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The Arab Coalition Must Put Aside Differences, Rethink Strategy on Yemen

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The Arab Coalition Must Put Aside Differences, Rethink Strategy on Yemen

Irina Tsukerman

Two major recent developments illustrate ongoing challenges and potential new obstacles in the war in Yemen, the major objective of which, the put down of the rebellion by the Iran-backed Houthi separatists appears to be sidelined by other considerations and misunderstandings.

First, after violent confrontations with Southern UAE-backed separatists, the forces closely allied with the Yemen government and backed by Saudi Arabia, managed to retake Aden in its entirety.

Second, the United States appears to be wavering on its position on Iran and the nuclear deal. President Trump reiterated that he is not looking for "regime change" in Tehran; talks about potential meeting with FM Zarif or another member of the government are ongoing.

Furthermore, US appears to be looking to enter direct talks with the Houthis, just as it has entered into negotiations concerning the terms of withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan with the Taliban in Qatar.

Saudi Arabia, concerned about what appears to be a shift in US foreign policy, sent the Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman al-Saud for talks to Washington.  On top of  this, there is an ongoing speculation about the recent UAE meeting with the Islamic Republic officials in Iran, which the Iranian regime spun as a great political victory, but which Al Arabiya and other Arab regional sources characterized as a routine measure to prevent accidental incursions and violations in light of the recent tensions in the Gulf. Despite all of this, the Emirati move added to the atmosphere of distrust and misunderstanding, and let to a series of media attacks and questions by Saudis and others.

The Emiratis, on the other hand, perceive Saudi alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated al-Islah brigades that make up a significant portion of the pro-government ground game as a detriment to countering extremism inside the country.  These mutual recriminations, however, have done little to overcome misperceptions of each other's interests and intentions, while contributing to Iran's agenda in dividing the allies and weakening their relationship with the US, which has been subjected to a major media campaign against the forces in Yemen and Saudi Arabia in particular.

Much of the seeming fissions among the Arab Coalition and its allies, however, appears to be the result of misunderstanding over strategy, rather than any immediately fatal political divisions. UAE and Saudi Arabia may have long term differences over their view of the fate of Yemen (unified or divided); however, at the end of the day, neither country's goals will be met if Iran and assorted terrorist organizations prevail and the country fails entirely or becomes a mere puppet of Tehran, Qatar, and other adversarial forces.

In light of these developments, the US government should call on both parties to renew their commitment to countering Iran and extremism in Yemen, and to return with renewed energies and a more unified strategy that can bring the military success and contribute to stabilizing Yemen and ending the war. Rather than giving in to the sectarian suspicions of bad faith, both countries, as well as the US, should recall the accomplishments that have been possible when the Coalition was on the same page.  For an example, one should look to the city of Al Mukallah, Yemen's fifth largest city, which has been transformed to one of the safest cities in the country. Thanks to intervention by Emirati forces, Al Qaeda was defeated and transformed into an exemplar of security, even described as an "oasis", particularly in light of the harrowing conditions in other parts of the country, which, if left unattended can destabilize even the liberated Coalition strongholds.

UAE and the Arab Coalition cooperated in what became an example of best practice in coordinating counterterrorist operations. In 2015, Al Mukallah, AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) took control of the city and held it for an entire year, until April 2016, when a force of ten thousand Yemeni troops, trained and managed by the UAE, took back the city. This remarkable achievement was recognized by the US. However, the military victory alone did not suffice. Following the liberation, UAE had invested into a massive development campaign to rehabilitate all aspects of city life and to return it to normalcy. The aim was to stabilize the city following its occupation by extremism and to inocculate the community from fanatical ideological outreach. This experience could still be a successful model for all parts of Yemen.

Following the completion of the objective in securing of the city, and as per the agreement with the Coalition, UAE declared the decision to relocate its troops from several areas in Yemen, where the presence was no longer needed, but confirmed its commitment to counter the Houthis and terrorism along with the Saudi-led Arab Coalition. Unfortunately, pro-Iran propagandists misreported this decision as a nod to Iran and a stab in the back to the Saudis. Qatar has been financing a Houthi and Al Qaeda effort to destabilize this area as a way of sending a message to the Coalition and UAE. Miscommunication and foreign propaganda, rather than any ill intent or betrayal, led to the confusion and the seeming rift between the allies. UAE and Saudis may have different priorities in Yemen; UAE is also a small country, where at the height of tensions with Iran over oil tankers, it was deemed essential to have troops ready in the immediate vicinity for self-defense. The Saudis, meanwhile, have had to contend with defending their own citizens, under lethal attack from both Houthi separatists, backed by both Iran and Qatar,  and Iran-backed Iraqi militias, while leading the charge against the Iran-backed terrorists in Yemen - all while facing constant attacks in the media and very little moral support for the civilians suffering from ongoing missile attacks.

However, There is More to the Story.

The Yemeni people are now targeted by extremists on two ideological fronts: The Houthis from the North are financed, trained, and armed by Iran and Hezbullah, which has a presence on the ground, while the Muslim Brotherhood and its military faction Al-Islah, aligned with the Hadi government, are backed and financed by Turkey and Qatar, both engaged with Sunni Islamism and adversarial to Saudi Arabia and UAE.  Information from various Yemeni parties and sects, including from a senior politician from Tareq Saleh's party, GPC, reveal that there is a secret coordination between the Al Islah party and the Houthis, which is reflected in the good relations between Qatar and Iran. Recently, the HOuthis had appointed a representative to Iran;, in the past, Qatar had pressured the late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stop his initial advance against the Houthis and offered him $10M for that. Qatar, early on had contributed to the split between Saleh's supporters and the rest of the coalition; at the same time, it continued financing Al Islah.

Recent tensions between UAE and KSA have been sparked by Saudi Arabia's continuous engagement with Al Islah, which remains a part of the Arab Coalition, while sabotaging all attempts at progress against the Houthis, the victory over which remains a goal for both countries. The difference between the two, then, is less about the objectives and more about strategic differences. UAE perceives the Saudis to be blind to the dangers of Muslim Brotherhood involvement. That, however, is far from the case. Muslim Brotherhood is a designated terrorist organization by the Saudis; it has relied on Al Islah temporarily as a countermeasure against the more immediate danger of the Houthis. However, the Saudis have not remained willfully blind to the damaging effects of political alignment of Al Islah; rather, extricating themselves from that alliance in a way that does not create an appearance of a clash with the Hadi government has proven to be a challenge over time.

More recently, confidential sources from the Saudi policy circles have likewise complained about the Yemen government's manipulations and lack of involvement in operation decisionmaking. This shows a growing wariness in relying on a partner which plays the game of presenting its problematic coalitions as a necessary evil, without bringing in the results that would justify this questionable means, as the recent failure of Al Islah of preventing separatists from infiltrating Aden and the Houthis from attacking the coalition parade has amply demonstrated. If this awareness and sentiments are real than a lack of direct communication and willingness to admit a shift in outlook due to social pressure may be more of an issue than any real political divide.

Be it as it may, there is a growing body of evidence that Al Islah is not merely an imperfect ally, but has betrayed the Coalition entirely, which the UAE has been trying to bring to attention through its latest political moves. Even the questionable timing of the  current backing of the separatists, which appears to be an unnecessary distraction from the focus on defeating the Houthis and weakening Iran's hand in Yemen, is driven at this juncture by the exasperation over the Saudi inability or unwillingness to counter this treachery rather than by a self-serving interest in sabotaging the war.  After all, if Iran grows stronger and the Saudis fall, UAE stands only to lose from Iran's growing regional control.

The evidence of the Hadi government's strategy of playing all sides for support is not new. Back in 2017, Hadi had visited Qatar, for seemingly unknown reason; although it appeared that he was willing to negotiate some sort of an arrangement in exchange for support, such as financing for Al-Islah backed troops.

As a result of this incident and other accusations of clandestine contacts with Qatar, the Southern Transition Council (STC) accused Hadi  of being controlled by Al Islah, and brought to light various corruption scandals involving many ministers inside the government, as well as Hadi's assorted family members. Indeed, Qatar continued interfering throughough  the war, funding Al Qaeda,  and the Houthis, in addition to the MB, and seeking to distance the Hadi government from the Saudis.

The southern Transition Council accused Hadi Gov that its controlled by Al Islah and corruption scandals where many ministers in the Gov or members from Hadi family are involved. This conflict lead to the recent breakout in violence between the STC forces and the Hadi/al Islah groups in Aden, which appeared to be a conflict between the Saudis and the Emiratis, but actually was not about the issues between the two countries at all. The separatist STC felt ill served and betrayed by the Hadi government, while the Emiratis felt unable to get the message across to their Saudi counterparts that the Yemen government's failure to keep its promises to STC will result in revolts and demands for independence even at the cost to the rest of the war effort. In other words, the outbreak in violence was unnecessary, and the STC suddenly renewed interest in independence is as much a byproduct of being unwilling to cope with the increased encroachment by Islamists as by the Emiratis long term interest of exercising influence over the South of Yemen, that dates back to its pre-independence relationship with the UK.

As a result of this outbreak, STC came to the temporary control of Aden and most of the South. The move August 11 by the STC, which is backed by most of the Security Belt Forces and led by former Aden Governor Aidarus al-Zubaidi, came amid fears that Islamist forces in the Saudi-led coalition could take over the south, even permitting al-Qaeda to make a comeback there. And indeed, there is evidence, that various terrorist organizations have found a safe haven in Yemen once again, and their presence has been growing as they have taken advantage of the instability and seeming tensions between allies.

Rather than addressing the articulated grievances, however, the Hadi government and the Muslim Brotherhood, in conjunction with the Houthis, and various media platforms, backed by Iran and Qatar,  launched an attack campaign against the UAE. This was an opportunity to pay them back for the embarrassment of the success in Al Mukallah and the victories over Houthis, liberating various areas of Yemen with the help of the STC forces, which the Hadi government was unable to repeat, and for which the Muslim Brotherhood was the major impediment. After all, Qatar had no interest in seeing the Saudi-led coalition succeed in Yemen. The MB brigades deliberately acted in a way to cause mass delays, problems, and to create poor optics and embarrassment for the Saudis. The Saudis relied on Hadi because his presence was necessary to counter some of the external Qatar and Iran-backed political attacks, which has painted Saudi Arabia as an invader and the war as illegitimate. If Hadi is part of the forces, however, such attacks are less likely to succeed. However, ultimately, Hadi's role is proving to be ruinous to the joint efforts and to the unity of the Coalition.

Although the STC forces were repelled from Aden, that by no means signals any sort of "victory" for anyone except Hadi, the Houthis, and Qatar. First, the STC is likely to regroup and return if its grievances are not addressed; failed negotiations brokered by Saudi Arabia may be a cause for major political and military embarrassment if the situation is not handled. The STC maintains that whatever the outcome of the drawn-out conflict, southerners need to be represented in peace talks and have a say in the country’s future.

Second, the Hadi government and the Muslim Brotherhood pressured the UAE to leave the coalition, contributing to the false narrative of Abu Dhabi's betrayal of Riyadh.

Third, Hadi is no real champion of victory against the Houthis, while the STC - despite its separatist claims that are not favored by the Saudis - is actually on the same page with the Saudi interest in that matter. Iranians and Qataris are both contributing to this campaign on both ends in order to force the Saudis out of Yemen altogether and to claim victory, not only in Yemen, but long-term in the region. The STC has reportedly been considering Saudi Arabia’s call to de-escalate and preparing to attend an emergency summit in Jeddah aimed at reaching an agreement for all parties in Aden. Neither they, nor the UAE are the enemy here.

As a result, the Yemeni people are the ones suffering the most, resulting in massive numbers of social media requests asking UAE not to withdraw from Yemen.

The United States has an important role to play in bringing the Coalition partners to a unified position.

First, it should reconsider the decision to engage directly with the Houthis, which had repeatedly attacked Saudi civilians. Rather, the Houthis should be designated as a terrorist organization and treated accordingly, as part of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran, which could be the pinnacle of the Trump administration foreign policy success in the region.

Second, US should call on UAE to return and remain in Yemen, and to play a bigger role in liberating the occupied areas from Houthis and Al Qaeda, following the above-described model. Joint effort by the Saudis and the Emiratis, to invest directly into helping communities rebuild themselves rather than distributing humanitarian aid, which has been hijacked by Al Qaeda, the Houthis, and the corrupt UN agencies among others, can lead to a reversal of bad fortune for the Coalition in the press, as would a systematic approach of rooting out terrorists who should be arrested and brought to justice on the charges of vast human rights violations against civilians, dissidents, minorities, and journalists.

Third, the Saudis should reconsider their close relationship with Hadi in light of the evidence of his relationship with Qatar, which runs counter to the nature of the agreement between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It should perhaps, start working closer with other Yemeni parties that are on board with the goal of countering Houthis and support a unified vision for Yemen aggressing relevant grievances. UAE's political role in the future of Yemen can be negotiated fairly once the crises are behind and the adversaries are no longer at the immediate doorstep. At the very least, Hadi should be held accountable for his relationship with MB, and the Coalition should be supplemented with other forces. The US could play an important diplomatic role and a voice of confidence in light of evidence of a more sound, concerted, and unified strategy, in recruiting qualified ground troops from other allied countries against these threats. Lack of unity over these issues, and seemingly endless conflicts contributed to withdrawal of several important partners. Political and military recalibration and a shift towards a systemic ground campaign without problematic actors may help bring them back.

Finally, more closely coordinated strategic communications between the two countries and their leadership needs to be developed in light of the lessons learned from the unfortunate and avoidable misunderstanding, as well as the bright future for Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and UAE that is ultimately at stake.

About the Author(s)

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security lawyer and analyst, who has written extensively for a variety of domestic and international publications on strategy, geopolitics, and security in the MENA region. Her work has been translated to many languages, including Arabic, and she has been interviewed and cited in a variety of Arabic-language media. Follow Irina on Twitter @irinatsukerman.