Coalition Ground Forces Could Leap into Yemen

4 MINS READApr 1, 2015 | 09:33 GMT
Coalition Ground Forces Could Go into Yemen
A member of the Yemeni security forces (R) loyal to the al-Houthi movement brandishes his weapon during a gathering in Sanaa.

The insertion of Saudi-led coalition ground forces into Yemen would carry considerable risk, but the coalition may have no choice. The Saudi-led coalition continued to pound al-Houthi fighters and forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh throughout the weekend. However, al-Houthi and Saleh forces sustained their attacks against Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi's forces and his tribal allies. Without support from coalition ground forces, Aden may fall out of Hadi's hands, an event that the Saudi-led coalition had previously set as a red line.

The Saudi-led coalition has continued targeting airbases and air defenses, including those at Taiz, Sanaa and Saada. The airstrikes have grounded the Yemeni air force and have severely degraded the Yemeni air defenses. Coalition aircraft have struck command and control facilities across the country, including the occupied presidential palace in Sanaa, army bases around the capital and in Saada, and the third command headquarters in Marib. In addition, a number of ammunition depots were hit, including a large one in Aden and a number of weapons depots near Nagum Mountain overlooking Sanaa.

Coalition aircraft also have landed heavy blows on the Republican Guard's 4th and 5th missile brigades near Sanaa. These brigades operate the Scud and Tochka inventory of ballistic missiles. Finally, coalition aircraft have flown a number of interdiction missions, striking at transportation infrastructure and al-Houthi and Saleh convoys moving around the country. The Egyptian navy has lent its support as well, shelling the roads leading into Aden used by the al-Houthis and their allies.

Continued Advances

Despite these attacks, the coalition has not yet been able to paralyze al-Houthi forces and their allies. Pitched fighting continues to take place in Aden, where Hadi's men have already lost and retaken the critical Aden airport a number of times. (Control of the airport is currently contested.) Al-Houthi forces seized the Dar Saad and Sheikh Uthman districts of Aden. The latest reports also indicate that a large column of Saleh's forces are heading toward the city down the coast and are in the vicinity of Zinjibar.

As the al-Houthis focus on Aden, other battles are occurring across Yemen. Tribal fighters clashed with al-Houthi and Saleh forces in and around the city of Baihan over the weekend, while Saleh's 33rd Brigade has reportedly seized the city of Daleh.

The Saudi-led coalition has made strong demands to the al-Houthis, stipulating withdrawal from all the areas they have taken from Sanaa southward, disarmament and Hadi's reinstatement to the seat of power. For Riyadh, Hadi offers legitimacy to the campaign against the al-Houthis, putting the coalition operation in the context of an invitation from an embattled government rather than an intervention that violates Yemen's sovereignty.

However, every advance al-Houthi and Saleh forces make hurts that legitimacy — and the foundation for a future counteroffensive against the al-Houthis that control Aden's port facilities and airport. For the coalition to achieve its aims, it needs to have viable proxies in Yemen as well as a base from which these proxies can operate. With the imminent threat to Aden and the al-Houthis' continued pressure on tribal fighters allied with Hadi, the coalition may find itself with no viable Yemeni ground force to support.

Escalating the Conflict

Under these circumstances, a coalition ground incursion becomes substantially more likely. The Saudi proxies are not completely beaten yet, and Stratfor's sources indicate that Riyadh is also moving to support longtime al-Houthi foe Gen. Mohsen al-Ahmar with substantial funds and weaponry. If, however, the Saudis cannot achieve these aims with an air campaign and greater support for the proxies, they may feel they have no choice but to escalate the conflict.

Ground forces likely would be deployed gradually because of political and logistical factors. The Saudis and their allies would like to keep their ground involvement at a minimum to avoid being drawn into a costly quagmire. Special operations forces would factor prominently in the opening moves, with Saudi allies such as Egypt and potentially Pakistan playing a role. To compensate them for their commitment, Riyadh would undoubtedly offer extensive financial incentives.

These forces would be tasked with stopping any rout of the Saudi-led coalition's proxies in Yemen. They would continue to pressure the al-Houthis to bring them to the negotiating table under favorable terms. They would also be crucial in securing Aden port facilities before they are seized. The Aden port and airport are critical for any quick insertion of forces. If these facilities fall, the coalition will have difficulty deploying forces to bolster Hadi in the south.

However, time is a factor in Riyadh's plans. An insertion of special operations forces into Yemen may not provide the necessary firepower to halt al-Houthi and Saleh momentum in time. Substantial Egyptian or coalition forces have not yet amassed in staging grounds in the region, leaving the Saudi forces poised on the border as the most viable large-scale intervention force in case there is a need to move quickly. Such an eventuality would be one of the least desired outcomes for the Saudis short of an al-Houthi victory. But with Saudi Arabia's reputation and credibility at stake, there is a real chance Riyadh could take the leap. 

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