The prospect of a ground operation in Yemen carried out by the Saudi-led coalition is a distinct possibility, but the window to safely insert forces into the port city of Aden is closing. As long as the threat from al-Houthi fighters and forces allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh persists, all options are on the table. Based on information from Stratfor sources and open source reporting, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan are considering deploying ground forces to Aden. The city itself has strategic value because of its seaport infrastructure. More important, it is the temporary capital of Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi's government. With the absence of Hadi, who fled the country and resurfaced in Riyadh, Aden is the most significant single location still under the control of loyalist forces.
For Saudi Arabia to consider rolling back the gains achieved by al-Houthi and pro-Saleh militants — with the intent to replace them with forces under Hadi's control — maintaining a Hadi-aligned presence inside Yemen is crucial. Securing the city will not win the war against the al-Houthis and their allies. However, blunting the offensive on Aden and guaranteeing the survival of Hadi's power structure are first steps in a greater effort. The continued attrition of al-Houthi and pro-Saleh forces is also a way to force diplomatic negotiations, which could resolve the conflict.
The importance of securing Aden is not lost on the militants opposing Hadi. Were the al-Houthis able to rapidly seize the port, preventing the ship-to-shore movement of coalition troops, Saudi Arabia's ability to secure Aden would be undermined. With reports of forces loyal to Saleh now fighting in the Khormaksar neighborhood, south of Aden's airport, the window for a Saudi intervention appears to be closing.
From the Saudi perspective, taking Aden requires significantly less combat power than a full ground incursion across the border, pushing south toward Sanaa. Given the natural bottleneck of the Aden Peninsula, a minimal force of only several battalions or a brigade (approximately 1,000 to 3,000 soldiers) supported by coalition close-air support and naval gunfire could defend the city.
According to Stratfor's source information, one potential plan that is being considered for this incursion includes the deployment of Egyptian and Saudi air assault forces, which would land in Aden by helicopter. A helicopter insertion is faster than a deployment by sea and, if done right, is less risky than having troop-carrying vessels docked at port for an extended period. Although a spearhead force inserted by air would be smaller than a maritime deployment, it would pave the way for a Sudanese infantry brigade that would provide the bulk of the ground forces.
This initial deployment could happen quickly, and thanks to the relative security the port of Aden enjoys for now, any reinforcements and supplies could be brought in safely by sea. The deployment of air assault and infantry forces would be accompanied by specialists able to accurately direct airstrikes, enhancing the effectiveness of any defense against al-Houthi militias and pro-Saleh forces.
The staging of a rotary-wing air assault would have to be from a location closer to Aden to avoid flying directly over the al-Houthi-controlled mountainous areas of Yemen. If the United States supported this deployment, the possibilities for staging areas increase, including (but not limited to) Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the U.S.S. Iwo Jima, or even the Berbera Air Base in Somaliland. The latter was mentioned recently in connection to Sudan's deployment of fighter aircraft to support the coalition airstrikes in Yemen. Because of its location directly opposite Aden on the Gulf of Aden, it offers an excellent jumping-off point for such an operation.
Whether the Saudi-led coalition will conduct such an operation is not yet certain. It will likely depend on how the coalition measures its success in the air campaign, its efforts to restart negotiations, or the evolution of fighting on the ground around Aden. If the operation were to take place, there are several indicators that could provide prior warning, though operational security — particularly on the part of Saudi Arabia — has been effective thus far in the campaign. Confirmation of the alleged forward deployment of Egyptian forces to Saudi Arabia would be one such indicator, as would the massing of Sudanese forces or equipment at Port Sudan or elsewhere on the coast. Increased activity at regional air bases such as Djibouti and Berbera would also be a clear indication of preparations to launch the initial deployment.
While this option is on the table, it is not the only course of action open to the Saudi-led coalition. Airstrikes are causing attrition on the militant forces at a sustained rate, and other ground incursions of different scales are possible from the Saudi border. Aden is only one approach available to Riyadh, but the low cost involved in acting decisively there could make it the key location to act. Stratfor will continue to track any movements and developments on the ground closely.