Whose boots on Yemen's ground?

Whose boots on Yemen's ground?
Video: Air strikes historically are only effective with the aid of ground troops. In Yemen, unless the aim is to force the Houthis to negotiations, the question is, whose troops?
4 min read
31 March, 2015

Yemen Explained

The Saudi-led airstrikes on rebel targets in Yemen are showcasing Riyadh's military might. The positions and bases of the Houthis, as well as army units controlled by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, are being pummelled.

But what next? Are air strikes enough on their own? History says otherwise. Unless the push is to merely get concessions from the Houthis and Saleh in any negotiations, which now appears unlikely, the Saudi-led coalition will need forces on the ground to fight.

     Right now, every realistic scenario appears to be a recipe for disaster.

The obvious choice would be the Yemeni military. Yet this prospect appears to be diminishing by the day. The failure to restructure the military, the immunity given to Saleh for crimes committed during 2011, and even the Saudi decision to get Saleh back into the country, meant that come September 2014, Saleh was able to still maintain enough loyalty in the military to order them to largely step down as the Houthis took Sanaa.

Those units, which include some of the most elite in the army, now continue to advance across the country with the Houthis following closely behind. In response to this, the coalition bombing campaign has targeted the Saleh-controlled military, and military bases up and down Yemen are being destroyed. The consequence? The Yemeni military is being decimated and will not be able to secure such a highly weaponised country should these strikes not end soon.

The conclusion is that there needs to be another force on the ground that can take on the Houthis and Saleh forces, and defeat them. But who? None of the tribal or militia forces in the country have shown themselves strong or reliable enough to defeat the Houthi-Saleh “rebel” alliance.

Before the airstrikes began, Houthi-Saleh forces were on the verge of taking Aden, cutting with ease through territory controlled by supposedly pro-Hadi militia forces, with talk of payments being made to ease the path. Even were these forces strong and reliable, can they truly represent the whole country? Each militia or tribal force represents a narrow segment of society, with even the southern factions split hopelessly among themselves.

That leaves the prospect of ground forces, most likely Saudi and Egyptian invading. The Saudis have not denied that this is a possibility. The main argument against this happening is that it would be an unmitigated disaster, for both the Arab invading forces and Yemen.

The Egyptians have their own experience of fighting in the soaring heights of the northern Yemeni mountain ranges. Egypt's “Vietnam” ended with tens of thousands of Egyptian troops dead in the 1960s. Any ground invasion would drag on for a long time, and, without enough money changing hands, it will be nigh on impossible to placate the northern tribes.

The Saudis can possibly land in Aden or Hodeida, both coastal areas without high numbers of Houthi and Saleh supporters, and attempt to secure them. Aden, the capital of the formerly independent South Yemen and the centre of a burgeoning secessionist movement, could be used as a base to re-establish that southern state, and perhaps the Saudis would be able to install an amenable government, especially if it looks like their military might helped secure secession.

Would that however mean writing off the north? Leaving it to the Houthis and Saleh? Allowing it to become a land where marauding tribal militias fight it out on the Saudi border?

Right now, every realistic scenario appears to be a recipe for disaster. Should this war continue, and with Yemen, and the Yemenis stuck in the country, under an effective air and sea blockade, a humanitarian disaster is on the cards. Dreams like democracy and economic progress? They can be forgotten about, at least in the short term.

Yemen’s internal conflict has been turned into an international one, with the poorest country in the Middle East turned into a battleground for a regional battle that most Yemenis want no part in. They do not have a choice. War has arrived, and, for now, it is here to stay.