Saudis, who had re­port­edly asked the coun­try to send troops, fighter jets and war­ships.

“This [war] will turn Ye­men into Saudi Ara­bia’s Viet­nam,” said Mo­hammed al-Kibsi, a vet­eran jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor in Ye­men’s cap­i­tal, Sana, where the Houthis seized con­trol in Septem­ber.

In­ter­na­tional aid agen­cies warn of a in­creas­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter. The fight­ing has killed at least 643 peo­ple, dis­placed more than 100,000 and laid waste to Aden, the com­mer­cial hub where Hadi took refuge be­fore flee­ing late last month to Saudi Ara­bia.

Al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula, which is widely viewed as the ter­ror­ist net­work’s most danger­ous fran­chise, has cap­i­tal­ized on the chaos to ex­tend its ter­ri­to­rial reach and stage a pri­son break that freed scores of sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing a se­nior mil­i­tant leader.

“The Saudis un­der­stand there is no mil­i­tary so­lu­tion in Ye­men,” said Mustafa Alani, a se­cu­rity stud­ies scholar at the Gulf Re­search Cen­ter in Dubai, United Arab Em­ri­ates. “There are two ob­jec­tives of this op­er­a­tion. The first is to de­stroy the mil­i­tary back­bone of the Houthis. … This they are do­ing very well. Sec­ond, to weaken the Houthis to the point that they go back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.”

Saudi Ara­bia and its al­lies have be­come in­creas­ingly con­cerned by what they view as an ag­gres­sive cam­paign by Iran to project its in­flu­ence across the re­gion, which they do not be­lieve the United States is tak­ing se­ri­ously enough. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pur­suit of a nu­clear deal with Iran has added to the grow­ing mis­trust of U.S. in­ten­tions.

The Is­lamic Repub­lic is a ma­jor spon­sor of the gov­ern­ments in Syria and Iraq and of the Le­banese mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah. Coali­tion mem­bers view the Houthi up­ris­ing as an­other at­tempt by Tehran to put its clients in charge of Arab cap­i­tals, this time in Saudi Ara­bia’s backyard.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, a spokesman for the Saudiled cam­paign, ac­cuses Iran of pro­vid­ing large quan­ti­ties of weapons and train­ing to the Houthis, a charge that Tehran has de­nied.

“Once they got con­trol of Sana, they signed a con­tract with an Ira­nian air­line, 14 flights a week,” he told The Times. “To do what? We did not know that there is tourism com­ing from Ye­men to Iran or from Iran to Ye­men.

“We ac­cept that our neigh­bor has a very strong army,” he con­tin­ued, “but not the mili­tias.”

Pro-Hadi fighters claim to have cap­tured two Ira­nian mil­i­tary of­fi­cers who were ad­vis­ing the in­sur­gents dur­ing fight­ing Fri­day in Aden. Re­ports from Ye­men said the of­fi­cers were mem­bers of an elite unit of Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard, charges Tehran also re­jected.

Lead­ers in Iran have de­nounced the Saudi-led mil­i­tary cam­paign with in­creas­ing vit­riol. In a speech Thurs­day, Iran’s supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, lashed out at the gov­ern­ment formed by Saudi Ara­bia’s newly in­stalled King Sal­man, which he char­ac­ter­ized as “in­ex­pe­ri­enced young­sters” who had re­placed their pre­de­ces­sors’ re­straint with “bar­barism.”

U.S. of­fi­cials be­lieve that Iran is pro­vid­ing some mil­i­tary aid to the Houthis, and have in­creased the lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, in­tel­li­gence and weapons they are con­tribut­ing to the Saudi-led cam­paign. But they do not be­lieve that Iran is di­rect­ing the Ye­meni mili­tia.

Far more im­por­tant to the Houthi cam­paign, they say, are the bases, mil­i­tary equip­ment and fight­ing power pro­vided by el­e­ments of the Ye­meni armed forces who are still loyal to Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh, the for­mer strongman de­posed in 2012.

Sad­dam Abu Asem, a com­men­ta­tor whose col­umns have ap­peared in a num­ber of Ye­meni news out­lets, said the coali­tion cam­paign is win­ning sup­port for the Houthis among res­i­dents who no longer con­sider Hadi a le­git­i­mate pres­i­dent be­cause he in­vited airstrikes that are killing the coun­try’s peo­ple and destroying its in­fra­struc­ture.

But he said the re­lent­less bom­bard­ments and a block­ade on Ye­men’s air and sea ports have weak­ened the pro-Houthi forces, who also face grow­ing do­mes­tic pres­sure over soar­ing food prices, fuel short­ages and power cuts.

“There is talk that th­ese par­ties are look­ing for a way out of the cri­sis,” Abu Asem said.

Naif Qanes, a mem­ber of the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mit­tee” tasked by the Houthis to run the gov­ern­ment, said the in­sur­gents are ready to take part in any talks that could lead to a so­lu­tion and “stop th­ese bar­baric as­saults against Ye­men.”

Houthi lead­ers say such talks can­not take place in any of the coun­tries in­volved in the bomb­ings.

An­a­lysts have sug­gested that Oman, the only mem­ber of the six-na­tion Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil that is not tak­ing part in the airstrikes, could pro­vide a neu­tral venue.

The Saudis and their al­lies in­sist that the Houthis rec­og­nize Hadi’s le­git­i­macy and sur­ren­der the arms they have taken from the state. But they rec­og­nize that Hadi has lim­i­ta­tions, in­clud­ing a lack of charisma or an ef­fec­tive power base, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts who are close to the re­gion’s lead­ers.

Alani, the se­cu­rity stud­ies scholar, sug­gested that a fig­ure with broader na­tional ap­peal might be brought into a tran­si­tional gov­ern­ment.

“You can­not over­look the ques­tion of le­git­i­macy,” he said. “But at the same time there is a va­cant po­si­tion of vice pres­i­dent.”

Ob­servers in Ye­men are more skep­ti­cal that Hadi will be able to re­turn to power. Too much blood has been shed, said Abu Asem.

“This is may af­fect the fu­ture of Ye­meni unity.”

Pho­to­graphs by Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

SAUDI IN­TE­RIOR Min­istry guards pa­trol the fron­tier with Ye­men, where bor­der skir­mishes have left six of the king­dom’s troops dead.

MEN DE­TAINED near the Saudi town of Ad­dayer were caught cross­ing the bor­der from Ye­men. The 1,000-mile bor­der stretches through moun­tains and desert.

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