The State of Play in Yemen

5 MINS READApr 23, 2015 | 09:31 GMT
Yemenis check the damage following a raid by Saudi-led coalition warplanes on a missile depot in southern Sanaa.

A shift has occurred in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Many interpreted it as a cessation of hostilities in Yemen, or as an end to the Saudi-led air campaign. But the shift is much more nuanced and indicative of the Saudi strategy. The interplay of consecutive operations in a military campaign and the efforts to achieve a negotiated solution to the crisis are driving a change in focus, not an actual end to military operations.

The divergence in interpretations of the statement by Saudi officials on April 21 was caused mostly by the announcement that Operation Decisive Storm would end at midnight. While true, the statement also explained that Operation Restoring Hope would follow Operation Decisive Storm. Rather than a complete shift from military operations to peaceful humanitarian and diplomatic efforts, the nuanced description of Operation Restoring Hope indicated continuing military operations while creating space for a long-term negotiated solution. The move from one operation to another within the same military campaign is similar to the transition from Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War, or the different operations (Operation Husky, Operation Avalanche and Operation Overlord, etc.) that made up the allied campaign to retake Europe during World War II.

For Saudi Arabia and its allies, a long-term solution can come only through a negotiated settlement; none of them want to get bogged down in a long and costly ground deployment into Yemen, the success of which may be unattainable to begin with. Some backchannel negotiations with the Houthi movement and with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been taking place. But no formal agreements have been concluded, despite rumors to the contrary. The statement that specific efforts will be directed toward achieving a negotiated settlement during the next operation suggests that the Saudis feel they have reached a point militarily at which they can focus on such negotiations. By inflicting pain and preventing the other side from reaching its goals, Riyadh gains leverage that it did not appear to have before.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 is being quoted as the framework for diplomatic solutions. International cooperation on providing humanitarian aid to the population of Yemen represents the non-military element being introduced to coalition operations. So far, however, the Houthi movement and Saleh-allied forces are not showing any signs of considering a cessation of hostilities, let alone withdrawing from the areas they have conquered. Both sides continue to position themselves for negotiations, especially now that the Saudis have sought diplomacy.

Although the Saudi-led air operations have not forced the Houthi and Saleh-aligned fighters from their positions, the campaign has broken the momentum of their offensive and preserved positions of allied ground forces. Southern Movement fighters have complicated Houthi operations in the port city of Aden, both by mounting stiff resistance in the city and by disrupting supply lines into the city. They also recaptured key terrain and destroyed critical bridges linking northern and southern Yemen, causing logistical headaches for the Houthi and Saleh forces.

The air campaign's effectiveness represents only an initial success. Displacing Houthi and Saleh forces will require continued operations within the broader campaign that will also include working with local Yemeni ground forces when able.

The distinction between halting the enemy offensive and degrading enemy combat power before enabling a counteroffensive explains the misunderstanding that resulted from the Saudi official statement on the end of Operation Decisive Storm as well. The U.S. model of how to conduct an air campaign — the same model current Saudi air force commanders trained under — envisions a sequence of phases with distinct focus in terms of asset allocation. Initially, suppression of enemy air defenses and destruction of enemy air forces are required in order to secure air superiority.

Next, ground attacks targeting strategic weapon systems and command and control infrastructure deteriorate the immediate threat posed by the opponent. Simultaneously, deep strikes at the enemy's logistics infrastructure interdict movement and degrade combat capabilities. Depending on the political objective of the operation, these forays can ultimately lead to targeting tactical military formations and providing close air support to allied ground operations. There are many variations to this theme, but as an abstract concept, this framework guides decision-making in U.S.-dominated or U.S.-influenced air operations, including those carried out by the Saudi air force.

Some have labeled the Saudis' air operations as a failure because they have not been able to reclaim territory from the Houthis and Saleh-aligned fighters. The misinterpretations of the April 21 official statement have not helped. Pushing back the opposing forces from the territory they have conquered is definitely a desired end, but Saudi air operations have achieved only initial success toward it.

However, understanding the concept of air campaigns makes those successes more apparent. The coalition air forces initially targeted the Yemeni air defenses and air force, guaranteeing air superiority. Airstrikes on ballistic missile systems and concentrations of military equipment or ammunitions across the country followed. At the same time, Saudi airstrikes had already started to grind the Houthi and Saleh offensives to a halt by targeting their logistics as well as their units on the front line.

These actions have put the Houthi movement and Saleh in a position where they can no longer expect a total victory over forces loyal to President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi, the Southern Movement and a wide variety of tribal militia including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia and its allies can now find a favorable outcome in negotiations, though the need for military operations may still exist.

As the war on the ground continues, Saudi-led air operations will try to affect the conflict by preventing the movement of Houthi and Saleh-aligned forces and attempting to provide close air support to the forces opposing them. Such operations will guarantee the conflict does not turn the other way again and will reinforce the negotiating position Hadi and the Saudis have secured.

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