Can the Arab League Forge a Viable Army and Win in Yemen?
This week, the leaders of the 22 countries that make up the Arab League agreed to seek the defeat the Houthi fighters and their allies in Yemen by creating a joint Arab military force. Members of the Arab League met in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to discuss the growing threat to the region by what they claimed to be moves by “foreign” or “outside parties” who have stoked sectarian, ethnic or religious rivalries in Arab states. However, much of the rhetoric was aimed at Iran, which is perceived to be expanding its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and, most recently, Yemen. Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi blamed Iran for what he said was its intervention “in many nations,” while speaking to reporters after the summit.
Although the force is seen as tackling the civil war in Yemen, the force will probably be the key military instrument for potential Middle East clashes between Arab League nations and Tehran and its allies and not as a response to the aspiration of the Arab people in forming a force to liberate the occupied Arab land from Zionists. The envisioned size of the force would be about 40,000, including elite troops, war planes, navy ships and weapons.
As impressive as it sounds, this force is not fielded yet. However, Saudi Arabia is already leading a 10-nation coalition to carry out airstrikes against the Houthi fighters in Yemen. The strikes are in support of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee after gains by the Houthi fighters. A major objective of the strikes is fuel depots.
Pakistani officials sent mixed signals about sending additional troops to Saudi Arabia to join the coalition against the Yemeni rebels, Reuters reported. Saudis are looking in particular to enlist the Pakistanis, Egyptians or Moroccan troops to use them in any potential ground invasion since they lack an effective larger army in order to field the manpower for a land war.
Is the Arab League Army a Mirage or a Real Force?
Once one goes beyond the press releases and agreements made this week, there remains the question of how real and effective such an army will actually be. One only has to look at the GCC’s Peninsula Shield to see that previously promised multi-national armies have real problems being formed and employed.
In reality, the GCC Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) should be easier to create than the proposed Arab League Army. The GCC nations are culturally closer, are geographically adjacent, and haVE similar military technology. Yet, the PSF has proven to be much less than promised.
As was noted in a 2013 Monitor Analysis, in 1984, the GCC created the PSF with a military force of 10,000 soldiers divided into two brigades. It was based in Saudi Arabia near the Kuwaiti and Iraqi borders. It currently contains about 40,000 troops.
However, the military role of Peninsula Shield in the last 30 years has been scant. A force of about 3,000 men from the PSF, in addition to forces of its member states, took part in the liberation of Kuwait in March 1991. 10,000 troops and two ships of PSF were deployed to Kuwait in February 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq, to protect Kuwait from potential Iraqi attacks. It did not participate in operations against Iraq.
Its most active military role was in March 2011, Peninsula Shield forces, requested by the Bahraini government entered Bahrain via the causeway from Saudi Arabia. The forces were from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In 2013, the GCC nations created a Joint Command.
The result of this cooperation has been less about joint military operations than acting in concert in regards to overall strategy. For instance, in regards to the alleged Iranian threat, all the GCC states have invested heavily in the last decade in a new generation of powerful offshore patrol vessels that combine good seaworthiness and the ability to stay on station longer. They are well-armed, fast attack naval vessels with day and night sensors and effective offensive weapons systems, such as lightweight precision missiles and robotic stabilized cannons. These ships can out-see and out-shoot any Iranian counterpart. And, their ability to stay at sea longer makes up for the greater numbers of smaller Iranian craft that can’t travel far or stay at sea for long times.
However, the joint GCC command has failed in devising a unified reaction to any potential naval threat. In case of any threat to the Gulf shipping, the GCC nations have to decide on what action to take and move aggressively. Convoy protection is passive and cannot win – it merely slows the damage to the commercial shipping fleet.
This is the long term threat to an Arab League Army. Manpower, ships, and aircraft only mean something if the nations can agree on an overall reaction to a potential threat – something that was missing from the meeting this week. Military power means very little unless there is political will behind it. Fielding an army from 22 diverse Arab nations spread across Asia and Africa will be hard enough. Fielding an army from 22 nations with differing political goals will be nigh on impossible.
The War in Yemen
If Afghanistan has been the quagmire for the great powers (Great Britain, The Soviet Union, and the United States), then Yemen must be considered the same for Arab nations.
When Imam Ahmad bin Yahya died in 1962, he was succeeded by his son. However, army officers attempted to seize power, sparking the North Yemen Civil War. The Hamidaddin royalists were supported by Saudi Arabia, Britain, and Jordan (mostly with weapons and financial aid, but also with small military forces), whilst the republicans were backed by Egypt. Egypt provided the republicans with weapons and financial assistance but also sent a large military force to participate in the fighting. Israel covertly supplied weapons to the royalists in order to keep the Egyptian military busy in Yemen and make Nasser less likely to initiate a conflict in Sinai. After six years of civil war, the republicans were victorious (February 1968) and formed the Yemen Arab Republic.
The Cold War also created tension as South Yemen was supported by Warsaw Pact nations, which continued a civil war with North Yemen. Even the end of the Cold War and unification didn’t stop fighting. The current Shiite rebellion was started in 2004.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has remained militarily active both in and outside of Yemen.
The US, as part of its war on terror has also become active in Yemen, especially in regards to the use of drones. The U.S. started to launch drones strikes in Yemen to curb a perceived growing terror threat. Since December 2009, U.S. strikes in Yemen have been carried out by the U.S. military with intelligence support from CIA. The drone strikes have been heavily criticized because they kill innocent civilians and because the U.S. military and CIA drone strikes lack sufficient congressional oversight. Controversy over U.S. policy for drone attacks mushroomed after a September 2011 drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens. Another drone strike in October 2011 killed Anwar’s teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.
Given the past history, it’s obvious that merely forming a unified Arab army and launching military operations inside Yemen isn’t a guarantee of success. And, in fact, the current coalition strategy of focusing on air strikes to counter theHouthi rebels promises no more likelihood of success as the American backed drone war of the last few years or the current air war against ISIS.
As military people know, resolution of the crisis in Yemen will either require a political settlement that is agreeable to all groups or a military solution that puts soldiers on the ground in Yemen.
However, as armies invading Afghanistan know, mere force of arms isn’t enough to win a military victory. Thanks to all the wars in Yemen, the number of small arms in the nation makes it one of the most armed populations in the world (the only nation with a higher number of arms per capita is the US).
Thanks to a rugged geography, carrying out a ground war in Yemen would be difficult. And, if Pakistani troops are used for the majority of the ground force, the cultural differences between the Pakistanis and the Yemen tribesmen would only make occupation that much more difficult.
However, one must not underestimate the armies currently involved. Egypt and Jordan both have fair-to-good military reputations. Every regime can field a small elite force, but the Egyptian and Jordanian armies field larger units (brigades) with comparatively higher training standards than other Arab states. Last year, Egyptian forces conducted some cursory training exercises with countries now participating in the coalition, so that coalition’s formation may not be as sudden as the headlines suggest. Egyptian advisers are reportedly in Saudi Arabia, on both the Iraq and Yemen borders.
But, armies must also have plans. Although Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies are anxious to push the tribesmen back as soon as possible, any military action must begin with a coherent plan that offers success. The current plan of air operations with limited ground combat will not offer any results in the short term.
The American Role
America finds itself in a difficult position. It backs the Saudis; however, it has carried out air strikes against many Sunni tribesmen in the past few years. Meanwhile, it opposes the Iranian backed Shiite tribesmen in Yemen, but is striving for a better relationship with Iran in order to slow its nuclear weapons program.
A variety of US military analysts stressed that this is a time when the US needs to remain engaged, but in the background. They contend that the current role of providing logistics, intelligence and operational support is probably a sound one.
To them, the first problem is neutralizing the gains of the Houthi, who are backed by Iran. Saudi Arabia can’t afford to relinquish control of the strategically important naval facilities of Aden to Iran, who already controls the Strait of Hormuz. Aden represents a critical sea route for oil going to Asia and the Saudi’s can’t afford for these sea lanes to be cut.
Here, the US and other NATO powers can use their control of the sea to cut off the supply of munitions coming from Iran, while the GCC nations can prevent Iranian sir resupply.
The second goal is to strengthen supporters of the government. Here, America could reintroduce Special Forces into Yemen, not as a surgical strike force, but as teachers in the art of unconventional warfare. This, in fact, was the original role of the American Green Berets before the War on Terror and the evolution of the Special Forces into an elite strike team. Rather than just arm the tribesmen, they could train them to become better fighters – which would lessen the need for bringing Pakistani troops into the ground war.
Inevitably, the key is to realize that Yemen has historically been immune to military solutions. Unless the Saudi led coalition and the US realize that, the current fighting in Yemen will only be one more fruitless fight in a long line of fighting on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Friends Like These: Why Petrostates Make Bad Allies
By Emma Ashford
March 31, 2015
Policy Analysis No. 770
In what the Obama administration describes as a “years-long” coalition effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, the United States has reentered conflict in the Middle East. The White House heralds its close cooperation with Arab allies, including a number of petrostates such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, describing their cooperation as vital to the success of the campaign. But petrostates are unlikely to be good allies for the U.S. campaign in Iraq and Syria. The reliance of those countries on oil and gas revenues distorts both foreign policy decisions and their implementation. First, petrostates have weak foreign policy institutions, producing policy that is of poor quality and strongly driven by personalities. Second, the vast flow of oil income enables the states to back nonstate actors in conflicts, but their weak civil service cannot control the flow of arms or funds. Third, oil income also enriches private citizens, some of whom directly fund terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Thus, largely through ineptitude, those states have helped to foster Syria’s civil war, indirectly facilitating the rise of ISIS.
America, Saudi Arabia, and the Strategic Importance of Yemen
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 26, 2015
Yemen is a growing reminder of just how important the strategic U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia really is. It is one thing to talk about the war against ISIS, and quite another to realize that U.S. strategic interests require a broad level of stability in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula and one that is dependent on Saudi Arabia as a key strategic partner. Saudi Arabia has already taken an important lead in Yemen that will need U.S. support. Saudi Arabia and allies are now conducting air strikes in Yemen to try to halt the advance of a Houthi militia, with strong ties to Iran, which is attempting to end President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s efforts to relocate Yemen’s elected government to Aden.
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 24, 2015
Syria’s civil war hasn’t gone away, but to many, it has suddenly become less urgent. The chaos unfolding in Yemen has drawn international energy and attention away from the conflict in Syria, now in its fifth year. Compared to Syria, Yemen’s neighbors see fewer battle lines and much greater proximity, alongside the same Iranian hand. Yemen also gives the impression of being easier, since 10 million people have not been forced from their homes. But the parties in Yemen are not nearly exhausted, and a flood of armed support to Yemen likely means the problem will get much worse before it gets better. And all this will happen as the other wars continue to rage around the region. It is easy to remember a time when Yemen was optimistic, but hard to remember when it was successful. After a civil war that ravaged the north for most of the 1960s, and a Marxist takeover in the south that consolidated control at the end of the decade, Yemenis fitfully sought to modernize a land that lacked basic infrastructure with a population suffering from high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Unification of the north and south in 1990 created a flood of optimism, and for a time in the mid-1990s, Yemen’s elections made it one of the most promising candidates for democratization in the entire Middle East.
Judging a P5+1 Nuclear Agreement with Iran: The Key Criteria
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 30, 2015
All too often in the real world, peace is an extension of war by other means. This is certainly the case with the P5+1 negotiation with Iran. The negotiations only have taken place because Iran faced sanctions and the equivalent of economic warfare. There is no evidence as yet that any agreement is going to bring a broader détente, and every aspect of the negotiations has so far left unresolved questions about the nature of Iran’s nuclear programs, created new debates over trade-offs in Iran’s efforts in return for easing sanctions, and involved a continuing propaganda and political battles between Iran and the members of the P5+1. At least in the near term, even the best outcome will have no impact on the massive conventional arms race in the Gulf, Iran’s buildup of its missile and asymmetric warfare forces, or Iran’s efforts to increase its military and strategic influence in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. If anything, the negotiations have created new fears and concerns among the Arab Gulf states and Iran’s neighbors while the competition between Iran and the Southern Gulf states for influence over Iraq and Yemen has steadily intensified.
Into the Maelstrom: The Saudi-Led Misadventure in Yemen
By Frederic Wehrey
March 26, 2015
Citing a request for outside intervention by Yemen’s deposed President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi, the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan have launched an aerial intervention against the so-called Houthi movement in Yemen. Egypt has four warships en route to Aden in southern Yemen and has expressed willingness to “send ground troops if necessary,” while Turkey is considering providing logistical support. Sudan and Pakistan are also reportedly joining the operation. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah in Arabic, or God’s Partisans, are a Zaidi Shia movement that began a rebellion in northern Yemen in 2003–2004. In the chaos following the Arab Spring revolutions and the internationally overseen removal of Yemen’s long-serving authoritarian ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, the Houthis expanded their power base—apparently with Iranian support—to undermine the Saudi-backed Hadi government.
His Majesty’s Islamists: The Moroccan Experience
By Mohammed Masbah
March 23, 2015
The Islamists of Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development (PJD), like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, were propelled into government following the Arab Spring protests of 2011. But while Tunisia’s Ennahdha movement later withdrew from the cabinet under internal and foreign pressure, and members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, including former president Mohamed Morsi, were thrown in prison, Morocco’s PJD has managed to remain at the head of the country’s coalition government, and there is no sign that this will soon change. What explains the relative success of Morocco’s Islamists? The conduct of Morocco’s king and the approach the party itself has taken to reform and governing have been important factors.
A Nuclear Deal Won’t Bridge the Divide Between Iran and the U.S.
By Haleh Esfandiari
March 31, 2015
After years of wrangling, a nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers would not dramatically change Iran’s relationship with the United States–but it would make substantial changes: A deal that lifts sanctions, even gradually, would boost Iran’s economy, and Tehran would gain access to its substantial assets currently frozen in foreign banks. Iranian oil exports, almost halved by sanctions, would rise again. Petrochemical and other stalled projects could be completed. Iranian banks and businesses would regain access to the international banking system. Foreign investment, particularly in Iran’s cash-starved energy industry, could flow in again.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor