Confusion over Saudi plans for Yemen as al-Qaeda makes gains

Smokescreen? A Saudi air strike in Sanaa. EPA/Yahya Arhab

In a little-noticed announcement from Riyadh, broadcast on the Saudi-financed Arabya TV news channel, the Saudi government has suddenly announced the end of its massive Storm of Resolve air and sea campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

According to the statement, the Saudi-led alliance had achieved its military goals in Yemen, and will now begin a new operation called “Restoring Hope”. The statement went on to say that the new mission “will focus on security at home and counter-terrorism, aid and a political solution in Yemen”.

The implication of this is that the air strikes have had their necessary effect, the Houthis are in retreat and will negotiate an acceptable settlement and Restoring Hope can concentrate on other issues including, significantly, internal Saudi security. This is a crucial reminder that Saudi Arabia is anything but the homogeneous and stable country that many imagine it to be.

The more immediate issue, though, is what is actually happening in Yemen, where events on the ground simply do not match the statements from Riyadh. There have even been unclear reports of further air strikes since Storm of Resolve officially came to an end.

Humanitarian disaster

The whole incident so far has demonstrated just how much the Saudis fear the prospect of Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula. That fear is at the root of their concerns about Yemen, and it explains the Arab League’s decision to set up a standing force for the first time.

On March 29, the League agreed at a Sharm el-Sheikh summit that it would establish a standing force which would be ready to intervene when necessary in the interests of regional security. This would have up to 40,000 troops available together with sizeable air and naval forces.

Within in a couple of days of the summit, the Saudis began Operation Storm of Resolve, ostensibly to repel the Houthi advances in Yemen. The operation was mounted at least in part because of fears that the progress of the Houthis signalled a considerable increase in Iranian influence.

Although ground troops have not yet been deployed, Storm of Resolve has been seen as a test of this vision. It involves ten states led by Saudi Arabia, and including Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, involving more than 180 aircraft and the mobilisation of well more than 100,000 troops and security personnel.

Its sudden ending throws what has happened into some confusion, and it’s not clear what will come next.

One of the issues causing international concern had been the impact of the Saudi-led air attacks on civilians, with scores killed in recent week. On April 19, a Saudi attack on a missile base set off a huge explosion that killed 20 and injured 400, including many civilians.

Concern with civilian casualties does not seem to be a factor in the Saudis’ policy, which leaves considerable uncertainty over what happens next, especially as recent events, including recent air strikes, simply do not fit in with the apparent ending of the current campaign.

Just last week, for example, it was reported that Saudi Arabia and Egypt were planning “large-scale manoeuvres” close to the Yemeni border, and that this could be the start of ground operations. This certainly matches the strong statements coming from the Houthi leadership that they are in no mood to negotiate a settlement.

If all this is taken at face value, it implies that Storm of Resolve had had little effect after three weeks of bombing, even if its humanitarian consequences have been dire.

New front

Meanwhile, there are reports of a further build-up of American naval forces off the Yemeni coast. A substantial flotilla that already includes a force of 2,000 marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit on the Iwo Jima amphibious warfare ship has been on patrol off Yemen since the US evacuated its diplomatic personnel and several hundred Special Forces from the country in March 2015.

The force includes two missile destroyers, the Forrest Sherman and the Winston Churchill, and two amphibious warfare ships, the New York and the Fort McHenry. These have now been joined by a powerful aircraft carrier battle group led by the nuclear-powered USS Theodore Roosevelt and accompanied by a guided missile cruiser and other warships and auxiliary vessels.

Coming your way: the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea. EPA/Anthony H. Hilkowski

This force is supposedly meant to stop military supplies getting to Yemen’s rebels, presumably from Iran – but the Marines’ presence gives greater flexibility, including the option of sending troops ashore.

One factor that helps explain the substantial US naval presence, including those Marines, is the growing significance of the al-Qaeda presence in Yemen, especially its ability to control more territory.

As the New York Times reported:

Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen took control of a major airport and an oil export terminal in the southern part of the country on Thursday, expanding the resurgent militant group’s reach just two weeks after it seized the nearby city of al-Mukalla and emptied its bank and prison.

This is being missed in most of the analysis of what is happening in Yemen. Whatever Riyadh is planning, and whether or not the ending of Storm of Resolve is a cover for new developments, including a ground campaign, Washington’s main concern may well have changed. Perhaps the US Navy fleet now off the coast of Yemen really is meant to keep Iranian arms shipments out of Houthi hands, but its serious scale and amphibious capability is much more suited to operations against al-Qaeda.

That might well be the direction in which this chaotic and disastrous war will now move.